Expect to see lots of trade rumors involving Alexis Ajinca soon. Many fans may think of him as an afterthought, but there’s an argument to be made that the big man should be an essential piece for the remainder of his contract in New Orleans.
Hear me out.
The 7’-2’’ Frenchmen, 29, is entering the third year of a 4-year, $20M deal that many have questioned; is a third-string, or backup-at-best, center worth that much cash? Well, $5 million isn’t what it used to be, and the team surrounding him has been altered drastically.
This past season, Ajinca averaged about five points and four rebounds per game with what was his best personal foul rate of his career when factoring in his minutes played.
Getting on the floor for New Orleans was problematic for the big guy: in the middle of the season, Ajinca didn’t play in 22 out of 23 games, logging a short appearance against the Brooklyn Nets on January 12. It was around this time that Ajinca told a French reporter of his dissatisfaction with his playing time, and who can blame the guy? He signed a deal that he thought would slot him in as Nola’s backup, a mid-range scoring option to counter Omer Asik’s dreadful offensive game.
Parsing the language of a google translation leads to awkward sentence structure, but you can come away comforted with Ajinca’s knowledge of how the league works:
“[A]t all times, even at the warm-up, I try to go 100%. I have to stay very pro [note: this may mean him saying he must “stay very professional”] because everyone talks in the league. If a franchise [asks], they will ask how I behave when I do not play. So we can not have certain attitudes like being angry with the coach or others even if we are frustrated and annoyed."
I’m certainly not privy to each interaction that Ajinca had with his teammates and don’t know if he’s generally considered to be a great “locker room guy,” but if he’s at least keeping his head down, working hard, and helping younger players along, he may have value as the team’s best option as a backup center.
At least until the team can figure out if Cheick Diallo can handle minutes on a consistent basis.
Too Many Cooks Will Spoil the Broth
Ajinca originally signed in 2013 figuring that that the team’s superstar, Anthony Davis, was going to play power forward, and Ajinca could compete for the team’s minutes at center; he was still just 25 at the time, having played professionally both in the NBA and abroad. Big guys typically take awhile to develop, so maybe he could find himself starting next to a burgeoning superstar for the prime of his career!
But in the past couple of years, the landscape has changed dramatically, costing players like Ajinca (and Asik) playing time and future money. Late-game minutes typically go to 4-out, 1-in lineups, thus moving the Brow to center in crunch time. In the 2017 NBA Finals, LeBron James played plenty of time at center, for example.
In 2013-14, Ajinca played 56 games, starting 30 of them, and played a career-high 17 minutes per game. His foul rate, Ajinca’s defining characteristic in his early years, was still a problem though, and guys like Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey were able to steal away some minutes -- this was a missed opportunity for Ajinca while Ryan Anderson was out with his scary neck injury. Once Asik came to town, Ajinca was a regular reserve playing 68 games in 14-15, and he’s been just one of many options on the bench ever since, starting occasionally and picking up spare minutes wherever possible — this very season saw the re-brith of Terrence Jones, while Ajinca took more DNPs.
We haven’t even felt the full impact of the DeMarcus Cousins trade yet, but needless to say, Boogie and the Brow are likely to own major minutes at the 4 and 5 in coming seasons. After Cousins arrived at the All-Star break, Ajinca’s minutes stayed spotty other than garbage time and Cousins-less games. Of course, Omer Asik’s sickness (just 3 GP in the last 51) provided an opening, but there isn’t much time to be had when you’ve got two superstars in the pivot.
Even through all of this time spent with warmups on and floated in trade rumors, Ajinca might finally find more time.
The Big 2 and everybody else
I’m up here in B1G country, where, for decades upon decades, Big Ten Football has been known for two national title contending programs: Ohio State and Michigan. Sure, Michigan State or Wisconsin or Iowa (even Illinois, like twice) would pop in every once in awhile, but the league was, and still is, defined by those two programs.
Can Alexis Ajinca be our Drew Brees-era Purdue?
Look across the entire NBA and picture what happens when the court is full of backups - those 12-18 minutes per night are huge and can lift teams to 50-plus wins or bring them down to 35. Minutes without Russell Westbrook severely hurt the OKC Thunder; any minute without LeBron was like the Cavs playing Russian roulette; the Kawhi-less Spurs had no chance against the Warriors, a team that seemingly always has two All-Stars on the floor at all times no matter what.
So, what’s going to happen when AD is on the floor without Cousins? Or when Cousins is out there with no Davis? How about if they happen to both sit at the same time? These crucial minutes are when Ajinca needs to produce turnaround 12-footers and hold the fort defensively around the rim. If his foul rate continues to improve and he takes shots he can make, and the team’s new coaches figure out ways to use two bigs, expect more consistent production from Ajinca.
Advanced stats show some good and some bad.
First, the bad: his rebound rate has decreased since 2014-15, as has his TrueShooting%, his assist-to-turnover ratio, and NetRtg. Meanwhile, he’s showing mixed numbers in terms of where his shots come from. This season, he took more shots at the rim than last season and made more there than ever before, firing 71 percent on shots inside 3 feet. Additionally, he made 58 percent of shots between 10-16 feet, which is amazing, but was pretty poor from 3-10 feet. He set a career-high in percentage of shots that were assisted and had more of his points come in the paint than most of his prior seasons, too.
Who knows what it all means moving forward, but I’m sure Gentry feels comfortable with Ajinca facing up with an open jumper from the free throw line if that’s the last option on any one possession. The real question is how he’ll be used next to Cousins or Davis when one of the stars takes a seat.
Anthony + Alexis = All Arms
Ajinca played just 14 minutes with DeMarcus Cousins, so there’s nothing to learn from that combo.
After the Cousins trade, Ajinca joined AD on the floor for just 66 minutes and the team had an OffensiveRTG of 103.7 points per 100 possessions, not great, which included poor shooting numbers. But the team posted an outstanding DefensiveFTG of 87.4 points per 100 possessions with AD+Ajinca patrolling the paint, including strong defensive numbers on shots in mid-range, which makes sense with all the arms everywhere from those two. This is small sample size theater, though, so we’ll see if this continues, assuming regular time for Ajinca as the third big.
More generally, Ajinca has joined Davis for 635 minutes since the beginning of the 2014-15 season. In that time:
When the pair hit the floor together, the Pels are holding teams to 41.8 percent shooting, with a 50.2 TrueShooting% and 102.4 points per 100 possessions. In that time, teams have shot 58 percent at the rim, but just around 35% from all other 2-point shots and just around 30 percent from the 3-point line. (NBAwowy: ygdvnesd069)
On offense: 108.6 points per 100 possessions, which means about a plus-6 rating with those two on the floor at the same time. The Pelicans shoot a much higher percentage from mid-range than their opponents, which makes sense, making 48 percent from 10-15 feet and 40 percent from 16+ feet, and a 5 point percentage advantage from the 3-point line, too.
Time after time, Alexis Ajinca figured as the best big man option off the bench, in part due to major injury problems that continually hampered Pelicans depth. Time and time again, he failed to take full advantage. Such is the life of a backup; sometimes you play, sometimes you don’t. In the end, his future will be based on his fit with one of the two stars, which is still developing.
I say for his price, Diallo likely needing more developmental time, and New Orleans not able to replace his production given their salary cap restraints, giving Ajinca another shot at the start of the 2017-18 season is far from the worst idea.