NBA PM: Motiejunas In Limbo As Deal Deadline Looms

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As the first week of training camp comes to a close, Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas remains the lone restricted free agent still on the market from the class of 2016. This is seemingly an unfathomable spot for Motiejunas – a seven-footer who can play multiple positions and has range on his jumper – but there are a number of reasons why he’s in this position today.

But first things first: Motiejunas has until 11:59 p.m. ET on October 1 to sign the Rockets’ $4,433,683 qualifying offer that was issued over the summer. After that, things get a bit trickier for the veteran. If Motiejunas refuses to sign the qualifying offer by the deadline, the forward will no longer be able to unilaterally accept Houston’s original offer at the same rate unless the franchise chooses to keep it on the table. Assuming good faith negotiations, both sides will then transition into working on a multi-year deal after the deadline passes.

This is a rough spot for Motiejunas. But as a restricted free agent, the only leverage he could have generated would have been in the form of a more lucrative offer from an opposing team swooping in at the last minute – either forcing Houston to match or allowing the forward to pursue another opportunity.

But there’s a reason why other teams have taken a cautious approach with Motiejunas, and it deals with concerns over his health. Back in February, the Rockets traded Motiejunas to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a 2016 first-round pick. However, the Pistons later rescinded the offer, stating the forward failed his team physical.  Motiejunas had missed the majority of the 2015-16 campaign up until that point after undergoing back surgery the previous summer. The forward and his camp have publicly stated the Pistons were looking for a way out of the deal and maintain his health is fine at the present time.

According to Motiejunas’ agent, former player B.J. Armstrong, there is still a possibility of a new deal being reached before the deadline.

“There’s only so much we can do based on the current CBA,” Armstrong said, according to Calvin Watkins of ESPN, hinting at the limitation of options due to restricted free agency. “I’m not frustrated – this is what it is. We’ll know where the Rockets stand by [Oct. 1]. All deals get done in the 11th hour.”

For the time being, it appears the Rockets, who have the leverage, are holding tight when it comes to Motiejunas. They hired veteran head coach Mike D’Antoni over the summer and Motiejunas says the new skipper believes he can play a significant role in the rotation. But Houston doesn’t have to bid against themselves if the market is cold on Motiejunas at the moment. Even if the deadline passes, Motiejunas remains a restricted free agent and the team will still be able to match any offer for his services.

According to Armstrong, there haven’t been serious negotiations between the sides.

“They haven’t made us a serious offer,” Armstrong said. “Our moment of truth will be Oct. 1. We’ll make a decision on that day.”

To recap Motiejunas’ options as we approach the deadline:

  1. Sign the $4,433,683 qualifying offer and immediately report to camp. By doing this, the veteran will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, when the league’s salary cap is expected to be approximately $102 million.
  2. Refuse the $4,433,683 qualifying offer and take his changes working on a multi-year deal outside the restrictions of the original offer. Keep in mind in this scenario, the Rockets wouldn’t be forced to honor the original $4,433,683 offer and could offer the veteran less (although unlikely).
  3. Secure a deal from an opposing team which will either force Houston to match the offer or allow him to take his talents elsewhere

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson was in a similar position last year around this time and opted to let the deadline pass without signing Cleveland’s $6.8 million qualifying offer. Thompson’s situation differs from Motiejunas’ in a variety of ways, namely that the center already had a five-year, $80 million offer on the table from the franchise. Thompson originally wanted a deal upwards of $95 million before settling for $82 million on October 21, 2015 – roughly three weeks after the qualifying offer deadline passed. Thompson also doesn’t have the injury concerns that hinder Motiejunas’ value, as the center hasn’t missed a game over the past four seasons.

Motiejunas, 26, has a big decision to make over the next calendar day: Accept the deal and bet on his health in order to cash in on a lucrative deal next summer, or continue trying to hammer out a long term deal with the Rockets even though the market is cold for his services right now – which will impact Houston’s offer.

Either way, the Rockets appear to be in a strong position unless Motiejunas and Armstrong can somehow work out a little wiggle room.