What’s the Plan With Asik and Ajinca?

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Published: November 23, 2015

July 1st, 2015 will be a day that every Pelicans fan remembers fondly, because it was the day that Anthony Davis agreed to a five-year extension to stay with the team for the forseeable future. What few remember, though, is it was on that very same day that the Pelicans locked up two other big men – Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik. The reported numbers were a little higher at first, but after it was all said and done, we learned that Asik’s contract came in at 5 years/$58 million, with about $44 million guaranteed, while Ajinca signed for 4 years, $20.2 million, with $19.2 million guaranteed. At the very least, the Pelicans were committing $60 million to the two big men over the next four seasons, with the possibility of them getting more if they earned some unlikely bonuses.

In the first month of the season, the two have been used sparingly, and Ajinca has even received some healthy DNP’s – sometimes for a half, and last night, for the entire game. On the season, Asik is averaging 15.7 mpg and Ajinca is averaging 12.2, but many of those minutes have come when Asik was injured. In total, the Pelicans play a traditional “center” about 21 minutes per game when both are healthy. Anthony Davis is getting more minutes at center this year than ever before, with 244 of his 373 minutes coming without Perkins, Ajinca, or Asik on the court. Take out the games where Davis was hurt, and thus not able to play center, and the Pelicans are giving less than 20 minutes per game to Ajinca and Asik when all their bigs are healthy. So, basically, they gave $15 million a year to two guys who will play about 8% of the available minutes when everyone is healthy. They take up about 19% of the payroll, and play 8% of the minutes. And that’s before this team has even reached full health.

In the next 2-3 weeks, three key members of the Pelicans rotation are set to return, and they won’t be eating up minutes just from other small guys. Gentry loves playing with multiple ball handlers on the court, and that should mean some three guard lineups, which can steal even more time from the bigs. But let’s say that Asik and Ajinca’s minutes stay right around where they are. You are still committing nearly 20% of your most precious resource to a pair of guys that will contribute to 8% of the games outcome. Not ideal.

So, how did the Pelicans get here? What was the plan heading into those negotiations, and has it deviated since then? Is there a way for them to still get value on return for these deals, and how will it affect future transactions? Let’s tackle all that and more in this piece.

The Thought Process

The very first question I asked an ‘in the loop’ Pelicans source when Gentry was hired was, “What does this mean for Asik? Is he gone?” I was told that it is just the opposite, in fact. Gentry and the team saw him as a guy who could play the “Bogut role” for the Pelicans. Last year, Bogut was a starter for Golden State, who played about half the game and often didn’t finish games because of the matchup. The team saw Asik as a guy who would keep Davis from getting banged up and could be put in positions to be more effective offensively in a system that had more pace and space. Ajinca, meanwhile, was just an asset that the team had cultivated for the past few years and likely didn’t want to lose for nothing. The Pelicans really didn’t have any cap space this summer, but since they had Bird Rights on both players, they could go over the cap to sign them – something they could not do with other teams’ players.

The Denver Nuggets did something similar a few years earlier. They weren’t necessarily infatuated with Nene Hilario, but they did not want to lose him for nothing, so they signed him to a multi-year deal and traded him just months later for JaVale McGee. In theory, the idea makes sense, but there are a couple things that need to be pointed out:

  1. You never lose a player for nothing. You always gain something – whether it is flexibility or opportunity. Yes, the Pelicans wouldn’t have had the money to sign adequate centers this summer, but they would have had more flexibility in future years. Or, maybe they give the opportunity to multiple guys hungry for an opportunity and found the next Hassan Whiteside, or a big man version of Robert Covington or Patrick Beverly. Maybe they find the next Gustavo Ayon, or heck, Alexis Ajinca. Again, you never lose a player for “nothing.”
  2. Denver continued to give Nene huge minutes after they re-signed him, making him appealing to trade for. Who is going to want to trade for a guy making $10 million a year that is barely getting 15 minutes per game? In order to make somebody want your asset, you have to at least pretend you want him first. The Pelicans aren’t currently doing that with Asik or Ajinca

So, the initial thought process made a lot of sense. Every bad plan looks good on paper at some point, otherwise a person would never try it. People don’t set out to fail, with the exception of the Producers of ‘Springtime for Hitler’. But to date, this plan does not seem to be working out, and it is unlikely that things will turn around drastically any time soon. Luckily, with the cap going way up (more on this later), these contracts won’t be the death blow that they would have been years ago, but we are talking about ideal here. Something being “not terrible” is never a reason to excuse it. In a league where only 1 out of 30 really “wins” at the end of the day, you need a bunch of “ideal” and very few “not terribles”

So, What Happened?

One thing that might have turned everything on its head is the play of Ryan Anderson. From the front office and coaching staffs point of view, they saw a guy coming off a bad season, where his defense was horrific and his offense was only good at home. How could you let your bigs go and put all your faith in Anderson to do a 180? But he has, and now that leaves Gentry with an enviable problem of having too many quality big men. Anderson and Davis are the Pelicans best weapons, and only help each other when they are on the court together. To compound that point, the Pelicans are terrible when you pair Anderson up with any other big, so if you have to put him on the court when AD is there, then that leaves very little time for a traditional center. Again, not the worse problem to have, but if the team would have anticipated this, they likely wouldn’t have signed both bigs.

