Back on media day in September, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey didn’t have much to say about the status of restricted free agent forward Donatas Motiejunas. Mike D’Antoni made his thoughts on the situation quite clear with his boss sitting right next to him at the podium.
“Obviously, we want him here,” D’Antoni said. “He’s going to be a big part (of our team).”
Motiejunas watched as the Rockets started the season 12-7, remaining unsigned by the Rockets and the rest of the league, but on Friday, 10 weeks after D’Antoni’s declaration, the 26-year old signed a 4-year, $37 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets. On Monday, the Rockets matched, and the head coach is thrilled.
“It’s great that we matched,” he said. “Looking forward to having him in here and getting him going. Obviously he’ll be a nice piece for our team, and be a nice boost.”
Even though he was unsigned, D’Antoni always treated Motiejunas like was part of this Rockets team. Last month as Patrick Beverly’s return from knee surgery neared, the Rockets coach was asked about his team finally becoming whole.
“Almost,” he responded. “We still got Motiejunas out there hanging out somewhere. We may have to pick him up in Canada somewhere. I don’t know where he is.”
There’s a reason D’Antoni has wanted Motiejunas around: he can really play. I wrote about him extensively two years ago, when pressed into duty with injuries to Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones, he all of the sudden turned into a player the Rockets could run their offense through.
After missing the end of that season due to back surgery, Motiejunas’ back limited him to 37 games last season, and in February, a deadline trade to the Pistons was voided after he failed a physical. A restricted free agent, he was left unsigned through the summer and declined the Rockets 1 year, $4.4 million qualifying offer, which would’ve made him an unrestricted free agent this summer. Both sides remained in a stalemate until the Nets swooped in late last week.
Normally, when you sign a restricted free agent to an offer sheet you structure it so that it won’t get matched, like what the Rockets did with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, Brooklyn didn’t go that direction with Motiejunas.
The deal is only guaranteed for $5 million. The Rockets hold an option that would pay him $3.8 million for the remainder of this season that must be picked up on January 10, and on March 1, the Rockets will have to decide whether to pick up his $9 million option for next season, and the Rockets hold options on the final two seasons.
It’s a deal that works for both sides. It’s hard to imagine the Rockets pulling the plug on Motiejunas in March, so you figure, he’ll get at least half of what he signed for, and the Rockets protect themselves on the back end if his back remains an issue, but in this market, a skilled 7-footer is worth that risk.