As of this writing, the New Orleans Pelicans have whittled their preseason roster down to 16 players. Robert Sacre and Shawn Dawson were waived on Friday and then Quinn Cook and Quincy Ford followed suit on Saturday. The expectation is that the final spot on the roster will be awarded to either Alonzo Gee or Lance Stephenson in the very near future.
Pelicans' final roster spot expected to come down to Alonzo Gee and Lance Stephenson. Deadline for a decision is Monday at 5 p.m.— Justin Verrier (@JustinVerrier) October 22, 2016
While this may still wind up the case, are we sure the front office doesn’t have another option?
To kick off the preseason, Alexis Ajinca was inserted into the starting lineup ahead of last year’s starter, Omer Asik, for the first two games. Then Ajinca was suddenly sidelined with back spasms in the team’s first game in China, and lo and behold Asik played 28 minutes, exploding for 14 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. To close out the exhibition schedule, Asik remained the starter and Ajinca came off the bench, though both appeared in limited minutes, but the cat appeared to be out of the bag.
Although their per 36 minute data mirrors one another, Asik noticeably made the greater impact. The Pelicans defense, ball movement and pace were all more favorable when the Turkish Hammer was on the floor. Asik has looked quicker, stronger and much more productive than at any time during the 2015-16 campaign. He’s even improved his free throw form and learned to kick out passes to open shooters on the perimeter!
So, why was Ajinca awarded the starting job out of training camp when it was clear as day that Asik, in his very first minute of action, resembled the player Dell Demps traded for two years ago? He had to have radiated a strong level of performance in the numerous practices before fans had a chance to see the results for themselves.
Further complicating this matter is the fact that I don’t believe Ajinca has earned a place in the regular rotation. Based on preseason play, Anthony Davis and Asik should start and then the two bigs off the bench should be Terrence Jones and Dante Cunningham. Alvin Gentry is adamant about playing quicker this season, the team is very interested in defensive versatility and most opponents favor a small-ball approach among reserve units.
Where does Ajinca fit into that equation? He is a lumbering, traditional center and did nothing in preseason to change the notion. He’s a viable player in this league, but not on New Orleans roster.
Now, here is where things get interesting. Jason over at Bourbon Street Shots hinted at the possibility that perhaps the Pelicans tried to showcase Ajinca during preseason play in order to raise his stock. This idea makes perfect sense and explains the thought gnawing in my mind over why the coaching staff elected to start a backup center who likely shouldn’t even be in the regular rotation at the start of regular season slate.
The Pelicans have three centers on the roster (Asik, Davis and Jones) without counting Ajinca. Gee and Stephenson can guard at least three positions, Ajinca only one. And with Tim Frazier, a backup point guard forced into the starting lineup — whose backup is currently Langston Galloway, a combo guard — Stephenson’s playmaking is a necessity until either Jrue Holiday or Tyreke Evans can return. No one has any idea when that could be; it could perhaps be as early as late November or sometime well after the New Year.
That’s too much of an unknown to leave up to chance for the New Orleans Pelicans — logic dictates they must keep the partially guaranteed contract. So between Gee and Ajinca, who stays?
Obviously, Gee makes the league minimum and he saw the least amount of time on the court, but I beg you to overlook these details for a minute. $1.4 million dollars is $1.4 million dollars, and he can’t be traded until December because new free agent signings can’t be moved until December 15th. Tom Benson would prefer to pay for services rendered, and the front office doesn’t want to end up looking foolish after handing Gee a contract just a few months ago. And Gee’s lack of minutes (9.2 per game) have no significant relevance. The Pelicans watched him for 1632 minutes last season, a player who has been in the league for 7 seasons. New Orleans knows full well what they have in him so allotting the experimental minutes elsewhere always made more sense.
Connecting the dots, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Ajinca has been on the trade market since sometime before the Pelicans opening game of the preseason. The question is whether there exists a market for him. Just quickly glancing around the league, there may exist several suitable destinations.
The Grizzlies have Marc Gasol, but little else behind him. After breaking a bone in his foot last year, Memphis, a playoff contender, would be wise to add a more dependable player than Brandan Wright, a walking injury risk, and Deyonta Davis, a raw rookie.
Perhaps the Brooklyn Nets could be convinced to take an interest in Ajinca. They are under the salary floor, and could potentially look to trade Brook Lopez later this season in order to jumpstart a much needed rebuild. However, expect a deal to the Nets or likely most other teams will cost a valuable future asset. The Pelicans are in a bind of wanting to reduce their roster size, and other teams know it so it’s going to cost them.
The Pelicans have less than 48 hours left before the roster must stand no greater than 15 players. I’d wager moving Alexis Ajinca in a trade that reduces the size of the roster could be the team’s first option. If Dell Demps can’t get a deal done — admittedly it wouldn’t be a surprise — then he is probably going to have to explain to Anthony Davis and the rest of the gang why a locker room favorite was sent packing.