I’ve had almost three days now to digest the news of Houston’s trade of forward Donatas Motiejunas, and while some of the emotion has worn off, from an analytical standpoint, questions still remain. To wit, it is not outside the realm of possibility that I/we are overrating him. The description “25 year old, defensively capable, stretch-4 7 footer with post moves” while entirely accurate, conveys the impression of a future Hall of Famer, and most likely carries more semantic value than Motiejunas’ overall on-court impact to this point. But still, should all uncertain commodities simply be cast aside?
Daryl Morey came out and said after the trade that the team would be in position this summer to offer two full max contracts. I recognize and appreciate the business acumen in not emotionally attaching oneself to the Titanic and having the prescience to get out while one still can. But at what point does the star-chasing end? To try and maximize one’s chances in the biggest free agent bonanza in ages is not an unpardonable offense. But the odds are, and due to no fault of the Rockets, they will most likely strike out yet again.
What about just building a team? I’ve come to think recently, that in some sort of reactional snobbery, the basketball commentariat of today has begun to overrate draft picks, in remembrance of a day when former-athlete GM’s tossed them around like undiminishable resources. It was sound and a product of shrewd bartering that Morey was able to fetch a pick for a future free agent. That feat should certainly be celebrated. But what is the macro effect on a team when having a revolving door of players, pushing out the old, in favor of a new stream of cheaper labor? This might be unfair, but I think you see the effects in front of you.
Draft picks, even in the first round, are a crap shoot. Sam Dekker may one day be good, but he hasn’t helped this team for even a minute. And Clint Capela’s body of evidence suggests that he will be very good, but he also gave the team nothing last season, and is still too raw to be depended upon if the team plays any meaningful games against man-sized power forwards. The evidence suggests that it takes a few years typically for a player to develop and begin displaying his potential. But if you just keep pushing out your players in favor of flexibility, after seeing them through their development, what are you really gaining? In some ways, one can argue this practice itself presents an inefficiency: you were paying Motiejunas for the two or so years when he gave you absolutely nothing, as you will do, most likely, with the next guy.
Isn’t a hard working, team-first player like Motiejunas the type of guy that you hope to hit on with your draft pick? In an absolute vacuum, how much better is Harrison Barnes, who almost certainly will command a max contract this summer, than Motiejunas? He’s a bit more versatile, but Motiejunas has unique gifts as well, especially in an era where post play has become extinct. The Warriors are an extreme and unfair example, but rather than star-chasing–they turned down the deal for Kevin Love–that franchise built an ecosystem where good to very good players, as a sum of parts, perform at a historic level. None of these guys, aside from Curry of course, would be setting the world ablaze anywhere else. And James Harden, in theory, was Houston’s Curry. The point here is that a team can be built to be pretty good, internally, through player development.
I get the logic here. Minimize risk. It’s not a sound investment banking on a big man with a bad back. But Motiejunas was a bird in hand who only figured to get better. If the Rockets strike out yet again this summer, and D-Mo goes on to have a healthy career, they’ll most certainly regret this move.