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Pistons were right to think twice on Donatas Motiejunas trade

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In a rare move, the Pistons changed their mind after trading for then-Rockets big man last February. Good thing.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Donatas Motiejunas is a fine basketball player.

At seven feet tall, he can shoot, put the ball on the floor a bit, and can competently fill minutes at either big man spot. He’s still just 26 years old and likely has his best basketball ahead of him. Plus, his name is super fun to offer up in different permutations.

So it was definitely a reasonable move when Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower traded away a top 8 protected 2016 first round draft pick to acquire Motiejunas along with Marcus Thornton from the Houston Rockets.

The trade was signed, sealed, and delivered, which also included sending Joel Anthony to the Philadelphia 76ers along with a Rockets future second round pick. Philly had even waived a player to make room for Anthony, JaKarr Sampson. The only thing that remained was a physical.

Montiejunas had struggled with injuries all season, only logging 14 games prior to the trade deadline. He was out at the time with a back injury. So all three teams agreed to give an extra 24 hours for the Pistons to conduct their own physical with the option of voiding the trade if they didn’t like what they saw.

When it initially went down, it was figured to be unlikely that Detroit would void the deal. After all, it made sense. D-Mo was good. The Pistons needed a big man with some extra size who could also do a bit more offensively than some of their other options. Thornton even would be useful as a veteran three point shooting option off the bench.

Stan Van Gundy also talked optimistically about the likelihood of the trade going through, saying “Obviously, it's really key to get that checked out. We have an understanding --€” one of the guys that was with him in Houston has likened it to what (Clippers guard J.J. Redick) had. He said there would be occasional flare-ups, which J.J. had a little bit this year, but for the most part, OK. If that's the case, then you're going to live with a guy having to miss three or four games every once in a while to get a guy of his talent."

Well, as we know now, the Pistons got cold feet and voided the trade.

And the Pistons did feel the implications a little down the stretch. Motiejunas would have been nice to have to counter Kevin Love in the first round of the playoffs. Wing depth got a little shaky down the stretch as Stanley Johnson struggled and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope recovered from a groin injury.

But there were some risks involved. In addition to his health issues, Motiejunas was also set to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The draft was shaping up to be one of the less impressive ones, but it’s always a bit of a gamble sending away a draft pick for a veteran with an uncertain contract situation.

***

Whew. That was a close one.

The Van Gundy-Bower tenure has been filled with lopsided personnel moves, particularly via trades. Even their signings that didn’t go particularly well, Jodie Meeks or Steve Blake, made sense.

But in the Motiejunas situation, everything that could have gone wrong would have gone wrong. D-Mo was able to get on the court down the stretch for the Rockets, but was mostly ineffective. He shot just 41 percent from the field and 22 percent from three, averaging 6 points and 2 rebounds per game.

He was instrumental in getting the Rockets their one win in the playoffs against the Warriors, putting up 14 points, 13 rebounds in their game three win, but was otherwise an inefficient and turnover prone net negative. He finished the series with an offensive rating of 88 and a defensive rating of 110.

Then upon hitting free agency, he was treated as a leper. While the rest of the free agency class was seeing money fly around in unprecedented dollar amounts, Motiejunas didn’t seem to be generating any attention.

Part of that may have been the Pistons’ fault. By retreating on their trade out of longterm concern for Motiejunas’ ability to stay healthy, potential suitors could reasonably be figured hesitant to offer the big man big money. Motiejunas forecasted as much after Detroit abandoned the trade, saying he got screwed in the deal - even prompting rumbles that he’d get lawyers and the union involved.

The only real option for Motiejunas seemed to be re-signing in Houston. Except the Rockets didn’t seem too interested in bidding against themselves. Especially after essentially replacing Motiejunas’ role as the shooting big man with an $80 million deal to Ryan Anderson. Which created a stalemate.

Motiejunas could accept a lowball offer, could play on the qualifying offer of $4.4 million, or could hold out for what he thought he was worth. The qualifying offer was likely a fraction of what Motiejunas was looking for with the context of the other big deals being handed out. And the previous season the Cavaliers and Tristan Thompson came to terms on a last minute deal. So he passed on the qualifying offer, taking a swing for the big bucks.

But it didn’t work out for D-Mo. Heading into the second month of the season, the NBA is a donut-less landscape.

It’s kind of surprising too. There’s several teams that still have a considerable amount of room under the cap - the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Even though most of those teams are contendly crappy, playing more for the long game than winning now, Motiejunas is still only entering his prime.

Utah in particular seems like a good fit though, with the team looking to contend for the playoffs and Derrick Favors out for an extended time. They’ve been reeling without Favors too, dropping their last four games...

***

Rather than the Rockets, it could have been the Pistons in that tricky situation. While the situation unfolded unfortunately with Motiejunas, they went entirely smoothly in Detroit.

That draft pick ended up as the 18th pick overall, and a promising young big man who looks to be a great fit for Detroit fell to the Pistons. They landed a free agent who fills about the same roll as Motiejunas for less than D-Mo was likely asking. The player the Pistons got in Jon Leuer has been a terrific fit, probably the superior player to Montiejunas and only a year older.

So the Pistons managed to accomplish their goal of a multi-position, floor stretching big man in a way that didn’t cost them a thing - plus nabbed one for the future with their pick in Henry Ellenson.

Meanwhile, the Rockets didn’t end up getting anything out of Montiejunas. Montiejunas is still looking for a home. And heck, even JaKarr Sampson got a raw deal out of it, being waived for a trade that didn’t wind up going through.

It’s interesting. It goes to show, there are risks to every move a team can make - or wind up choosing not to make.

For Motiejunas’ part, hopefully he finds a landing spot in the league soon.