The addition of Donatas Motiejunas is official, and it’s not really a significant one. The Spurs have brought in veterans for playoff runs before and essentially not played them, which is the likely fate of the Lithuanian big man. He’s going to be there only in case of emergency.
As far as filler signings go, however, there’s a lot to like about this one. Sometimes the smaller moves are easier to analyze and after looking at the variables, it’s apparent that signing Motiejunas just makes sense, which shows that the front office is still always looking to maximize value, even at the very margins of the roster.
Even after a career-derailing back injury and a couple of years away from the NBA, Motiejunas is still an intriguing addition based on physical profile and skill set alone. Genuine seven footers with some perimeter ability tend to be useful, and D-Mo is just that. In his last full season in the league, Motiejunas had a breakout year, averaging 12 points, six rebounds and two assists while connecting on 37 percent of his three-pointers. In the past two season abroad he hasn’t been able to replicate that accuracy from outside, but has shot 35 percent and 33 percent, respectively: decent marks for a featured player. He’s also averaged three and four assists, respectively, in the past two seasons. No one is going to confuse him for Nikola Jokic, and Chinese league stats are not a guarantee of NBA production, but Motiejunas looks the part of a big man with a passable jumper and some play-making ability, which is exactly the type the Spurs lack now that Pau Gasol is gone.
A reasonable facsimile of Pau doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it’s nice to have variety on the bench. There were plenty of veteran bigs available, but few that had the length to play center and the experience at power forward to be an option next to LaMarcus Aldridge. Motiejunas, who I’m assuming by his 14 boards a game was playing exclusively at center in China, was actually primarily a power forward back in his Rockets days while moonlighting as Dwight Howard’s backup. That was four years ago, and four years is an eternity in the NBA, of course. Then there’s the fact that those Rockets were mediocre defensively with D-Mo at center. Yet Motiejunas was 24 years old then, is just 28 years old now, and has had as much recent success outside of the NBA as any of the other available options. He’s one of the few players the Spurs could have realistically gotten that offered a combination of experience and a hint of upside.
By that standard, Motiejunas is a solid signing, but if his addition prevented the Spurs from making a better move, that wouldn’t be enough to justify it. Fortunately the opportunity cost in this situation was negligible. As mentioned, there were no clearly superior veteran options. At this point in the season leaving the spot open makes little sense. The only reasonable criticism of the signing could be that the Spurs should have gone young instead, but worthy big man prospects get scooped up earlier in the season. In late season situations like this one, some franchises choose to boost the profile of its G-League affiliate and reward players that have done well in their program by calling one up one and signing them for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, the Austin Spurs didn’t really have a viable candidate. The team’s big men are already under contract (Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks), are not NBA caliber talents, are completely unproven (Amida Brimah), or are DeJuan Blair. There was no missed opportunity there.
The Motiejunas signing, meaningless as it might end up being, feels smart. The Spurs are getting a veteran player they hope can give them a few minutes if necessary, who has been active recently and has a skill set they lacked in their roster. They didn’t pass up any clearly better opportunities to get their man, either.
It’s always comforting to know that even when it comes to small moves, the franchise’s decision-making seems sound.