The Brooklyn Nets have completely altered the franchise's direction thanks to Mikhail Prokhorov's apparent disdain for the salary cap, but there are still a few decisions that need to be made. One is simple: Start Paul Pierce and let Andrei Kirilenko function as the sixth man.
These two small forwards were two of Brooklyn's biggest acquisitions during the early portion of the summer. A draft-night agreement, one finalized after the moratorium was lifted, sent Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets for a handful of players and draft picks.
At that point, there were concerns over depth, especially given the ridiculous average age of the starting lineup. However, Prokhorov assuaged those fears by giving Billy King free reign to spend as much money as he could.
King responded by re-signing Andray Blatche, adding Shaun Livingston and then bringing in Kirilenko for a deal so ridiculously beneficial to the Nets that it drew some raised eyebrows from the rest of the NBA.
So much for a lack of depth.
Now there are novel questions about the Nets' championship aspirations: Can Jason Kidd successfully coach a new group of players, especially when some are only a little less experienced than himself? Will the age of this team be problematic in the postseason? Should Kirilenko start over Pierce?
Let's tackle that last question here.
For three main reasons, the answer is a definitive no.
More Opportunities to Build Chemistry
Quite simply, Paul Pierce is better than Andrei Kirilenko, which means that he's going to end up playing in crunch-time situations.
Let's take a look at their per-game stats during the 2012-13 season:
While AK-47 is the more versatile player who shoots more efficiently and records more of the glamor stats on defense, he still isn't on Pierce's level offensively. The Truth creates far more points, both with his scoring and his passing, and he's managed to maintain a significantly higher PER than his Russian counterpart, despite spending more time on the court.
Additionally, Pierce plays some of the most underrated defense in the NBA, which helps negate any defensive advantage the average fan might think Kirilenko possesses.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Timberwolves allowed only 0.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Kirilenko was on the court. Boston allowed 1.9 less when Pierce played, and the overall mark was lower as well.
Of course, that stat is by no means the only one that matters. But across the board, whether looking at individual defense, team defense or the eye test, Pierce measures out as a plus defender.
So, why does it matter that Pierce is better? The better player doesn't always have to be the one in the starting lineup, as James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha proved a few years ago with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Nets aren't afforded the same luxury that the Thunder were back then; they have to win right now before their crucial pieces get too old. Building chemistry as quickly as possible isn't just important, but rather imperative.
There's no better way to build chemistry between your best players than by letting them play together, and Pierce will inevitably spend more time with the starters if he's, well, a starter.
Pierce Spaces the Court More
Some might have concerns about Pierce's ability to fit in with three other players who need the ball, but I have the opposite view. Playing alongside Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez will allow Pierce to use his spot-up strengths and help space the court even more.
As Pierce ages, his athleticism declines.
Sorry, but that's not breaking news. It happens to even the best athletes, and Pierce has never truly been in that category.
The more he sticks to shooting jumpers, the more effective he'll be at this stage of his career.
During the 2012-13 season, Pierce hit 36.9 percent of his jumpers from behind the three-point arc, and 92.3 percent of his makes were assisted. When he moved in to a closer range, 16 to 23 feet, those numbers changed to 37.9 and 41.2, respectively.
It's that last number that needs to go up more than anything else, and it would playing alongside four other great scorers. The long two-pointer is the least efficient shot in basketball, so that's what would be cut out of Pierce's repertoire. No more would he be asked to fire away off the dribble, but he'd instead shift a few feet back and wait for open three-pointers.
While the small forward's scoring numbers would go down, his efficiency would skyrocket. And that's what the Nets are looking for.
Perimeter shooting is one of the few weaknesses in Kirilenko's game, and he'd be forced to either stand on the perimeter without drawing as much defensive attention or clog up the middle of the court. Given D-Will's penchant for pick-and-roll sets, as well as Lopez and Garnett's affinity for mid-range jumpers, AK-47 might just get in the way.
If this article has made it seem like Kirilenko isn't valuable, that's not the intention at all. In fact, his versatility, arguably his biggest calling card, is what makes him the perfect candidate for a sixth-man role.
According to 82games.com, the Russian forward spent the 2012-13 season jumping all over the court, partially due to the fact that no one could stay healthy. He played 31 percent of the available minutes at small forward and 19 percent at power forward. While he played so sparingly at shooting guard and center that he's listed at zero percent, he did dabble at each position.
Pierce doesn't have the same ability to jump around from position to position, shifting his game so that he can form chemistry with the other four players on the court regardless of the names on the back of their jerseys.
He also lined up at four different positions, but three were done quite infrequently and the minutes were heavily, heavily skewed toward small forward.
AK-47 won't be the typical sixth man who's limited to coming on when a certain player needs a rest. He can capably fill in for either Pierce or Garnett, and if the need arises, he can play a few minutes in place of Lopez while KG shifts over to center.
Plus, given Joe Johnson's ridiculous handles, he might even be able to play small forward while Joe and Pierce slide over to the backcourt and give Williams a rest.
Not many players can come onto the court as relief regardless of which starter needs a breather, and that's precisely why Kirilenko is so perfect as a sixth man.
This isn't an unfortunate situation where one player has to be relegated to a bench spot. Instead, it's a promising one because Pierce is best served as a starter who builds chemistry and spaces the court while AK-47's versatility makes him the ideal sixth man.
The only danger is that Pierce might spend time on the ground whenever Johnson is dribbling the ball.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.
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