Alexis Ajinca Making a Case for More Minutes

Published: January 31, 2015

When Omer Asik was added this summer and it became known that the Pelicans would not have to move Ryan Anderson to acquire him, people quickly began to debate whether the Pelicans had the best three-man big rotation in the league. The skill sets of those three allowed any two of them to play together, and the conventional wisdom said that they would eat up all 96 of the minutes at the power forward and center positions – and maybe even a few at small forward if Monty employed a three big man lineup occasionally. But a funny thing has happened this year, as Alexis Ajinca has played so well in stretches that Monty might not be able to keep him off the court moving forward.

Ajinca came into this summer battling for the backup center spot with Jeff Withey, and because Withey was younger and had more “upside”, most fans and pundits were rooting for him to win the job. Ajinca showed flashes last year on both ends, but his ridiculously high foul rate and his slow foot on the defensive end made him just as ineffective on some nights as he was effective on others. This year, however, he has been vastly improved and him being in and out of the rotation has been a result of the guys in front of him. Anderson, Davis, and Asik have only missed ten games combined, and when those three are healthy, it has been hard for Monty to find Ajinca enough minutes to allow him to make an impact.

It is a good problem to have, as Ajinca has shown that he deserves a consistent spot in this rotation, but it is difficult to figure out where he can steal minutes from when our three bigs are healthy. Davis, Anderson, and Asik are averaging 91 minutes per game, leaving five minutes for Ajinca, and that is if Monty doesn’t play small ball with Cunningham at the four in certain match ups. And while Cunningham and Pondexter have been great on an intangibles level since joining the team, Ajinca has been so remarkable in quantifiable areas, that maybe it is time for Monty to experiment again with some three-bigs lineups to open up some more minutes for the 26 year-old big man.

This season, Ajinca has been fantastic around the rim offensively and his jumper has been on point as well. A small sample size, granted, but he is shooting 89% with his baby hook and 57% on his jump shot outside of the paint. His offensive and defensive rebound rates are second on the team (behind only Asik) and his block rate trails only Davis and Withey (while nearly doubling Asik’s). He also possesses incredible ratings on both ends, with an offensive rating of 118 and a defensive rating of 103.

Now, some will claim that these numbers are inflated because he is doing it against second units, but the data doesn’t back this up. In the games he started this season, he shot a remarkable 73% from the field. In games where he has played between 20-29 minutes, he is averaging 13.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in just 24 minutes (which makes him a nearly 20-15 guy per 36!). The lineup he has played the most with this year includes Davis, Gordon, Tyreke, and Jrue and that lineup is a solid +5.4 per 100 possessions. All this goes to show that Ajinca hasn’t just been posting up big numbers against 2nd units, but rather that he can be productive against starters as well.

And as January comes to a close, Ajinca is coming off of his best month of his NBA career, having posted 6.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and over a block per contest in just under 14 minutes per game. But despite him looking dominate at times this month, he still found a hard time getting consistent minutes when all of our bigs were healthy. He received 2 DNP’s this month, played just 25 seconds against Detroit, and had two other games where he got 6 minutes or less. Another strange phenomena with Ajinca is his home/road splits, and they are not what you would expect. Ajinca is fantastic on the road, and somewhat pedestrian at home. On the season, he is shooting 69% away from the Smoothie King Center and just 45% at home. He is the anti-Ryan Anderson. But in both places he rebounds extremely well, and that has been one consistent thread throughout this entire season.

What is the Solution?

For now, thanks to injuries to Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, there are some minutes for Ajinca and he is playing quite well when given the chance. But when the Pelicans are 100% healthy, you have to figure that the three main guards will get at least 96 minutes and the three key bigs will get at least the 91 they have been averaging. This leaves just 53 minutes for the rest of the rotation, including Pondexter, Cunningham, Ajinca, and possibly a 4th guard. Quickly you begin to see how this gets tough for Monty to find minutes for Ajinca.

One possible solution is to play three big men together. Davis has to be one of those big men, because he is the only one that can defend a perimeter player with any level of success, and you would have to believe Ryan Anderson would have to be another because the spacing would really suffer otherwise. You could theoretically play Ajinca or Asik with either of those two, and steal some minutes from the small forward position. Let’s say you steal 7, and give Ajinca a total of 12 minutes per game on average. That leaves just 41 for Pondexter and Cunningham, which is far below the 50.6 they have been averaging since they have joined the team.

One way or another, somebody has to be left out or underutilized. The debate comes down to whether Ajinca’s offensive upside and rebounding prowess outweighs Cunningham and Pondexter’s on-ball defense, low usage, and overall intangibles. Of course, Monty can play the matchup game and he can also steal minutes from Ryan Anderson on the road or on the second nights of back to backs (where he has been terrible). But finding Ajinca the minutes he likely deserves on a regular basis does not seem likely when this team is healthy.

Looking Ahead

Alexis Ajinca is an unrestricted free agent this summer, though the Pelicans will have his Early Bird Rights. Early Bird Rights are different from full Bird Rights, in that a team is much more limited as to what kind of contract they can give the player. The Pelicans can start Ajinca off at a salary that is 104.5% of the average NBA salary and give him 7.5% raises from there for a minimum of two years and a maximum of four years. The average salary next year figures to be around 5.6 million dollars, so the Pelicans can go as high as about 6 million per year for 2-4 years.

Essentially, if the Pelicans want to keep Ajinca, they probably can if they stay over the cap. Now, if they decide to go the other way and get under the cap this summer by moving Gordon or letting Asik walk, then it becomes a little more tricky, but that is an unlikely route. The question is whether the Pelicans will pay the likely 3-4 million a year that Ajinca will command elsewhere to have a 4th big that is essentially an insurance policy. If not, then Dell has to at least explore the idea of moving him now if he can get something of value for him. Another team might be interested because they get Ajinca for the stretch run and those Early Bird rights will transfer to that team with Ajinca.

Another possibility is that Dell explores the idea of letting Asik walk and giving Ajinca a more prominent role. This seems to be far more popular amongst fans than it will likely be in the Pelicans front office, but let’s imagine that the team is open to it. You can probably bring back Ajinca and get somebody like Kosta Koufos or Hassan Whiteside at the same price as it would cost to retain Asik. Anderson and Davis can get their 63-65 minutes per game and the other 31-33 minutes can be split up amongst a more balanced committee. Or maybe you just go with Ajinca and try to find or develop your own Whiteside on the cheap as a 4th big and use Asik’s money to go lure a big-time small forward who can play the four in small ball situations.

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves, and perhaps Ajinca’s numbers are a result of a small sample size inflated by a handful of very good games. But what is undeniable is that he has shown flashes of being a very good player who has played a major role in a couple of Pelicans victories. As we approach a free agency that sees both he and Asik as unrestricted free agents, not to mention perhaps the best free agent center class of all-time, the future of Alexis Ajinca is something that Dell has to seriously consider moving forward just as much as Monty has to consider his role with the team right now.



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