Stan Van Gundy sure seems to like doing his free-agent shopping early.
After adding restricted free agent point guard Reggie Jackson at last year's trade deadline before re-upping his this past summer, and swinging the 2016 deadline's first deal by importing Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris as what ostensibly doubled as the Detroit Pistons' big summertime free agent acquisition, the Pistons coach and president of basketball operations made another play for immediate and potential future help on Thursday, agreeing to terms with the Houston Rockets on a trade for big man Donatas Motiejunas and veteran guard Marcus Thornton.
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As first reported by Adrian Wojnarnowski of The Vertical, the Pistons will send veteran center Joel Anthony and a protected 2016 first-round draft pick to Houston in exchange for Motiejunas and Thornton. If the pick comes after the first eight selections in this year's draft, the Rockets will get it, according to Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post; if it stays in the top eight and doesn't get conveyed this year, the protection drops to the top 10 picks in the 2017 and 2018 drafts, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
After making 62 starts and playing a major role in for the 2014-15 Rockets, Motiejunas missed Houston's run to the Western Conference finals after undergoing season-ending back surgery. Rehabilitation from that procedure kept him out for the first 20 games of this season, and his early December return was short-lived, encompassing just 188 minutes over 14 games before going back on the shelf to start January, where he's remained for the entirety of 2016.
The 7-foot Lithuanian has been working to get back to full health and fitness, logging three tune-up games with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League earlier this month that reportedly convinced Houston's brass that he was ready to come back to the big-league level as soon as Friday's post-All-Star-break resumption of work, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
"I think it's better now because he had those games in the D-League," Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "He was able to play extended minutes. From those minutes, he was able to get some sort of a rhythm. Obviously, it's going to take more than three games to do that. But I think he's in a better spot now, having played those 20-plus minutes (per game) in the D-League than those six minutes he was getting when he came back the first time.
"He was a big part of what we did last year and we have to get him playing at that level so he's got to get minutes."
During All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Rockets shooting guard James Harden seemed to believe that getting Motiejunas — who proved last year capable of contributing on the offensive end both inside and out while also holding his own at the five while Houston was without injured starting center Dwight Howard — back in the fold would be a big part of helping a Houston club that's fizzled all season long finally lock into a groove, according to Mike Bohn of USA TODAY:
"Hopefully guys are mentally locked in and focused and ready to close the season out the right way," Harden said. "Hopefully we can get (Donatas Motiejūnas) back. He was a big key to our success this year. You get 'D-Mo' back healthy with the right mindset from the entire team and we got a chance.
"Getting our guys at full health, full strength and getting D-Mo back, getting Terrence Jones back, getting guys ready with a clear mind and focusing on winning these last – finish this stretch off the right way."
And yet, with both Motiejunas and Jones set to hit restricted free agency this summer, athletic young bigs Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell having earned their way into the rotation, and the Rockets likely having more questions to answer this summer than expected after what's been a dismal season, general manager Daryl Morey has apparently decided that Kentucky product Jones is the young RFA he aims to keep around ... or, at least, decided he wasn't interested in paying whatever it would cost to bring back a big man who, obvious talent aside, has missed most of the last year with a bad back.
That choice made, figuring out how to pare down Houston's luxury tax bill while creating a bit more flexibility to do additional deals ...
Houston will save $1.2m in luxury taxes and opens up a roster spot. Rockets are now $1.25m below the hard cap.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 18, 2016
Rockets save $1.3M, move to $1.3M below hard cap, get 2016 1st (top 8 protected), get $947K TPE, open roster spot. https://t.co/RyXmQGch2X— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertRandom1) February 18, 2016
... while also landing what's likely to be a mid-first-round pick in the 2016 draft — the kind of asset that NBA teams are hoarding, even with a potentially underwhelming draft class coming this summer, due to the long-term cost certainty a rookie deal provides ahead of the broadcast-rights-deal-fueled explosion of the salary cap this summer — seems like a nice bit of business by Morey.
Better return than what Utah got for Kanter, and what OKC got for Jackson -- RFAs traded last year.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 18, 2016
Adding the 33-year-old Anthony, best known as an interior bruiser during his days with the two-time champion Miami Heat and now a little-used veteran reserve who has logged all of 52 minutes this season, won't do much to help Houston now. But this deal isn't about now; it's about trying to wring value out of a situation gone sour.
From the Pistons perspective, though, the trade could have both short- and long-term implications. If Detroit's medical staff can get Motiejunas back on the floor and keep him there, the lefty's game could fit perfectly in Van Gundy's system.
The lefty extended his shooting range out to 3-point land last season, shooting 36.8 percent from deep, and proved able to slot in as a floor-spacing power forward alongside Dwight Howard or as a skilled and deft low-post anchor spelling the starting center, which bodes well for his fit both next to and behind Pistons All-Star Andre Drummond ... and, really, just about any other big man on the Detroit roster, as Motiejunas' post play, shooting, rebounding and passing should also profile well alongside Harris, Aron Baynes and Anthony Tolliver. And at 25 years old, Motiejunas fits the timetable and development trajectory of a Detroit club built around a core of Drummond (22), Jackson (25), Harris (23), shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (23) and rookie swingman Stanley Johnson (19).
If what they see from Motiejunas up close over the last few months of the season proves as entrancing as what they've watched from afar, Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower have control over Motiejunas' restricted free agency process, with Detroit able to match any offer the big man receives on the open market if they choose or, as they did with Jackson last summer, move swiftly to lock up the player they want at a price they believe is fair. Even with the rising cap, they'll need to be careful — Detroit's already got eight-figure deals for Jackson and Harris on the books, with Drummond's monster max extension coming too — but doing the deal now gives SVG and company a chance to get a closer look and begin integrating Motiejunas into the organization, developing the kind of trust and relationship that could bear fruit in negotiations.
While Detroit plays both the short and long game with Motiejunas, the Pistons' moribund second unit could also get an instant boost from the infusion of Thornton, a 28-year-old journeyman scorer (may we never forget that most delightful of NBA nicknames, "Lil Buckets") who resurrected his career in Houston this year, averaging 10 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 18.8 minutes per game. Detroit still needs to find a serviceable backup point guard after shipping Brandon Jennings to Orlando in the Harris deal, but Thornton offers a veteran who can shoot, and who has absolutely no qualms about doing so, for a reserve corps that often struggles to keep Detroit afloat when Drummond and Jackson are off the floor.
Ever since Van Gundy took the reins in the Motor City, he's been working to reform the Pistons in his the image of his successful Magic squads — tough, physical, versatile, with shooting and playmaking on the wings, floor-spacers at the four, and a nasty 1-5 pick-and-roll combo to ram down opponents' throats. The early returns have been pretty promising, and if Motiejunas can get and stay healthy, and develop alongside Harris in the way SVG believes they can, Detroit could become a major, major problem in the East in the years to come.
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