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Making Sense of Omer’s Minutes

Published: November 25, 2015

As far as recent history goes, this past week wasn’t a bad one for Pelicans fans. Ryno looked better than ever, and AD went back to destroying worlds. Still, there was one lingering question. Where was Omer Asik?

Well, he was on the bench. Why? It seems like some of that was answered in the second sentence of the opening paragraph, but there is something worth discussing here. As Michael McNamara pointed out earlier this week, Asik got a nice contract this summer which seemed to suggest that he was part of a bigger plan, but so far, Asik’s minutes have been better suited for a role player.

Mac’s piece looked at the overall plan for the next three or four years. I’m interested in something more specific. I want to look back and try to understand what we’ve seen. That is, why hasn’t Asik been grabbing big minutes despite the team’s injury woes, his new contract and everything else?

The 2014-15 Season

Last year, Omer Asik averaged 26.1 minutes per game in 76 games. This year that number is down to 15.7 in 7 games. The table below breaks down how those games were distributed across various ranges of minutes.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.15.25 AM

In 2014-15, 53 of Asik’s 76 games (almost 70%) fell in the 20-29 minute range. That’s not all that hard to believe. The distribution of minutes across these three breakdowns is pretty much normal and centered around his average. However, this year Asik has yet to break into the 30 to 39 minutes category.

Let’s dig a bit deeper and look specifically at the games in the 2014-15 season when Asik played 25 or more minutes. It turns out he played that long or longer in 46 games. Interestingly, these games feature 25 different teams, but eight of these teams appear only once. 4 teams make up 12 of the 46 games over 25 minutes. That might not seem like a lot, but consider that over 26% of his average to big minute games came against just over 10% of the league.

Those teams were the Mavericks, Spurs, Rockets and Kings. The starting centers for those teams were Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan/Aron Baynes, Dwight Howard and Demarcus Cousins. It should also be noted that had Asik been healthy all season he would’ve played one more game against the Kings and Clippers. That would’ve likely been two more high volume games for Asik, yet still spread around just five teams.

The historical evidence is pretty clear and seems to suggest what the Pelicans have already told us; Asik will play more when the match up suits him. But, this doesn’t completely explain what we’ve seen so far. After all, the Pelicans have played Tyson Chandler and Tim Duncan once each this season, and in those two games combined, Asik played just over 26 minutes. On the other hand, Duncan only played 19 and Chandler played 16, in addition to the fact that Ryan Anderson was incredibly hot both of those nights. So, maybe, we shouldn’t be so shocked that Asik’s minutes dropped a bit.

Now, saying that Asik’s playing time has been and will be exclusively a function of who he’s playing seems a bit unsatisfying and reductive. Of course, we do see some of that in the data from last year, but there could certainly be other contributing factors which would explain some of his reduced minutes so far this year. Let me suggest a couple theories here.

Theory 1: Recovering from Injury

Here is how Asik’s season has gone so far this year. He started off by missing the first two games due to a sore calf, but he came back to play 10 minutes against Golden State, a pretty unfavorable match-up for him outside of Bogut. He then missed the next 3 games. After that he played 15 1/2 and a half minutes against Dallas, nearly 21 against Atlanta and just over 24 against Toronto.

At this point, things seem to be approaching normal. Asik was nearing his average for last season after seeing increased playing time in three consecutive games, despite Atlanta being coach Gentry’s example bad matchup for Asik. Then, Asik missed the next two games due to an illness. I don’t have any information about what made him sick, but I imagine that it had to be pretty awful to knock him out of 2 games. That brings us to our 2 most recent games against the Spurs and Suns. Omer played less than 15 minutes in both, but did see a slight increase in the second game against Phoenix.

At any rate, the point is that Gentry could have limited Asik’s minutes the last two games to work him back in to the system as he recovered. Again, we’ve only seen Asik play 7 times this year, and his longest string of consecutive games played is currently at 4. It is a bit too early to tell exactly what his happening, but recovering from the injuries and getting back in shape could be at least a partial explanation.

Theory 2: The Unintended Consequences of Darren Erman

This off-season, the Pelicans hired coach Darren Erman to improve and install a new defensive system. Early in the season, it was hard to find results, but lately things have been steadily improving. We’ve specifically seen a few individual players make a leap. As the system continues to click, we should expect those improvements to continue.

This improvement may have had a direct impact on Asik. From what we’ve seen this season, the opportunity cost of playing Omer Asik is playing Ryan Anderson. In other words, when Asik is playing, the cost is that we don’t have Ryan Anderson’s offense, and when Anderson is on the floor, we miss Asik’s defense.

At the risk of being reductive, Ryan Anderson has looked like a man possessed on offense and has shown signs of improvement the last few games on defense. If Ryan improves as a defender, then there aren’t as many benefits to playing Asik. Also, if Ryno plays better on offense, then the costs of playing Asik are greater.

Again, I’ve clearly oversimplified matters, and there are points that can be argued in this section. After all, it is only a theory. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ryan Anderson has played very well over the last few games. When Ryno is on his game, Asik will see less time on the court. It’s just that simple.

Looking Forward

Omer Asik’s contract certainly deserves to be discussed, but the larger short-run issue is what is happening on the court. By the end of the season, I think Omer Asik will settle in to a 20 minute per game type of role. I think he’ll see more playing time against teams with traditional centers, and I expect him to play limited minutes against teams that play small. I’m not sure how Pelicans fans would react to that outcome, but I imagine we won’t care much if this team continues to win.

The reality is that we’ve only seen 7 games from Omer Asik and only 14 from coach Gentry. Many of the best coaches experiment and tweak their rotations for weeks into the regular season. Perhaps, we should give Gentry that right, if for no other reason than the injuries.

Still, the Asik situation is one worth keeping a close eye. He was clearly brought back with the intent of playing a significant role. So far, his playing time has been limited, and if he isn’t playing, it is hard to see a return on his contract. For the time being, let’s just wait and see.

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