Donatas Motiejunas' Emergence Poses Big Questions for Houston Rockets' Offseason

Vytis Lasaitis@@LG_MineralFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2015

Feb 8, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) brings the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Donatas Motiejunas' sudden development has elevated the Houston Rockets' power forward depth to the point where it could become a problem. The Rockets have too many mouths to feed up front, and they will have to figure out who they want to keep this offseason.

Between Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith, the Rockets have three starter-quality power forwards. But if they all remain with the team, they'll have to share a limited amount of minutes. That's not an ideal scenario for anyone.

That's an issue the Rockets comfortably dodged this season. Lengthy absences from Jones and Dwight Howard allowed Motiejunas to feast on all the minutes he could handle. He performed admirably and has gained a lot of recognition as a result. The fact that D-Mo is big enough to fill in at center also helped alleviate the logjam. 

Once Jones returned, Motiejunas remained the starter, but balancing minutes was a little difficult. Both players also started alongside each other for a brief period of time while Howard was hurt.

Unfortunately, D-Mo suffered a season-ending back injury in March. It was a tough break for Houston, but head coach Kevin McHale once again avoided the headache of finding sufficient playing time for his two young bigs.

Smith wanted a starting role when he joined Houston midseason, following a buyout with the Detroit Pistons. He failed to impress early, and Motiejunas was re-inserted into the starting five. Smith thrived in a role off the bench, and had a big influence on the postseason run.

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He had some frustrating moments as well, but Smith took over some playoff games, playing the point forward role to perfection. He was a horrendous fit in Detroit, but his talent is undeniable.

Even with Jones and Smith playing well, Motiejunas' development seemingly came out of nowhere, and that has shaken things up.

Motiejunas' Emergence

Feb 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale talks with forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) on the sidelines during a Chicago Bulls timeout in the first half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

When D-Mo joined the Rockets in 2012-13, he wasn't as highly regarded as he is now. He was a finesse big out of Europe, playing a couple of minutes here and there.

Motiejunas had professional experience overseas before declaring for the draft, but there were question marks regarding his consistency among scouts. Some of that stemmed from the fact that he was trying to develop range, and moved further away from the basket. He had shown a lot of the skills he has now against inferior competition, but didn't get a shot to really test himself early in his NBA career. 

Instead, Jones was the one who received the starting nod the following season, while Motiejunas remained in the shadows even as a sophomore.

Motiejunas never complained, continued to work hard and finally received a legitimate chance to prove his worth when Jones went down early this season.

He established himself as a solid two-way presence early in the year. D-Mo isn't exactly an ultra-athletic, shot-blocking machine, but he is tall enough to contest shots at the rim. That was a huge contributing factor to the Rockets ranking sixth in the league defensively, even with Howard missing 41 games.

Motiejunas uses his length well defensively and is quick on his feet making rotations. He can still develop on that end, but he is by no means a liability.

Jan 15, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas (20) dribbles the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) defends in the second half at Toyota Center. The Rockets won 112-101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA T
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It was on the offensive end where Motiejunas really got people excited this season. He brought out all the dazzling post-up moves in the book—nifty hook shots over both shoulders, tricky up-and-under moves and a wide arsenal of fakes to get defenders in the air.

Those aesthetically pleasing plays also translated well to the statistical department. Among players who finished at least 200 post-ups this season, Motiejunas ranked third in the league in points per possession, per Synergy stats provided to NBA.com. The likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Blake Griffin all ranked below the Lithuanian.

Motiejunas was supremely efficient in the post, putting up a 53.4 field-goal percentage on those plays, by far the best figure in the league. Only fellow countryman Jonas Valanciunas managed to crack 50 percent.

There might have been a little question mark as to whether D-Mo and Howard could play extended minutes together. They both need touches in the post and occupy the same spots. Add a volume shooter like James Harden into the mix, and keeping everyone happy isn't easy.

Motiejunas' usage rate jumped from 17.6 to 21.3 percent when he didn't share the floor with Howard, per nbawowy.com. His shooting percentage also increased, although only slightly. If Howard isn't part of a play and stands around the elbow area, it allows his man to shadow Motiejunas' post-ups.

