Trade grades: Pistons take on risks in Donatas Motiejunas deal

The Rockets' trade of Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton is impossible to judge at the moment. 
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UPDATE: The trade between the Pistons and Rockets has reportedly been voided after Donatas Motiejunas failed a physical with Detroit's doctors. 

The Pistons and Rockets have reportedly agreed to a trade involving Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Thornton, Joel Anthony and a protected first-round draft pick. 

Who’s going where? Who won? Who lost? Let’s take a look.

Detroit Pistons: Inc.

Pistons receive: Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Thornton

Interesting as it might be to evaluate this trade in its entirety, there’s just too much we don’t know with regard to Motiejunas’s health. A pesky back injury has kept the 25-year-old big man out of the Rockets’ lineup since December. It’s not immediately clear how much he’ll be able to contribute this season, nor whether there’s reason for lingering concern as Motiejunas approaches restricted free agency.

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​Built into the price the Pistons paid is the right to match any formal offer Motiejunas signs this summer. That flexibility could wind up being somewhat valuable; Detroit can consider any actual offer made to Motiejunas on a case-by-case basis without being forced into an uncomfortable contract. The first-round pick Detroit surrendered in this deal is a sunk cost. It earned the Pistons the controlling rights to a talented player, in addition to whatever he may be able to offer Detroit in its playoff push.

In theory, a healthy Motiejunas makes good sense for the Pistons. His post game is more reliable than that of incumbent backup Aron Baynes and his roll game more flexible. Stan Van Gundy could even slot Motiejunas in alongside Andre Drummond at times, similar to the way the Rockets had paired him as a starter with Dwight Howard. There’s enough range to Motiejunas’ jumper to make that feasible, though the general orientation of Van Gundy’s offense would seem to make the backup center slot a more natural role.

The beauty of Motiejunas’s game, however, is that he wouldn’t have to play power forward or center exclusively. His positional flexibility would give a somewhat shallow Pistons team the ability to better stretch its resources—a capacity that only expands with the recent addition of another versatile forward in Tobias Harris. There’s a hypothetical fluidity to Detroit’s rotation that wasn’t actualized even a few days ago. All the Pistons need is for Harris to get comfortable, Motiejunas to get healthy, and a talented group to mesh as hoped. Even Thornton will help fill minutes as a sort of Jodie Meeks lite, particularly while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope misses time with injury.

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Those processes take time and, in the case of Motiejunas’s injury, a good deal of patience. Even his return to regular game action will come with caveats and limitations. Detroit, then, actually made two deadline deals in service of its future—even as it surrendered a first-round pick in the process. Harris’s acquisition is a risk of fit and development. Motiejunas’s arrival is a risk of injury and projection. The potential costs cannot be ignored. Yet if both deals pan out as the Pistons intend, Van Gundy and his staff will have improved Detroit’s roster in a sensible, lasting way.

Houston Rockets: A-

Rockets receive: A top-eight protected first-round pick, Joel Anthony

Once the Rockets decided internally that dictating the terms of Motiejunas’s free agency was not a point of interest, this was about the best they could do. It’s hard to blame Houston for opting out of the risk now; Motiejunas, even with his injuries, is in line for a significant payday this summer. His rights are only valuable insofar as Houston would be keen on signing him to that kind of deal. Trading Motiejunas sends a rather clear message on that particular point.

The Rockets cashed out with a first-round pick likely to convey this season—great value for an impending free agent with a significant injury history. That pick would convey at No. 14 today, though the crowd in the middle of the standings makes any draft spot from 11 to 18 possible. Whichever player is selected with that pick will come on a cost-controlled salary made all the more valuable by the rising cap. Rookie-scale players have always been incredibly beneficial to teambuilding in concept. Now they represent an even smaller portion of a team’s room under the cap, which surely interests Houston as they look forward to uses of their salary space this summer.

Along the way, the Rockets—who are a luxury tax team at present—project to save almost $2 million in tax payments and a touch more in salary savings. Joel Anthony’s inclusion is a mere formality. The real motivation for the deal is the pick and the relief in knowing their future won’t be tied to a Motiejunas offer sheet.