The Secret Ingredient of the Nets' Title Hopes and Popularity? Andrei Kirilenko
NEW YORK — Andrei Kirilenko's offseason was not going as planned.
David Kahn, the Minnesota Timberwolves' president of basketball operations, was planning to offer Kirilenko a lucrative, long-term deal after the 2012-13 season, but in early May, Kahn's option was not exercised. Then, when Flip Saunders replaced Kahn, the former Timberwolves coach "had other visions" for the team (and later went after Kevin Martin "very early" in free agency, according to Kirilenko's agent).
Those factors—related to Bleacher Report by the agent, Marc Fleisher—led Kirilenko to opt out of the final year of his Timberwolves contract, which would've paid him $10 million in 2013-14. Instead, he sought a sign-and-trade opportunity. Two potential suitors initially surfaced, the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, but the Spurs inevitably had "limited pieces," according to Fleisher, and the Warriors made Andre Iguodala their priority.
With sign-and-trade options dwindling for Kirilenko, one of the most attractive free agents, Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King sent Fleisher a text message in the first week of July to feel out his client's interest. The Nets had already missed out on free agent Kyle Korver and on reaching a buyout agreement with Bojan Bogdanovic's team overseas.
Even though the highest amount the Nets could offer was the mini mid-level exception of $3.18 million, way below Kirilenko's asking price, King wanted to see if the 32-year-old would bite. Perhaps the Nets' new terrific trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, plus the connection to fellow Russian and team owner Mikhail Prokhorov—along with the large Russian population in Brooklyn—would entice Kirilenko to sign.
But the 12-year veteran was quick in his response. "No," he said to Fleisher, who was not surprised.
"We never thought of Brooklyn," Fleisher said. "We knew they had no real money, and Andrei walked away from $10 million in Minnesota."
At the time, Kirilenko was in serious discussions with three non-playoff teams for bigger salaries, Fleisher said. But King was persistent, and two days later he texted Fleisher again with an offer.
Kirilenko put more thought into it, especially after talking to his former Utah Jazz teammate Deron Williams. Kirilenko was intrigued about teaming up with Williams again. And, Williams said, the Nets point guard suggested to Kirilenko that he sign for less money for one season.
Kirilenko then came back to Fleisher with a stunning decision.
"Andrei and his wife (Masha) talked it over, and then he said, 'I'm going to do it,'" Fleisher said. "It came as a complete shock to me after he showed no willingness even the day before. He basically thought that while he wasn't opposed to making more money, it came down to playing for a competitive team that could win a title. Also, his wife is in the fashion industry, and New York is great for that."
Initially, the Nets offered Kirilenko a three-year contract in the mini mid-level range, but Fleisher negotiated one for two years—with a player option for the second year—to give his client potential flexibility in the open market next summer.
Welcome to the Nets
With the signing of Kirilenko, the Nets landed one of the biggest financial steals in NBA history. In fact, being that the acquisition was almost too impressive, the league investigated it but found nothing the Nets did against the rules.
On Monday, when it was time to officially announce the full Nets roster, several of the players beamed about Kirilenko. Both Garnett and Williams, two of the main stars on the team, called Kirilenko "a huge signing."
"I'm excited about playing with Andrei," Williams said. "What he brings to this team is going to be unmatched. He's always been a guy that can just fill up a stat sheet, does it on both ends of the floor and can play so many different positions for us that he'll be so key for us."
During Monday's media-day events at the Barclays Center, a lot of the talk centered on the team's offensive versatility—about how new head coach Jason Kidd can play an assortment of lineups and any five players on the court can score.
Not only is Kirilenko a 12-points-per-game career scorer, but he's also arguably the team's most well-rounded defender. With the ability to play positions 2 through 5, the former All-Defensive First Team member held his man to 0.794 points per play last season, according to Synergy Sports—one of the better marks in the league based on 400 minimum plays guarded.
"Andrei is tremendous for us because it gives us depth at that position, it gives us another lockdown defender and another playmaker," Terry said. "People don't realize Andrei's skill set when it comes to offense, because he's so unselfish and he can handle the ball. And I think that's what makes him a great player in this league, and that's why he's been around as long as he has."
AK-47 Boosts the D
The benefit to having Kirilenko around, for starters, is that the Nets traded their best wing defender last season, Gerald Wallace, to the Boston Celtics. In addition, with Kirilenko anchoring the bench's perimeter defense and Pierce's minutes planning to be regulated, AK-47 will provide a much-needed defensive assist by keeping the opposing team's top wing scorer from having too much daylight during a game.
"Some of the guys like LeBron (James) and KD (Kevin Durant) need to get somebody on them full game, like just chase them and don't let them play the game they want to play," Kirilenko said. "I'm still going to run the floor, I'm still going to be hustling on the floor. That's the way I play basketball."
Because Kirilenko is 6'9" with an impressive 7'4" wingspan, foot speed, active hands, jumping ability and a high motor—he's averaged 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per game in his career—he has the physical tools to keep up with an All-Star like the long-armed and quick-footed Durant. He could also step in defensively for Garnett at power forward, as Kidd has mentioned he'd possibly like to sit him in the second game of a back-to-back.
In addition, Kirilenko is a successful tough-nosed player, an occasional trademark of standout Europeans who have transitioned well to the NBA. It's that physicality the Nets lacked at times last season, especially against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. In fact, reflecting on Game 7, Williams said, "We kind of were soft." Kirilenko, along with Garnett, will give the Nets a tenacious—and potentially contagious—personality on the court.
Overall, the Russian has the full package defensively.
"Physically with Kirilenko, the first thing that sticks out is his length," an NBA scout said. "In basketball, length is truly an asset, especially if you know how to use it. He's wiry and athletic with good footwork, so it allows him to be versatile and guard different players.
"Next is his willingness to defend. Much of defense is simply wanting to do it. He works at it and is an intelligent player, so all of those ingredients combined make him a major asset to the Nets. Any player that can defend pick-and-rolls and guard on the perimeter has major value in this league."
Home-Country Crowd in Brooklyn
Kirilenko has major value off the court as well. He recently spent four days in Russia, where he ran into many new Nets fans because of his association with the team. He's also experienced the same hoopla so far in Brooklyn with the many Russians living there. As Kirilenko talked about why playing for the Nets was "a great opportunity," he also got excited about the prospects of generating basketball interest in rich Russian areas.
"I think the Brooklyn Nets really became a home-based Russian team in Moscow, in Russia," he said. "All my friends, all the people around are asking a lot of questions about it. They said, 'We changed our priorities. We're going to cheer for Brooklyn right now.' It's a very good buzz.
"There is a huge, huge community of Russians who live in Brooklyn. They're very excited, and I think it's very important that Brooklyn became a global brand rather than just being an American team. I think it's very important because the game of basketball right now has expanded so much."
On Monday, Terry, a former Sixth Man Award winner, was asked about being honored again in Brooklyn this season. While he got excited about his chances, he also made sure to include Kirilenko in the conversation. By season's end, Kirilenko could be the team's best role player on and off the court. And he only came with a price tag of $3.18 million. No one saw that coming.
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