Inside Skinny: Alexis Ajinca showcase?


The Dallas Mavericks are searching for ways to win in the temporary absence of Dirk Nowitzki and in the wake of the season-ending injury to Caron Butler. It's not going well.

Dallas is 2-6 since Dirk went down with a knee sprain, and they've looked like a team that will really struggle to score in half-court situations come playoff time. But that's no surprise considering three of their top four scorers are out.

The problem is that the Mavs know Butler isn't coming back. They feel pretty good Dirk will be fine. And Roddy B? Considering he has yet to play this season, I'm not sure where the confidence comes from. It's fine to be optimistic, but positivity is a tough thing to hang your hat on when you have championship aspirations.

One of the coaching tropes you've heard a million times is that injuries to rotation guys mean opportunities for someone else. That's what coach Rick Carlisle was alluding to after the game in regards to his decision to start Alexis Ajinca at power forward in Wednesday's loss to the Indiana Pacers. Ajinca played 14 minutes -- after playing 21 minutes in the previous seven games without Dirk -- and actually launched the Mavericks' first shot, from the elbow in the same offensive set that Mavs fans are accustomed to seeing Tyson Chandler get that same shot at the start of many games.

There was nothing particularly special about his 4 point/3 rebound game. Carlisle said Ajinca had been practicing well and that he felt like his ability to stretch the floor with his shot and utilize his length earned him some playing time. Shawn Marion had been starting at power forward with DeShawn Stevenson moving over to small forward during Dirk's absence. But the Pacers start a bigger small forward in Danny Granger, so the idea that Marion could check him as the three certainly made match-up sense.

But I couldn't help but think there was perhaps a little something extra involved in Ajinca's presence in the game. Because Dallas is an older team, there is a tremendous sense of urgency with this group of guys to try and win it all now. The Butler injury was obviously a devastating blow to those chances. But because he's in the last year of his deal and Dallas has a history of being aggressive on the trade market, there's plenty of discussion on talk radio and in cyberspace about the need for the Mavericks to make a move with Butler's expiring deal being a part of that discussion. But unless a team is doing a straight salary dump, the Mavs don't have a whole lot to offer on the trade front.

Cash? Low first-round picks? Dominique Jones? These aren't exactly blockbuster trade assets. Nice complementary chips -- sure. But not the crux of a solid deal.

I mentioned in last week's Inside Skinny that I had zero feel for Ajinca's game until I saw him up close upon his arrival in Dallas along with Chandler this past summer. What we've learned is that he's a solid athlete for a 7-footer with a nice outside touch comfortably stretching out to the short-porch corner 3. He's also in the last year of a deal making $1.5 million. He's only 22. The more you see him play, the more intrigued you become. Add it all together and that has value.

Teams that may be in trade discussions with the Mavericks right now need to see him play. He's not just a "throw-in." He has skills worth developing, but he's a project and -- as we mentioned in last week's column -- that ain't part of the program with a veteran team thinking about hardware.

Carlisle said it best after the game: "He's a young player that needs a shot." I agree, but when your MVP candidate power forward returns, I see those shots few and far between. Ajinca may have started strictly because Carlisle thought it gave Dallas the best shot to win that game.

But it also felt a little bit like a showcase. A showcase for a shot. Somewhere else.