Beard: Deadline deals give Pistons playoff shot

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Donatas Motiejunas has represented Lithuania in international tournaments, helping his country win a silver medal at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament.

Auburn Hills — After Thursday’s practice, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy looked as if he had been through an old-school, college all-nighter.

A few minutes after the NBA trade deadline had passed, his five-o’clock shadow had morphed into a nine-o’clock phantom and he appeared somewhat sleep-deprived.

In the end, though, Van Gundy got his men — two of them — plus another insurance piece, that could make the Pistons one of the most intriguing teams in the East when they resume the season on Friday at Washington.

After picking up big man Donatas Motiejunas and guard Marcus Thornton on Thursday, in addition to Tobias Harris on Tuesday, the Pistons are positioned to make a run toward the playoffs, sooner than later.

If acquiring Harris was about long-term prospects — Harris is signed through 2018-19 for an average of $16 million — then Thursday’s acquisitions were about the short term, giving the Pistons a better chance to end their streak of six seasons out of the playoffs and in the lottery.

But it comes with plenty of risk.

Motiejunas, who shined last season with the Rockets, is coming off back surgery and is anything but a guarantee to be a big contributor this year. The asking price wasn’t huge, as the Pistons surrendered a 2016 first-round pick, which is top-8 protected and top-10 protected in 2017 and ’18, respectively.

Van Gundy admitted that he was leery of any big man with back issues, but the upside far outweighed any risk that the Pistons might be taking with Motiejunas. When the particulars were passed on to Pistons owner Tom Gores, he gave his blessing, understanding the risk involved.

“He supposedly is healthy and ready to get going right now. You always worry about a back, certainly,” Van Gundy said. “In terms of a physical, we’re going to have him checked out very, very well as he comes in.

“But it’s a calculated risk. A little more risk, maybe, than some of the other deals we’ve had, but with a very high reward.”

Motiejunas has played just 14 games this season and after a six-week hiatus appears ready to return to game action. He was pivotal in helping the Rockets reach the Western Conference finals last season — and if he can recapture any of that magic, he could be the steal of the trade season.

Van Gundy said there is potential for Motiejunas to play alongside Andre Drummond as a stretch power forward, or even to play as a stretch center in some lineups. With the move for Harris and the young core the Pistons already have, it could be the beginning of a long run of success, but there are no guarantees.

The Rockets gave up on a prime asset because of injury, as did the Magic, who had just signed Harris to a four-year, $64-million deal in the offseason. The Pistons were set to have some wiggle room in the offseason, with the exploding salary cap, but likely have used most of their flexibility in putting most of their chips in the middle of the table in the middle of the season.

The Pistons already were young, but adding Harris, 23, and Motiejunas, 25, gives them a solid core, almost all of which is under team control for at least the next couple years.

They’re geared toward being one of the most dynamic, versatile and flexible lineups in the East, but they’ll need time to grow.

There are only 28 games left in the regular season and if they don’t have enough time to jell and don’t make the playoffs, the season isn’t necessarily a failure. Looking at all the moves as a whole, things are structured for long-term growth and success.

Making the postseason this year would just be an early return on investment.