What went wrong for the Houston Rockets in 2016? – Part 4

In 2014-2015, Donatas Motiejunas appeared in 71 games for the Rockets, averaging 28.7 minutes per night.  He scored 12 points per game on 50% shooting, and was 37% on 3’s.  This past season, Motiejunas only played in 37 games, averaging 14.8 minutes, averaging 6.2 points on 43.9% shooting, and just 28% on 3’s.

Motiejunas was a very big part of the team in 2015.  He was a member of all of Houston’s top-4 quintets in overall minutes played together, appearing either next to Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, or Josh Smith.  And he was a member of three of Houston’s top five quintets in net rating, with the best of those being the lineup that featured Brewer/Harden/Motiejunas/Smith/Terry, a group that was a +28.2 in 50 minutes shared.  (Houston’s best quintet last season was Ariza/Brewer/Howard/Prigioni/Smith, a group which was a +40 in 41 minutes played).

This year, Motiejunas, much to my surprise, was a member of Houston’s most used lineup, one which featured Ariza/Beverley/Harden/Howard/Motiejunas.  That lineup shared the court together for 295 minutes and was a +11, another surprise, as I noted in an earlier installment.  Oddly though, Motiejunas does not appear in any of Houston’s remaining top 20 most used quintets from this season.  Motiejunas also was not a part of any of Houston’s top five lineups in net rating this season.

So not only did we see less Motiejunas overall this year, but he also wasn’t as good when we saw him.  That’s understandable given the nature of his back problems.  Back in July, I wrote that D-Mo was the third biggest key to the upcoming Houston season, fully expecting him to build upon his breakout 2015 campaign.  I thought the smart defense and fun post moves would be back, and the three point percentage would creep even closer to 40%, making Donatas a full-blown ‘stretch 4’.  What’s striking though is how much we collectively underestimated the nature of his injury; I had simply assumed because we hadn’t heard much regarding D-Mo’s health, that there was no reason for concern.  In hindsight, I should have known better.  This episode, in combination with previous incidents wherein the Rockets organization was similarly tight-lipped (see: Ming, Yao), was highly instructive for purposes of team coverage and predictive value.

Offensively, Motiejunas shot 12.5% on left corner 3’s this year, 15.4% on right corner 3’s, and 36.1% on above the break 3’s.  He shot 47.2% on his patented hook shot.  Last year, D-Mo was 31.3% on left corner 3’s, 42.3%(!) on right corner 3’s, and 37.8% on above the break 3’s.  (You can see why I was so hopeful of steady improvement).  He also shot 56.4% on hook shots, making 128 out of 227, a figure which is really quite astounding given the era in which he plays.  This year, with Motiejunas on-court, the Rockets had a 105.8 offensive rating; with him off, it was 105.4.  Last year, the offensive rating was 103.6 with Motiejunas on, and 104.8 with him off.

Last season, Motiejunas had a rim field goal percentage allowed of 48.8%.  (By comparison, Anthony Davis’ rim field goal percentage allowed was 48.6%, DeAndre Jordan’s was 48.5%, and Drummond’s was 47.8%).  He also saved 4.7 adjusted points per game, a figure higher than Dwight Howard.  I don’t have rim protection stats for Motiejunas this year, but opponents shot 50.1% against Howard, for a point of comparison.

My contention has been that Motiejunas’ presence in the lineup was a big part of the Rockets’ success in 2014-2015, and his absence this year was a factor in the team’s decline.  While its not always evident in the box score, he possesses traits which impact winning.  He moves the ball quickly on offense, and makes smart, consistent rotations at the other end, despite his physical limitations.  Less Motiejunas this year also meant more Terrence Jones and that was a big problem.

The Rockets very well could look to bring D-Mo back on a cheap deal this summer, but I think the trade to Detroit was a good hint at their concerns over his health.  Then again, one could also argue that move was more indicative of the team’s hopes to clear two max salary slots than any opinion on Motiejunas.  If no one takes their money, they’ll still have to fill out their roster.

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

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What went wrong for the Houston Rockets in 2016? – Part 3