Injuries, and the inability for either Asik or Ajinca to have a full training camp likely factored into the equation as well. Both started off the season physically and mentally behind, while Anderson and Davis have been there day in and day out, practically. With the team desperate for any win they can get, Gentry doesn’t have the time to experiment as much as he would like, and this has likely cost the two bigs some opportunities as well. Can Asik and Anderson work together with the right guards and wings around them? Maybe, but Gentry doesn’t have time to experiment, he has to win games now. That luxury is gone.

So, a number of positive and negative factors have come together  in these last two months that have kept the Pelicans from using the two bigs the way they likely envisioned back in June when they were thinking out loud about the deals they wanted to offer them. This happens in every business – you go in with a plan, and then life happens. It all made sense on paper, but that paper has been shredded by unlikely circumstances.

How to Best Maximize the Two

Gentry has said that both bigs will be matchup dependent, and against a team like Atlanta, they likely won’t play much at all. When teams go small, Ajinca and Asik are more detrimental than they are beneficial. They can’t make opposing teams pay for going small nearly as much as a guy like Horford can make Asik pay from the perimeter. Ajinca is, at his core, a jump shooter on the offensive end and Asik likely wouldn’t get a post feed if he was defended by a point guard. So, that leaves them playing almost solely against more traditional centers, but here’s the thing – there are fewer and fewer of those guys in the league every year.  Looking at Asik’s game log, he got the most minutes this year against Toronto (Valanciunas) and played the least against Golden State. What is really weird, is that opposing teams seem to be more than happy to play small against the Pelicans, as Tim Duncan, Robin Lopez, and Tyson Chandler all got well below their season averages in minutes against New Orleans. Teams could force Asik back into the game, theoretically, but haven’t. That might change.

There are also teams that the Pelicans have yet to face that the services of Ajinca and Asik will likely be needed. Asik was vital last season in wins over Sacramento (Cousins) and Detroit (Drummond). Ajinca always seems to do well against the Clippers (Jordan), and the Pelicans still have 8 games scheduled with Memphis (Gasol) and Houston (Howard). They get Brook Lopez, Jahlil Okafor, Al Jefferson, Marcin Gortat, and Whiteside twice. Karl Anthony Towns will be a force this year and for years to come. So, perhaps there is a need for these two. We just haven’t seen it yet.

Cost Worth The Benefit?

As I said, you never lose a player for nothing. Eventually, the money that is given to said player or players could be used to serve some other purpose. While the cap is going up the next two years, and the Pelicans will have some flexibility, they could have had more. $22 million in cap space could have been $36 million. Now, the Pelicans might be in the same position with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson next year, where the best value that they might be able to get in free agency will be to re-sign their own players because they can go over the cap to do that. The sins of 2015 spill over into 2016, and you keep kicking the can down the road. With $36 million in cap room, you can probably give one of those guys market value and find a better fit for the other. Say, keep Ryno and sign Nic Batum to replace Gordon. But with $22 million in cap space, you likely couldn’t get a decent player if you let one walk – so why not re-sign both instead of “losing one for nothing?”

This is the danger in the strategy. You keep compounding mistakes to make up for last summer. Or maybe you have to surrender an asset to unload Asik and just cut your losses. Either way, the situation is not ideal. The best that we can hope for is that some team takes on one or both of these contracts and gives back nothing in return. Effectively, you would have rented these players to get through this year and have the space down the road anyway. That would be the “not terrible” outcome. But don’t fool yourself, there is no realistic outcome that is ideal.

Conclusion

In a lot of ways, Dell Demps was stuck in between a rock and a hard place. With the success of last year and the excitement of bringing in a new coach to help take the team to the next level, it would have been nearly impossible for the roster to take a step backwards in order to possibly make it better in 2016 and beyond. And if Dell would have let Asik and Ajinca walk, there is no way he could have replaced them with comparable players. And if Ryno hadn’t returned to form, the front court could have been a nightmare. It is easy to look at these moves now and questioned what Dell was thinking in July, but when you understand where the franchise was at that very moment, it is even harder to imagine him just letting them walk.

The likelihood is that neither men ever live up to their contracts from a value perspective. Even with the cap going way up, and the two only combining to eat up approximately 11-14% of the teams cap space over the next 3 seasons, they are unlikely to ever get 11-14% of the team’s total minutes. They are unlikely to ever contribute 11-14% of win shares, etc. etc. People might say that they are moveable, citing that a contract like Asik’s will have more value in a few years, seeing that it will only be the equivalent of what $6-7 million is right now, but would you give up an asset today for a guy making 6.5 million dollars, giving a team 15 minutes a game, that has no conceivable upside beyond where he currently is as a player? Guys getting similar minutes and production include: Nikola Jokic, Clint Capela,and Dewayne Dedmond, and those guys aren’t making $6.5 million this year COMBINED.

Omer Asik would have negative value on the trade market these next two years, meaning that if you want to move him, you are going to have to give the other team an asset to take him. Ajinca might be absorbed for nothing, but you aren’t getting an asset for him if you continue to use him this sparingly. Again, we can all see the logic,and it is in our best interest to hope for the best, but in all likelihood the best case scenario here is “not terrible.”

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