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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?

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Updated 1 month ago on
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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.

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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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