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Alexis Ajinca's regression under Alvin Gentry has clouded his future with the New Orleans Pelicans

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After a semi-breakout in 2015, the Frenchman was nowhere to be found this season.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pelicans decided to make Alvin Gentry their head coach, the vision for the franchise was made clear: we're going to try our damn hardest to become like the Warriors, those ping-ping-ping passes being at the forefront rather than the dun-dun-dun sounds of overdribbling during the Monty Williams era.

That made the prospect of Ajinca, a large basketball player, even by NBA standards, return to New Orleans questionable. And yet, the front office decided to sign him to a 20M/4 year contract. Let's make something clear here: for a talented backup big like Ajinca, that's a steal in the booming salary cap. But you don't save anything if you don't use it. You didn't save $250 on a laptop you bought that originally costs $1000 but now sells for $750. No, you just spent $750.

Despite breaking out in a big way during the 2015 season, Ajinca was not able to make a seamless transition to the new head coach's system of pace and space. Yes, he possesses a decent midrange jumper and is a capable passer from the elbow, but that's it. Everything else about Ajinca just didn't fit and it often showed in his allotment of minutes.

He was slow -- the team played slower when he was on the court -- and he wasn't exactly Bogut-like. Ajinca wasn't a game changer on defense, he wasn't a brick wall on screens and he wasn't going to burn teams by staying at the elbow.

His biggest strength of scoring around the basket was taken away from him this season. Ajinca has proven most effective when he's operated near the rim, and with Anthony Davis on the roster and the mandate to space the floor, he was forced away from his meal ticket.

Instead, Ajinca spent more time playing as a pop guy on ball screens and handoffs instead of as a roll man this season. Just look at the differences between his shot charts from the past two seasons:

Ajinca shot chart 2015

Ajinca shot chart 2015 StatMuse

Ajinca shot chart 2016

Ajinca shot chart 2016

There's a clear change: more shots from midrange, especially from the elbow, and fewer shots near the rim and from that short baseline. Why the shift?

The main problem was the modification in scheme. Because of a more conservative approach that prioritized transition defense, the Pelicans did not elect to rebound their misses as much. After dominating that category in 2015, ranking 4th in the league (27.1% ORB%), they finished 24th (21.2%). No one's numbers were more affected than Ajinca's. His offensive rebounding numbers dropped by 3 basis points (from 12.4% to 9.3%). For someone who relies so much on scoring off putbacks, that's a sizeable decrease. That decrease in his offensive rebounding output meant a decrease in scoring opportunities (he had 79 scoring opportunities off an offensive rebound in 2015. He only had 40 in 2016).

A second item responsible for Ajinca's decrease in efficiency was surrounding personnel. He not only played with a different group but new strategic roles became problematic. Here's the breakdown of who he played with in 2015:

Player MP w/ Ajinca % of Ajinca's Minutes
Cunningham 514 53.9%
Evans 385 40.4%
Cole 384 39.9%
Gordon 377 39.5%
Anderson 344 35.7%
Pondexter 333 34.8%
Babbitt 278 29.0%
Davis 220 23.0%
Fredette 195 20.4%
Rivers 184 19.2%
Douglas 118 12.3%
Holiday 83 8.7%
Asik 82 8.6%

And here's a similar table for 2016:

Player MP w/ Ajinca % of Ajinca's Minutes
Cunningham 420 48.8%
Douglas 357 41.5%
Gee 346 40.2%
Holiday 329 38.2%
Anderson 300 34.8%
Gordon 260 30.2%
Babbitt 223 25.9%
Cole 198 23.0%
Davis 187 21.7%
Frazier 153 17.8%
Smith 137 15.9%
Evans 132 15.3%
Ennis 109 12.7%
Asik 101 11.7%

The biggest thing you'll notice is how much Ajinca played with Alonzo Gee (a non-threat from deep). In 40% of Ajinca's minutes, he played with Gee. Not surprisingly, Ajinca's shooting efficiency went down in those minutes (42.6% eFG with Gee vs 51% eFG without) and his shot chart drastically changed.
Ajinca % of shots (by distance) With Gee Without Gee
0-3 ft 27.9% 32.3%
4-9 ft 21.3% 20.8%
10-15 ft 11.5% 9.9%
16+ ft (2PT) 37.7% 36.5%

Ajinca FG% (by distance) With Gee Without Gee
0-3 ft 58.8% 69.4%
4-9 ft 30.8% 37.5%
10-15 ft 14.3% 47.4%
16+ ft (2PT) 47.8% 44.3%

Those are some pretty damning numbers and I'd wager playing alongside Gee and Cunningham, who primarily stood behind the three-point line, had opposing defenses collapsing closer to the team's bigs. Yes, the defense DID improve with Gee (supported by both the numbers and by the eye test), but the effect Gee had on the offense wasn't worth whatever gains on defense. That's true for Ajinca (and probably for a number of other players).

The other significant thing I'd like to mention was the huge decrease in minutes played with Tyreke Evans. Evans, the king of the Kobe Assist (now that the real Kobe is retired), played in far fewer minutes thanks to injury. Holiday, for all the good he's done this season, isn't Tyreke in that regard. He doesn't draw as much attention when he's slashing (because Tyreke likes to drive fast and strong, Jrue goes in meticulously).

All this talk about offensive rebounding and shots near the basket led Ajinca to draw fewer free throw attempts, further depressing his already nose-diving efficiency. Last season, Ajinca recorded a lot of career-highs: eFG, TS and PER, to name a few. All of those took a sizeable dip this season. The one thing that made Ajinca good (his offense), suddenly doesn't seem so good (if you look at overall season numbers).

Was this all Ajinca's fault? Probably not. Ajinca, when played in the right context (i.e. with a lot of good players), is still good, probably worth the contract he just signed last summer. All players play better when the system fits their strengths. That is truer (more true?) for role players like Ajinca. They need the right kind of system and the right set of players to make a positive impact.

Which begs the question: if the Pelicans management is dead set on replicating facets of the "pace and space" offense that has made waves the past few seasons, is there still a spot for Ajinca on the roster? Especially considering Omer Asik's similarly lengthy contract and a much more pronounced decrease in box score productivity? I say no. Add that to the fact that Ajinca's on a cap-friendly contract, making him one of the few trade assets the Pelicans possess, and I think the answer is pretty clear: Ajinca's time as a Pelican may be coming to a close.

His 2016 season was a huge disappointment if you look plainly at the box score. But in this day and age, with fans (like us) having access to both the games (thanks League Pass) and to a lot of stats (thanks NBAWowy, NBA stats and Basketball Reference), we should be way past that. Ajinca's season was forgettable, like he was for long stretches this season. But his abilities are very much still intact. Whether he's still wearing a Pelicans uniform when the 2017 season is anyone's guess. If he does leave, all we can say is: au revoir mon ami!