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NBA PM: The Last Restricted Free Agent

Donatas Motiejunas is the last restricted free agent available. Why is he unsigned and what’s next for him?

Alex Kennedy

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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.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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