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Huq’s Pen: On Motiejunas

The report came out just earlier this week that the Rockets would be honoring Donatas Motiejunas’ request for a trade by attempting to explore options.  My hunch is that this was simply a leak to appease the 7-footer and his agent in sort of a “I swear, we’re trying to move you, but we just can’t find any takers!” kind of way.  With teams clutching to first round picks these days like rare antiques, the best the Rockets could possibly hope to get for Motiejunas would be a second round pick…and for a player of his abilities, age, and size, that’s just not even close to being worth it; while Motiejunas has struggled to get things together, you couldn’t hope to find a prospect anywhere near as intriguing in the second round.

This will no doubt come as an unpopular, minority opinion, and will certainly evoke a “do you bloggers just complain about everything?” response from some, but I’m not particularly pleased with how Kevin McHale has handled the Motiejunas situation.  I understand completely why things have been handled as they have, but I’m not happy.  Michael Pina wrote recently of the eye-opening effect Omri Casspi has had on the team’s offense/defense when on the floor and to wit, that impact cannot be understated.  Casspi has been a revelation.

But if I had my druthers, Motiejunas, rather than Casspi, would be seeing the lion’s share of the backup big man minutes, most especially now with both Omer Asik and Greg Smith out with “injuries.”  (In fact, due to the absence of the latter two, I really don’t see any excuse as to why Motiejunas has not been seeing time.)  But to Casspi, the lineup just does not make sense, from a macro perspective.  The Rockets have been hovering all season between the fifth and seventh seeds.  As I conceded, Casspi has been great, and removing him from the lineup would no doubt be a blow.  But the Rockets aren’t exactly fighting tooth and nail here for the 1 seed.  They are going to trudge along at their current rate all season and are just hoping to get healthy and build chemistry between the starters – dropping Casspi isn’t suddenly going to thrust them out of the playoff race or anything catastrophic.  The bigger effect of a Casspi/Motiejunas lineup swap is long-term.  Casspi might not even be around next season.  Motiejunas, on the other hand, is a skilled, young 7-footer under club control at near the minimum for the near future.  That’s a rare asset.  Why just let it rot?  Why not develop it?  A big part of why the Spurs have been successful is that they’ve sacrificed wins for the development of younger players, keeping the pipeline plush with talent over the past decade.  And again, a few losses here and there for the Rockets isn’t going to spell the end of the world.

Maybe I’m just blind, but I see serious potential from D-Mo.  Now keep in mind the obvious disclaimer: I’m just speaking from my own vantage point of what I see on the court.  I’m obviously not at practice like the coaches are.  I don’t know what ‘s going on behind closed doors.  But having said that, all accounts, even from McHale himself, are that Motiejunas is a tireless worker.  I can’t understand why he isn’t being given a consistent chance.  (Well, I can – Casspi is just much better.)  He is raw.  He looked disastrous at times in the preseason.  But I thought he really showed a lot against the Grizzlies, battling Z-Bo.  Was he Mutombo?  No.  But he played about as well defensively as you could expect from a backup big man (not named Omer Asik).  Why not give him more of a chance?

Here’s my thesis: Motiejunas has some seriously rare skills.  He’s a 7-footer who can run the floor, put the ball on the floor, has range, and postup moves.  At the current rate, you’re just going to end up trading him for a middling second round pick or releasing him when his contract expires.  That’s a serious loss of value and a missed opportunity to develop an asset that could really help your team long-term.  I’m conceding that Casspi is no doubt better and has a far bigger impact on the team.  But my assertion is that it doesn’t really matter.  The Rockets are just running through mud this season anyway.  Taking out Casspi for a long-term investment won’t spend the end of the world.  Maybe they’ll drop from 5th to the 6th seed.  Oh no!  What a disaster!

Some will say Motiejunas got his chance, last year, when starting, but I disagree.  That was his rookie year and Terrence Jones got a similar chance and regressed as well, at the end of the year.  I think Motiejunas needs another chance, this year, of extended time.  Just give him fifteen minutes a night, especially with Asik out, and see what he does.  It won’t be the end of the world, and if it works out, they’ll have a really nice prospect on their bench going forward.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.