The Minnesota Timberwolves struck gold when they signed Andrei Kirilenko over the offseason. Not only did they gain a veteran voice in the locker room, but they managed to acquire one of the best stat stuffers in the game.
Every team in the NBA spends their offseason trying to get that player that will come in and make a difference. The Wolves were immensely lucky that Kirilenko could come in and make one right off the bat, especially after spending the entire 2011-12 season in Russia.
The argument could be made that he didn't contribute enough to be credited with saving the T-Wolves first month of the season.
Is that true though? Is he just a solid player, and not much else?
To answer that, check out the stats that he has put up so far in the season. With 13.0 points per game (PPG) and 7.8 rebounds per game (RPG), he’s been the anchor of the team—and I’m counting the games that Kevin Love has been a part of.
Still though, it’s not like 13 PPG and 7.8 RPG really jump out at you. His defensive numbers of 1.8 blocks per game (BPG) and 1.5 steals per game (SPG) are nice, but one player’s defensive stats aren’t necessarily going to make or break a team.
Also, the efficiency rating isn't the ultimate indication of how good a player truly is, but Kirilenko’s has been very solid at plus-19.15.
So what exactly makes Kirilenko the reason that the team won at all without Kevin Love?
Put simply, Andrei Kirilenko is the ultimate team player. No, his stats are not going to jump out at you. His 13 PPG and 3.3 APG aren’t the greatest, but they have a massive impact on how the opposing team will sketch out their game plan.
We’ve seen that on display in the first month of the season, when superstars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio missed substantial time with injuries.
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His impact is huge on both sides of the ball. For one, he was the best rebounder on the team while Love recovered. And, as good as they might be, big men Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are definitely not known for being shot blockers or even being able to keep opposing teams out of the paint. The defensive presence that Kirilenko provides is capable of keeping opponents from scoring under the rim, which is huge.
Kirilenko has missed just one game this season against the Los Angeles Clipper on Wednesday night. For any of those that watched that game, is was obvious how much the Wolves lacked without his presence on the court. There weren’t any true shot-blockers in the starting lineup, so the Clippers made a point of getting to the rim early and often (they finished with 54 points in the paint).
On offense, the Wolves remained stagnant even when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were forced to ride the bench due to foul trouble in the third quarter.
Kirilenko’s replacement, Josh Howard, finished the game with seven points and three rebounds in 26 minutes. Derrick Williams was mostly ineffective in his first opportunity to play serious minutes since Kevin Love returned from injury, ending up with four points on 2-of-5 shooting.
The chemistry of the team was in disarray as well, especially in regards to the performance of Alexey Shved.
The game against the Clippers is the ultimate example of how badly the Wolves truly needed him through the injury-plagued first month, and will continue needing him if they wish to go far in the playoffs.
It’s easy to see then, just how bad the Wolves could have been if they had not made a point of going after Kirilenko. Without Love and Rubio (also Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy, J.J. Barea, and Nikola Pekovic), Kirilenko managed to keep the team competitive.
Without Kirilenko, it would have been substantially more difficult for the Wolves to have been able to keep their head above water at all. Take for example, the game against the Indiana Pacers in early November, when Kirilenko found a cutting Chase Budinger for the easy layup to take the lead with just 0.8 seconds remaining on the clock.
That play epitomizes Kirilenko's leadership, even if he didn't score the basket himself. He drew the defensive attention to himself, and then found a wide open teammate for the win.
The duo of Alexey Shved and Kirilenko has also been huge, as the two have great chemistry after already having spent the last year in Russia playing together. That chemistry is highly beneficial, since Shved is one of the few outside threats left standing for the Wolves.
Despite having such massive injury problems, the Timberwolves stayed competitive. In fact, they were 5-4 before Love returned. That’s not saying that Love is causing the team to lose, but it does speak to the fact that the team plays well when Kirilenko is leading the charge.
Even when the team is back to full strength, it would still be wise for the Timberwolves to treat Kirilenko as the team leader. Through the first month of the season, he was the only reason that they were able to keep their heads above water.