Donatas Motiejunas: The Last Restricted Free Agent
There is only one restricted free agent remaining on the market and that is Donatas Motiejunas, who has spent all four seasons of his NBA career with the Houston Rockets. The 25-year-old seems like the kind of free agent who should’ve had teams lining up to pay him this summer. After all, he’s a seven-footer who can play power forward and center and his range extends out to the three-point line.
He has the size, stats, versatility and shooting ability that executives typically drool over. But unfortunately for Motiejunas, this past year was a mess and his value decreased significantly for reasons largely out of his control.
It was just two seasons ago that he averaged 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three-point range. He started 62 games that year for the Rockets, emerging as a real difference maker who scored inside and out – particularly when Dwight Howard was sidelined due to injury. However, in March of that campaign, a herniated disk in Motiejunas’ back ruled him out for the rest of the season (including the playoffs). The Rockets would go on to make the Western Conference Finals without Motiejunas.
Last summer, he had surgery to repair the herniated disk. He missed the start of the year, but was able to make his season debut in early December. However, after a brief rehab stint in the D-League and 14 games with the Rockets, he was sidelined once again due to his back pain resurfacing. He missed all of January and most of February.
It was at this point, before the trade deadline, that the Rockets dealt Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a 2016 first-round pick. The three-team trade also included the Philadelphia 76ers, who would receive Joel Anthony and a second-round pick
At the time of the trade, he had played just 14 games with the Rockets (averaging 5.6 points and 2.1 rebounds) in addition to four games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League as part of a rehab stint. It seemed like the change of scenery could be good for Motiejunas, especially since he’d be playing under a terrific head coach in Stan Van Gundy (who is also the team’s president and has had success with stretch bigs) and paired alongside dominant young center Andre Drummond in the frontcourt.
Right after acquiring Motiejunas, Van Gundy raved about the team’s acquisition. He was seemingly excited that he added an additional stretch big, especially since Motiejunas could be a “stretch-five” in some lineups and provide further flexibility.
“We think when you add Donatas to the group we already have, going forward we think we’re equipped to deal with any kind of lineup anybody might play against us,” Van Gundy said at the time, according to Aaron McMann of mlive.com.
However, several days later, it was announced that the Pistons had rescinded the trade because Motiejunas failed the physical that all traded players are required to take within 48 hours of any deal being agreed upon. Rather than joining the Pistons, Motiejunas had to go back to the Rockets in what had to be an awkward return.
He would come back from his back injury in late February and finish the season averaging 6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 14.8 minutes. His shooting percentages fell to 43.9 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three-point range.
Around the same time he returned to action in February, Motiejunas did an interview with a Lithuanian outlet in which he suggested that he was healthy enough to pass his physical with the Pistons but that Detroit’s front office just used his health as an excuse to change their mind about the trade.
“The medical examination is a funny thing,” Motiejunas told a Lithuanian reporter in an interview that was translated into English. “The team doctor simply says whether you pass or don’t, although they may not even do any checks. Those 48 hours actually just let the team decide whether they want you or not. The Pistons announced I did not pass the medical, although I surely did pass it and played even before it. I just got screwed. The injury was a pretense to call off the trade. They changed their minds.
“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 as to why they did not want the trade anymore. We will see what happens.”
Van Gundy later responded and, while he completely understood Motiejunas’ frustration, he stressed that the Pistons voided the deal after their doctors found red flags with his back that made the deal too risky to give up a 2016 first-rounder (which was later used on 19-year-old stretch-four Henry Ellenson).
“We went through a very thorough process and we made the decision we made for the reasons that we thought it was too much risk,” Van Gundy said, according to Brendan Savage of mlive.com. “Look, I feel bad for him, too, because I understand his points in terms of his value and everything else. But we felt we had to make the decision we made.
“It’s a really tough profession for players. People, I think, focus on the money they make and obviously that’s great, but how many of us have jobs that, on 48 hours notice, you’ve got to move your family anywhere they tell you to go and you’ve got absolutely no say in it? And then in our case, we rescinded and you go back. Guys are going to have negative reactions to things like that and I think you have to give them the room to have that. He’s got the right to have whatever reaction he wants to have. I’m not resentful of that at all. I don’t take that personally at all. He was in a tough situation.”
Now, Motiejunas is once again in a tough position. He’s right that the failed physical hurt his value because it perpetuated the notion that his back injury is potentially serious and perhaps an issue that could affect him long-term. Whether true or not, that’s going to scare some teams. Detroit’s decision to void the trade did hurt his value a bit, but so did the fact that he missed so many games this season and saw a drop in his production when he did play.
However, it is worth noting that Motiejunas was effective in the Rockets’ first-round series against the Golden State Warriors. At times, he was one of the few Houston players who seemed engaged and battling since the Rockets were basically a train wreck by that point.
Throughout the course of the five-game series, Motiejunas averaged 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes, while shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three-point range (on 1.8 attempts per game). He was a big reason for Houston’s lone win of the series, as he had 14 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 31 minutes (while shooting 5-11 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range) in the Rockets’ Game 3 victory.
At this point, the number of teams that have significant cap space is relatively small. And make no mistake, it would likely take a significant offer sheet from another team for the Rockets to let Motiejunas go. Houston isn’t going to let him walk away for nothing (when they almost got a first-round pick for him in February) if a team makes a small offer. In that scenario, they would just match the contract and retain Motiejunas – either to keep him on the roster or to protect the asset so they could trade him and get something in return at a later date.
Motiejunas doesn’t have much leverage at this point, which is why he’s in such a difficult spot. He could negotiate with Houston and sign a multi-year deal, but they have no reason to offer him a lot of money when they’re essentially bidding against themselves. He can try working out for some of the teams with cap space (such as the Brooklyn Nets) and hope that they see what they like and make an offer, but that seems like a long shot. The Nets, in particular, have already tried to play the restricted free agency game twice this summer with Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson and didn’t get either player despite overpaying for them and offering very player-friendly contracts. The Portland Trail Blazers and Miami HEAT ultimately matched those offer sheets, and the Rockets could do the same for any Motiejunas deal.
One option that remains on the table for Motiejunas is signing the one-year, $4,433,683 qualifying offer from Houston. This would allow him to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, when the salary cap is projected to increase to an unprecedented $102 million. Ideally, he would be able to play out the 2016-17 season without any health issues and prove to teams that he’s still capable of producing at a high level. Then, he could cash in next summer without having to worry about restricted free agency questions about his back.
This is somewhat risky since it puts off signing a multi-year deal, but it’s also the route that likely leads to the biggest pay day if Motiejunas does well during the upcoming campaign. If his back feels fine, betting on himself may be worth it.
However, there are some uncertainties to consider too. The Rockets have a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni, and it remains to be seen how he’ll use Motiejunas. And while the departures of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones would seem to open up minutes for Motiejunas, keep in mind that Houston signed veteran big men Ryan Anderson and Nene this offseason.
It’s been a rough year for Motiejunas and he certainly faced a series of unique challenges leading up to his free agency. Now, he has an interesting choice to make – even though he doesn’t have full control over the process due to his restricted status. He can help a team if he’s healthy, but the uncertainties surrounding him make his future pretty murky and that’s why he is the last restricted free agent on the market.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.