The only item left now for the Rockets to cap off a pretty good offseason is securing a long term commitment to power forward Donatas Motiejunas. I wrote at length earlier in the summer about the Rockets’ woes this season, and surmised that, from what the numbers were indicating, a big factor in the drop-off was the replacement in the lineup of Donatas Motiejunas with Terrence Jones and a host of other underwhelming characters. The Rockets, of course, due to concerns over Motiejunas’ health, opted to deal the power forward to the Detroit Pistons for that team’s first round draft pick, an agreement which was rescinded when the Pistons too decided the proposition was too great of a risk. So Motiejunas came back, showed some flashes, and then looked kind of injured again and not entirely like himself.
But the rights to Jones were renounced, while a qualifying offer of $3,278,996 was extended to Motiejunas. The Rockets want Motiejunas back, but, as they do with all of their players not named James Harden, they want to let the market dictate his price. So, as of September 1, that’s where we stand.
That qualifying offer amount was derived by a variety of factors including Motiejunas’ draft position and what is known as “starter criteria” (see Item 4, Larry Coon FAQ). Its significance, essentially, is that it is a “standing offer for a one-year guaranteed contract, which becomes a regular contract if the player decides to sign it.” As we know, as of the date of this post, Motiejunas has not signed the qualifying offer.
The next big date to watch is October 1 when the qualifying offer automatically expires, unless it is extended by the team, something Coon adds is “rarely done.” So what could happen next, you’re wondering. The qualifying offer cannot be extended past March 1. Per Coon, “[i]f the deadline passes and the qualifying offer is neither withdrawn nor accepted, the player continues to be a restricted free agent. The team and player are free to negotiate a new contract after the qualifying offer expires — the deadline only affects the player’s ability to accept his qualifying offer.” The Rockets could also submit a maximum qualifying offer, but there has been no indication the Rockets have any interest in bidding against themselves.
If Motiejunas signs an offer sheet with another team, the Rockets would then have three days to match. The only teams that have the cap space to outright sign Motiejunas (not including exceptions) are Indiana, Minnesota, Utah, Phoenix, Brooklyn, Denver, and Philadelphia. You can scratch the 76ers off that list due to their glut of big men; the same goes for Utah with Favors and Gobert entrenched. Indiana only has $5,638,276 available, a figure around the ballpark I think the Rockets would gladly match and Motiejunas would be doubtful to even accept in the first place. The only real threats seem to be Denver, Brooklyn, and Phoenix. Even Minnesota, with $8,360,830 under the cap, does not seem to have what I predict it would take to steal the Lithuanian forward away from Houston.
I’m biased, but Motiejunas looks to me like far and away the best available free agent remaining. Who knows what Brooklyn, Denver, and Phoenix are planning or whether they’d prefer to preserve their space for next summer.
If he’s determined to leave Houston, has soured on this situation, or just wants to bet on himself again next summer, Motiejunas can accept the Rockets’ qualifying offer, play for the year, and become a free agent again next summer. The fact that we have yet to even hear any firm rumors of interest from other teams makes me think Motiejunas has little to no leverage in this situation. Now, barring some unexpected development, it will all come down to whether he is willing to lock himself in at whatever figure the Rockets have in mind. D’Antoni might be telling Motiejunas that he can shine in his system. On the flip side, if D-Mo shines, its in his interest to bet on himself for next summer. How confident is he in his health? For the Rockets’ sake, I maintain that I hope the two parties are able to arrive at a long term agreement.