Hours before the trade deadline the Houston Rockets sent Lithuanian seven footer Donatas Motiejunas and scorer Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons. In exchange Houston landed Detroit's 2016 first round pick (top 8 protected) while nearly functional center Joel Anthony and a future Houston second round pick went to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Rockets made this move to placate financial concerns. By making this deal the Rockets landed a first round pick (which was the rumored asking price for Dwight Howard) and cut salary to slide under the luxury tax during a disappointing season.
It's unfortunate for Houstonians who have watched Motiejunas begin to blossom over the last four seasons. It's clear the Lithuanian is still evolving and isn't in his final form. The big man regularly impresses with an array of moves in the post, his deft passing skills and his ability to run the pick and roll. At seven feet he's grown into a passable rim protector, not to be confused with a shot blocker, who uses "verticality" to surprise shooters and change shots.
Motiejunas' 2015 - 2016 season has been plagued by a mysterious back injury the team has been tight lipped about since announcing the power forward/center was day-to-day during the playoff push at the tail end of last season. This season he's only played in 14 games averaging 5.5 points and 2.1 rebounds.
To aide his recovery from the back injury D-Mo spent four games with the Rio Grande Vipers of the D-League where he averaged 25 minutes while averaging 13 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, a steal and nearly two made threes while shooting .467% from beyond the arch. It now appears Morey strategically used the Vipers to show Motiejunas was healthy in order to fetch a higher price for him.
In the 2014 - 2015 season Motiejunas showed his worth and the potential for his future by starting in place of an injured Dwight Howard most of the season and sliding down to power forward when Howard was healthy. In 71 games he averaged nearly 30 minutes, 12 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and shot 50% from the field. He posted a PER of 14.4 and earned 4.7 win shares for the statistically inclined.
At the end of the day Donatas Motiejunas was traded for a single reason, he's a legitimate NBA player on the ascent with all the tools to become a modern NBA "glue guy."
At the end of the season D-Mo and Terrence Jones would be restricted free agents following the conclusion of their rookie contracts. Each should be expected to make salary demands easily above $10 million a year. Here's what big men fetched on the market last year: Draymond Green 5 years, $82 million. Greg Monroe 3 years, $51 million. Tyson Chandler 4 years, $52 million. Kosta Koufos 4 years, $33 million. Omer Asik 5 years, $60 million.
In Houston speculation has always stipulated the Rockets would only be able to try to keep one of the two power forwards this offseason. Smart money was always on Motiejunas.
Terrence Jones has a role in the NBA, but his ceiling appears to have been reached in the 2013 - 2014 season. His progress ground to a halt the following year with a mysterious nerve injury sidelining him. Jones is a man without a place in the Rockets offense. He's undersized and frequently exploited defensively in the post and on the perimeter. Jones has failed to develop into a stretch four with a faltering three point stroke. He fits best in a run and gun offense with a constantly rotating defense, while the Rockets have slowed.
This contrasts with Motiejunas who has the size and shooting to fill the reasonable amount of the Rockets deficiencies and it's because of this talent he got traded.
The Rockets had no success shopping Dwight Howard, Ty Lawson and Patrick Beverley because all of those players have dangerously uncertain futures. Howard is intent on requesting an annual salary of $30 million at the age of 30, Ty Lawson is a husk of driving NBA point guard and Beverley is a role player who may be on the wrong side of numerous leg injuries.
Motiejunas is a 25-year-old seven foot tall workhorse who continues to send clear signals that he's not done evolving, learning and becoming a more talented player. And that's why he's gone. Detroit wants to kick the tires on a promising player and make him an offer to stick around at the end of the year.
All these arguments support why Detroit was interested in him, but they also detail why trading him was the wrong move. The Rockets should be the ones kicking the tires in free agency on Motiejunas to determine the cost of keeping him and coveting the right to match an offer. Coming off an injury, the team knows what he's capable of, knows the extent of his injury and can use those facts to negotiate a cheaper contract than anticipated in the offseason.
Goodbye, D-Mo. You'll be missed.