It's been a long, strange trip for Donatas Motiejunas.
The 2014-2015 breakout seemed poised to take yet another leap ahead this season, with recovery from back surgery supposedly going smoothly and the Rockets daydreaming of NBA titles, before the season abruptly fell apart almost from the get go.
Motiejunas was expected to team with fellow big man Terrence Jones and sprinklings of rookie Montrezl Harrell to form a dangerous and versatile platoon situation at the four, with D-Mo thought to be the leading man. His shooting, post game and passing ability had him pegged as the ideal fit in the Houston offense, and the prospect of another season of improvement had many a Rocket fan salivating over the possibilities.
There was only one problem. D-Mo wasn't quite ready to start the season. In fact, Motiejunas would miss the first 20 contests of the year and wouldn't see any game action at all until Dec. 4. Sure, back surgery is a tough and delicate recovery wrought with potential setbacks and pitfalls, but most were hoping to see him back on the hardwood before then.
By this time, the Rockets had already fired Kevin McHale and were still middling along at 9-11 when D-Mo made his first appearance of the season, and despite some optimism that his return held the key to the Rockets finally jelling on the court, Motiejunas failed to make much of an impact.
He was noticeably slow and out of shape and averaged just 13.4 minutes per game in the month of December before going back out of the lineup with back pain after the New Years Eve game against the Golden State Warriors.
Houston was still struggling in the standings, and suddenly, the inconsistency and difficult times of Motiejunas' personal journey was beginning to mirror that of the Rockets as a whole. Also much like the Rockets as a whole, the roller coaster ride of a season had only just begun.
D-Mo then missed the next 25 games to focus on further rehab of his sore back, while the Rockets continued to mire in mediocrity, going 12-13 during that span, before D-Mo's up-and-down journey reached a crescendo on Feb. 18 at the NBA trade deadline.
Motiejunas was moved to the Detroit Pistons for a first round pick in a three-team trade that also involved the 76ers. It was a stunner of a move for both Motiejunas and Rockets fans, who, despite expecting GM Daryl Morey to be active, as always, at the deadline, figured D-Mo for a major part of the long-term health of the franchise, not a bargaining chip for a draft pick.
Of course, then the trip got even longer and weirder on Feb. 22, when the Pistons snagged a serious case of buyer's remorse and questionably voided the trade by claiming Motiejunas failed his physical. An understandably furious D-Mo let the Pistons have it, saying:
"Now I will be talking to my agent and lawyers about what to do next. The Pistons had access to my full medical history, so they shouldn't have done what they did to me. They decreased my value. The medical examination I failed was a joke. The Pistons will have some explaining to do why they did not want the trade anymore. We will see what happens."
Not bitter at the Rockets, however, he returned to the team determined to put the failed trade behind him, telling Fox Sports:
"I'm looking at it like a business. I'm happy to be back. They drafted me. I feel like it's home. Who's not happy to be back at home? It's one of the most special things I've had in my life. My relationship with Rockets fans is beautiful."
Rockets fans were equally as eager to have Motiejunas back in the fold, but unfortunately for Houston, his presence was unable to snap the Rockets out of their season-long malaise, as they went 12-11 after his return to finish with a .500 record at 41-41.
And despite looking more spry and in better shape upon his return, D-Mo still split time at the four, this time with newcomer Michael Beasley, and finished with an underwhelming season statistically. He averaged just 6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists on 43.9 percent shooting and only 28.1 percent from deep, a disappointing development considering the previous strides he had made with his long ball (36.8 percent the season before).
He also finished with negative offensive and defensive plus-minus to go along with a negative value over replacement rating as well, and his win share contribution was a negligible 0.3, all below expectations.
He was a little better in the playoffs against the Dubs, averaging 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.0 assist on 43.2 percent shooting. And while he was hot from deep for the series, hitting 44.4 percent of his threes in the 5-game Rockets loss, it was still an unfulfilling end to a distasteful season for both the Rockets and for D-Mo.
This frustrating wave of inconsistency for D-Mo is not even over since the season has concluded. He's now a restricted free agent with the Rockets, and there's been rumors abound the team may not want him back, which is not surprising considering the down year and the fact that they tried to dump him once already
There's also the unfinished business of the Pistons to settle, as the NBA Player's Association plans on filing a grievance on his behalf during the offseason.
It's been a tumultuous run for the Lithuanian big man in H-town, going from the power forward of the present and the future, to the sidelines, to the Pistons and then back again, and with the organization likely intent on completely remaking an underachieving roster, we may have seen the last of Motiejunas with the Rockets.
But if there's anything this past season taught us about D-Mo's journey, it's to expect the unexpected. And in that sense, it also wouldn't be a shock to see the Rockets give him one more go around, now that he's finally healthy, as the power forward they've long been looking for.