The saga of Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas is one of the more infamous in recent Rockets memory, and it lands at #9 on our “Could Have Beens” countdown.
In 2012, the Rockets underwent a total overhaul with their team. They signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to huge free agency deals, traded for James Harden and drafted three first-round picks. One of those three rookies — the only one to play a game for the Rockets — was Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones.
Jones spent two outstanding seasons in Lexington and ended his collegiate career with a National Championship victory in 2012.
The Rockets also brought in another rookie power forward who did not experience the same glitz and glamour as Jones. This man was Lithuanian sharpshooter Donatas Motiejunas.
D-Mo was drafted in the first round of the 2011 Draft, but stayed with in Europe for the 2011-12 season. Then, he decided to come stateside to play for the Rockets.
Jones and D-Mo may both be power forwards, but both have incredibly different roles. Jones was more of a rebounding power forward who stayed inside on the low block, whereas Motiejunas was more of a shooter with post moves, who could knock down treys from either corner.
D-Mo and Jones hardly shared the floor together, but as they developed, the idea that made the most sense was to shift D-Mo to a “small ball” center, even though he was 7 feet. Both had shown flashes of being a part of the team’s future in the frontcourt.
But after Dwight Howard signed in 2013, the idea that there was room for both young power forwards became less and less realistic.
When Dwight cemented his spot as the team’s starting center, Jones became his most common frontcourt partner. He started 71 games in 2013-14, his best NBA season, and looked like he was ready to develop, averaging roughly 12 points and seven rebounds per contest. Not bad numbers for the third or fourth-best option on the floor.
As for D-Mo, he would back up Jones and be the team’s reserve power forward. From my vantage point, it looked like D-Mo was still trying to transition from the European game to the NBA game, and Jones was more ready to play at that time.
However, in 2014-15, their roles flipped. Jones missed the first half of the season with a leg injury, giving D-Mo a chance to start. He would go on to have his most successful NBA season and look on the verge of a breakthrough, scoring 12 points per game and grabbing six rebounds. He also shot 36 percent from three, which was a big boost from his 25 percent the previous season.
Throughout these two seasons, while the Rockets were trying to make their ascent into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, D-Mo and TJ battled for the supremacy of “power forward of the future.” However, in 2015-16, both players traded the starting spot in and out of the lineup.
D-Mo was out for the first part of the season after back surgery earlier in the year, and Jones developed a number of injuries throughout the season.
With Jones and D-Mo both approaching free agency, the Rockets felt that they needed to finally settle the debate once and for all. With the team underperforming, Daryl Morey opted to trade D-Mo along with Marcus Thornton to the Pistons for a future first-round pick.
Finally, it looked like the debate had been settled. Jones was going to be the guy. D-Mo was no longer a Rocket.
Motiejunas failed the physical given by the Pistons, which voided the trade completely. Motiejunas was back with the Rockets, and with D-Mo finally healthy and Jones out with a respiratory illness, D-Mo usurped the starting job and ran with it for the rest of the season.
Motiejunas was the primary power forward in their five-game series loss to the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, but failed to play up to what he had accomplished in the season before.
After the 2015-16 season, the Rockets said goodbye to Jones, an unrestricted free agent. However, the team was looking to keep D-Mo, a restricted free agent. It was basically a reversal of what the team wanted back in February at the trade deadline.
However, D-Mo’s restricted free agency turned teams off and he was in the middle of a stalemate between the Rockets and the rest of the NBA. The Rockets also did not want to pay D-Mo as much as he wanted, which prolonged his contract holdout into the regular season.
Finally, in December, the Nets signed him to a 4-year, $37 million contract and the Rockets matched, showing that they wanted to continue rolling with D-Mo, preferably as a backup to Ryan Anderson. However, Motiejunas wanted more money, and the Rockets agreed to a $5-6 million raise in incentives and bonuses. But then, Motiejunas failed to show up to his physical and deemed his relationship with the Rockets was broken. Days later, the contract was renounced and he became an unrestricted free agent.
Ironically, the pair of power forwards found themselves as teammates once again with the Pelicans in 2016-17, when D-Mo signed with the team in January. But history repeated itself as once again, the two could not find time on the floor together in New Orleans. The team traded for DeMarcus Cousins in late February and Jones was waived.
After the 2016-17 season, both D-Mo and Jones signed deals outside of the NBA. Jones is currently with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G-League and D-Mo played last season in China for the Shandong Golden Stars.
I think if either one of these guys were on the team without the other, it might have worked out. Having the two playing similar positions without the time to give both of them worthy playing time really hurt both of their careers. And once one of them saw a change of scenery, it was too late to salvage either of their careers.
Both showed incredible flashes of potential. I witnessed a Terrence Jones 36-point performance live at Toyota Center, one of my favorite games I’ve seen live. And D-Mo was the Rockets’ third-best player for most of the 2014-15 season. They were also the centerpieces of some of very spirited debates here in the TDS comment sections.
Both of these guys could have been the power forward of the future for the Rockets, but ultimately the two collided, killed each other’s momentum, and eventually their NBA careers.