The fourth-year power forward was traded on deadline day (Feb. 18) from the Rockets to the Detroit Pistons for a first-round pick, only to find the deal voided on Monday (Feb. 22) when the Pistons refused to sign off on his physical.
Motiejunas, of course, had back surgery last April and has yet to reestablish a regular role in Houston since. When he played a small handful of games off the bench in late December, his back pain returned, and the Rockets believed he had pushed his rehab too aggressively.
Accordingly, Motiejunas was shut down for most of January before joining the Rio Grande Valley Vipers — Houston’s NBDL affiliate — for a rehab stint beginning Jan. 30. (Houston’s doctors did give Motiejunas medical clearance before playing.) The Lithuanian big man played four games there without incident, and he believed he was completely healthy and ready to resume a regular role with the Rockets following the All-Star break.
Then, all hell broke loose. Though the Rockets remain high on Motiejunas’ potential, they dealt him to Detroit for a first-round pick in large part because they were concerned about their ability to retain him when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer. The Rockets expect to be very active with big names in free agency such as Kevin Durant, and those pursuits might require renouncing the rights to their restricted free agents like Motiejunas and Terrence Jones in order to clear the requisite cap room.
In other words, Houston general manager Daryl Morey preferred to get some value for Motiejunas, rather than risk losing him for no compensation. Unfortunately for both of them, the Pistons then nixed the deal due to their concerns over his back — even though Motiejunas says he feels completely healthy.
But Motiejunas returning to the Rockets wasn’t simple, either. Because of the concerns cited by the Pistons after conducting their physical, the Rockets and Motiejunas sought out a second opinion on his back this week to ensure that he’s fit to play. So he sat out Houston’s last two games — a loss in Utah and a win in Portland — while trying to once again secure medical clearance.
Finally, that process has come to an end. Motiejunas was again cleared by Houston’s doctors, went through the team’s morning shootaround and is set to return Saturday night for the Rockets’ showdown with the rival San Antonio Spurs.
Before the game, the seven-footer took to his Twitter account to excitedly announce his return:
— Donatas Motiejunas (@DonatasMot) February 27, 2016
While the lengthy series of logistics and medical appointments are over, Motiejunas now faces a similarly difficult battle to restore his value on the basketball floor.
A year ago, he averaged 12.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in just 28 minutes per game. That production made him Houston’s most reliable big man after Dwight Howard and the best low-post option on offense on the entire roster. That seemingly had Motiejunas poised to earn a big contract upon entering free agency after the 2015-16 campaign.
But this season, he’s averaging a mere 5.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 13 minutes per game — largely limited by the back injury that ultimately prompted Detroit to scuttle the trade. The Rockets, meanwhile, have started four players at power forward this year (Terrence Jones, Clint Capela, Josh Smith, and even Trevor Ariza, as part of a small-ball lineup), and none of those combinations offered the consistent presence that Motiejunas did a season ago. That revolving door is certainly one of the main reasons for Houston’s disappointing 29-29 record.
So beginning Saturday, the Rockets and Motiejunas will give it one more try. With any luck, he could be the piece Houston sorely needs — all the while re-establishing his value heading into free agency.
“I’m happy to be back,” Motiejunas said upon his return to the Rockets. “They drafted me. I feel like it’s home. Who’s not happy to be back home?”
“I don’t see any problems with it,” he added Saturday. “I love these guys, love the team, love the fans.”
But how does he feel about the Pistons after all this, and are there any hard feelings toward a Houston front office that traded him?
Motiejunas on how he deals with the trade, Pistons decision: “Just forget about it like your ex-wife. Don’t talk about it. Forget about it.”
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) February 27, 2016
Humor has always been one of Motiejunas’ strong suits, and fortunately for him, it seems he has the requisite perspective to put this long and bizarre episode behind him.
Ben DuBose is a veteran sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for both SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to his NBA podcast.