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The Donatas Motiejunas trade is very, very risky

Don't be so quick to praise SVG and co. for the DoMo acquisition.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

loved the Tobias Harris trade, but the Pistons' recent trade to acquire Donatas Motiejunas is full of risks that aren't necessarily evident at first glance.

Keep in mind, a lot of this is speculation, playing devil's advocate and evaluating things in a vaccuum that can't really be evaluated in a vaccuum, and I will freely admit that. I'm also going to focus more on evaluating how the front office handled this rather than Motiejunas as a basketball player.

As a ten-second evaluation of Motiejunas: He's a talented player, his post-up and floor-spacing abilities are unique and cool and make him an extremely interesting piece for Van Gundy, I'm more sold on him as a center both offensively and defensively, and I'm worried about his injuries.

I agree with Sean Corp when he says the Pistons' decision to do their free-agent work early was very forward-thinking and shows that Stan Van Gundy and co. are miles ahead of their contemporaries in the "coach having a say in front-office" department. Making bets on young, talented players around the time they get locked up to long-term deals is a smart strategy, the right strategy for a team like Detroit, and has the potential to pay off handsomely.

So what's not to like?

There are real questions of value

Here's the way I look at it: If the Rockets sent out a message to the other 29 front offices saying "Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton are available for a top-8 protected first-round pick and salary filler", how many calls would they get? Would a lot of teams be interested? It doesn't look like it. I don't have a way to necessarily prove that, but there's no indication the Pistons were bidding against anyone or Motiejunas was some kind of hot commodity on the trade market. Sure, Markieff Morris and Jeff Green were later traded for first-round picks, but those involved teams who were either in totally desperate situations or letting Doc Rivers make personnel decisions. Giving up more than it took to acquire either Harris or Jackson is just strange considering the situation in which Motiejunas was mired.

If the Pistons had asked for the pick to be top-20 protected for two years and conveyed as a second rounder after that, would that have kept a deal from getting done? How about a lottery protection so they can at least keep the pick if they miss the playoffs? The Rockets had no use for this guy, he was injured and buried on their depth chart and they had made moves specifically to shore up his position. They didn't have leverage.

If Motiejunas is awesome for the Pistons, nobody will remember what the protections on the pick were, or maybe even how much they gave up to get him. But that doesn't change the fact that this stuff matters, it only has to come into play one time out of 100 to matter, and I don't think the Pistons did well with this particular aspect of the trade. After fleecing a team that didn't have any leverage just days before, the Pistons failed to repeat the feat with the Rockets, and that's puzzling. The Harris deal lessens the impact, but unfortunately that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Let's look at what giving up a first-round pick entails

First-round draft picks under the new cap have the potential to be some of the most valuable assets out there. They're cheap, have extremely high ceilings at low pay, and cheap players on rookie deals have been absolutely essential to the championship runs of the Warriors and Spurs the past two years. They also are low-risk commodities.

"Low risk? But a first-round pick player could be bad! Like, worse than Motiejunas!" the response should be.

Yes. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. There is no surefire path to a championship, no prospect available in the mid-late first round that you know will be an above-average player. Chances are, Motiejunas will be better than anyone the Pistons would have taken with that 13-21 pick. Here's a list of all the players taken with the 15-18th pick in the last ten years, courtesy of Justin Pool:

15th pick:

2015: Kelly Oubre Jr.

