2016-17 Pelicans Season Review: Donatas Motiejunas

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

The details are extensive and complicated, but after a drawn-out, multi-month restricted free agency in 2016 for Donatas Motiejunas that involved his previous NBA team (Houston), a prospective suitor (Brooklyn) and a series of snags, Motiejunas ended up not signing a contract with the Rockets or the Nets. As a result, he ultimately inked an in-season deal on the fly with New Orleans on Jan. 3. It was a less-than-ideal scenario for the 7-foot center/forward, whose 2016-17 season began in a brand-new city, about three months later than he expected.

“This season has definitely not been close to what I wanted to have, or how I wanted to play,” Motiejunas said, prior to the Pelicans’ April 12 finale at Portland. “But it is what it is. I was put in – or I put myself, however you want to look at it – in this situation. I did it to myself. This season was not what I looked forward to.

“It was a tough situation. From one side, I was forced into it. From the other side, it was my choice, too. I cannot blame anyone besides myself about it.”

That inability to come to a contract resolution benefited New Orleans, which added a skilled frontcourt player, a much-needed reserve who provided depth for the Pelicans in January and February. In keeping with the general theme of Motiejunas’ campaign, however, an unexpected trade during the All-Star break for DeMarcus Cousins led to a diminishing role for the southpaw from Lithuania. Motiejunas initially appeared in 21 consecutive games after signing with New Orleans, but from Feb. 25 through April 4, he logged 11 DNPs out of a 20-game span.

From a team standpoint, Motiejunas hoped to help the Pelicans climb out of an early hole in the standings – they were 14-23 when he arrived – and keep his personal streak alive of reaching the postseason, but it didn’t happen. New Orleans was slightly better in games Motiejunas played at 16-18, but it wasn’t enough to earn the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

“Every year I was always making the playoffs,” Motiejunas said of his Rockets tenure, which was highlighted by a trip to the West finals in ’15. “It’s upsetting that we’re not there. It’s really tough. It’s not what I’m playing basketball for. I’m just not used to not being there. It’s frustrating.”

After an eventful, difficult season, Motiejunas is now almost right back where he started, but this summer he will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, able to sign with any NBA team.

NBA experience: 5 seasons (1 with Pelicans) || Games played/started: 34/0 || Age: 26

SHOOTING SPECIFICS

Motiejunas ended up with career lows in field-goal percentage (41.3) and three-point percentage (23.4), but both of those figures are a bit misleading, because he didn’t falter shooting-wise until he was out of the rotation. In January and February, when he was seeing consistent minutes, he was at 46.0 percent (40/87) from the floor. In March and April, that plummeted to 33.3 percent (17/51). He was just 2/15 on treys in those two months.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

3.5: Assists per 100 possessions for Motiejunas, a skilled passer who sees the floor well and can find teammates for open looks. By comparison, Cousins averaged 5.6 assists per 100 possessions with the Pelicans to lead the club’s frontcourt players, while Anthony Davis notched 2.8. New Orleans forwards Solomon Hill and Dante Cunningham registered 2.9 and 1.1, respectively, in that statistic.

AFTER THE TRADE

The deal for Cousins swiftly decreased Motiejunas’ role with the Pelicans, making it much more difficult for him to make an impact. Motiejunas played more minutes in both January (195) and February (156) than he did in March and April combined (127). Even after factoring in the February departure of power forward Terrence Jones, there simply weren’t a lot of minutes available for Pelicans bigs beyond Cousins (33.8 minutes per game with NOLA) and Davis (36.1)

Jan. 27: New Orleans 119, San Antonio 103

A convincing victory over the Southwest Division’s best team featured all-around contributions by Motiejunas, who posted 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks. The Pelicans outscored the Spurs 71-46 in the second half. || HIGHLIGHTS

Jan. 23: New Orleans 124, Cleveland 122

The Pelicans took down the defending NBA champions, despite Davis being sidelined by injury. With the perennial All-Star out, Motiejunas tallied 14 points in his 24 minutes as a reserve. He shot 5/8 from the field and 2/3 on three-pointers. || HIGHLIGHTS

March 26: New Orleans 115, Denver 90

In a virtual must-win situation for the Pelicans, they dominated the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center, building an 87-59 lead by the end of the third quarter. In just 19 minutes off the bench, Motiejunas delivered 13 points and seven rebounds. || HIGHLIGHTS