Even so, the Rockets made it work by putting three shooters around Howard and D-Mo. Houston's most-used lineup featuring Patrick Beverley, Harden, Trevor Ariza, and the two bigs outscored opponents by a whopping 11.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Among lineups that played more than 250 minutes this season, that Houston five-man unit put up the eighth-best net rating in the league, per NBA.com.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets looks to control the ball as Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets, Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets and Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets follow the play at Peps
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Howard and D-Mo did great together in other lineups too, putting up a net rating of 8.4 while sharing the court as well as a defensive efficiency that would have led the league, per NBA.com.

The offense isn't great when the two are on the court, but it's manageable. Motiejunas' developing three-point range could alleviate a lot of the spacing issues. He has a nice stroke and hit on 36.8 percent of his long-range attempts. He only shot 1.9 threes per game, and it's going to take a larger sample size to figure out if he can maintain such efficiency.

It helps that both Motiejunas and Howard are mobile for their size, and if D-Mo becomes a consistent three-point threat, plays like this will become even more devastating:

There are a lot of things going on here. Motiejunas and Howard both set picks for Beverley, before moving in tandem to set staggered screens for Harden. As Houston transitions into a high pick-and-roll with Harden and Howard, Motiejunas retreats to the right corner. He ends up being wide open, but Howard opts to shoot after establishing deep position in the paint.

This type of motion would be devastating and unguardable if teams were forced to respect Motiejunas' range. Even if it's hard to squeeze out the most out of Motiejunas' skill set when Howard is on the floor, the two can clearly co-exist.

Who Does Houston Keep?

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 12:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets and Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets warms up before the game against the Utah Jazz on March 12, 2015 at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: Use
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Despite Motiejunas' strong season, choosing between him and Jones isn't easy. Jones formed a solid frontcourt partnership with Howard in 2013-14, even though he has a different skill set.

Jones is in a similar boat to Motiejunas: He knocks down the occasional three, but it's not his bread and butter. Jones is a superior ball-handler, can lead a fast-break and is a better shot-blocker than D-Mo. He is more explosive but lacks the exceptional post-up skills of his Lithuanian teammate.

Both Jones and Motiejunas will be eligible for rookie-scale extensions this summer. Houston could try to lock up one of them early, but it could also just wait and let the duo hit restricted free agency in another year.

Jones and D-Mo will be able to get more money when the cap jumps, but both have suffered through some injuries now and could perhaps ink an extension if the Rockets end up offering one. Their market value would likely be in the range of $10-12 million per year, a figure that might rise together with the cap.

Locking up both would severely cut into Houston's future flexibility, and they'll want to maintain enough space for a max contract in 2016-17.

Then again, dishing out something in the vicinity of four-year $48 million deals for both Motiejunas and Jones wouldn't be disastrous. As long as both stay healthy, they wouldn't be hard to package into some juicy trades.

Then there is Smith, who signed for the league minimum for the stretch run. If he is happy to stick around at a major discount, something in the vicinity of $5 million per year, the Rockets would be silly not to sign him. Even if everyone is healthy, that wouldn't be a hard contract to flip for other assets.

It's unlikely Smith would accept those terms, especially if he'd be forced to settle for a role behind the younger power forward duo. The Rockets still need insurance up front in case Jones or D-Mo get hurt, but that's all Smith would be.

Making a choice is hard. Both Jones and Motiejunas have only put together one solid season each, so standing pat and holding off on committing future salary might be the way to go. Houston would get a better idea which player truly holds the most upside, while maintaining the right to match any offer sheet either player signs in 2016-17.

Houston general manager Daryl Morey will fiddle with figures, and he will likely look to sign each of his three power forwards at a discount. But if negotiations don't tilt in the Rockets' favor, letting Smith walk and allowing Jones and Motiejunas to battle it out for the starting spot is the most likely outcome. That is especially the case since D-Mo can fill in at both center and power forward, either starting or coming off the bench.

You can follow me on Twitter: @VytisLasaitis