2014: Adreian Payne

2013: Giannis Antetokounmpo

2012: Moe Harkless

2011: Kawhi Leonard

2010: Larry Sanders

2009: Austin Daye

2008: Robin Lopez

2007: Rodney Stuckey

2006: Cedric Simmons

16th pick:

2015: Terry Rozier

2014: Jusuf Nurkic

2013: Lucas Nogueira

2012: Royce White

2011: Nikola Vucevic

2010: Luke Babbitt

2009: James Johnson

2008: Marreese Speights

2007: Nick Young

2006: Rodney Carney


2015: Rashad Vaughn

2014: James Young

2013:  Dennis Schroder

2012: Tyler Zeller

2011: Iman Shumpert

2010: Kevin Seraphin

2009: Jrue Holiday

2008: Roy Hibbert

2007: Sean Williams

2006: Shawne Williams


2015: Sam Dekker

2014: Tyler Ennis

2013: Shane Larkin

2012: Terrence Jones

2011: Chris Singleton

2010: Eric Bledsoe

2009: Ty Lawson

2008: JaVale McGee

2007: Marco Belinelli

2006: Oleksiy Pecherov

The takeaway's pretty clear: a couple studs, a couple duds, and a whole lot of mostly ordinary players. You give away maybe a 2-5% chance at finding the next Kawhi Leonard or Eric Bledsoe, maybe a 10-15% chance of finding a player of Jrue Holiday or Iman Shumpert caliber, and you don't have to waste your time giving playing time to your version of Luke Babbitt or Cedric Simmons if that's what you ended up with. Motiejunas is a better player than the majority of outcomes here.

So why don't we see more players that are better than the players on this list traded for first-round picks then? The answer lies in value and opportunity cost. Here's where we get to answering the question about risk. If the Pistons drafted a dud with their 2016 pick, there's no real risk or long-term detriment from a team construction and flexibility standpoint. Drafting busts in general has a much more negligible effect on a franchise than the media and fanbases that mock the teams for making these picks would like you to believe, even at the very top of the draft. The cost is tiny, the deals are excessively team-friendly with several options to cut bait with no penalty at all, and if you miss, you'll likely have another opportunity very soon at a similar or better draft position, while the opposite is true of a bad free-agent signing or trade that significantly limits your flexibility for years.

As an example, the Hawks drafted Marvin and Shelden Williams with back-to-back top-five picks in 2005 and 2006, but it didn't kill them because it only led to more chances, and those were converted into Al Horford and Jeff Teague in 2007 and 2008 on team-controlled contracts that led all the way into this coming offseason.

The point is, Motiejunas could definitely be great, but if he's great, he'll be great on a market-value (or more) contract, and if he's bad or injured, he'll tie the Pistons up for a while. The risk is much higher than simply whiffing on a pick, and then the potential reward is lower as well because we only have a third of a season with Motiejunas on a value deal.

Oh, we're gonna sign him for cheap?

Don't expect to get him for cheap in restricted free agency

The Pistons would not trade for 28 games (not including playoffs!) of coming-off-injury Motiejunas if they didn't plan on signing him to a long-term extension. If they don't sign him, they traded a pick for practically nothing and it's an awful trade, plain and simple. They will re-sign him unless he seriously injures himself or something. They have to.

My inkling is that the Pistons already have some kind of framework of a deal in mind with Motiejunas, and it's probably more expensive than we're expecting. With the ludicrous amount of cap space in the league, the Pistons would do well to lock up Motiejunas as soon as humanly possible during the offseason before other teams remember he exists while they chase Durant and Horford.

The possible problem here is that if a deal doesn't get done early, similarly to what we saw with Reggie Jackson, a team could end up with no free agents and look to ink Motiejunas to something close to a max offer sheet as the season draws closer and the team is still nowhere near the salary floor. They have forced their hand, and you can bet teams know that the Pistons have to match whatever offer sheet he receives. This doesn't mean a team will troll us with a max offer sheet that we have to match like Portland did to Oklahoma City with Enes Kanter this offseason, but with well over 20 teams that will still have max room even after Durant, Horford and Conley sign, my palms will be sweaty non-stop until a deal gets done.

The Pistons have essentially traded a first-round pick for the right to keep DoMo at whatever price necessary. He's a good player who's a really interesting fit in the system, I like his game, and I'm really excited to see more of what we have and how we decide to use him. But if you want to praise the team's trade deadline, I'd recommend starting with the Harris trade.

Oh, back injuries are risky too. That could be bad.