Don't Underestimate Andrei Kirilenko's Effect on Brooklyn Nets' Turnaround

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12:  Andrei Kirilenko #47 of the Brooklyn Nets stands on the court against the Detroit Pistons during a preseason game at the Barclays Center on October 12, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In an offseason defined by historically lavish spending, the move that raised eyebrows for its under-budget price tag could wind up as the Brooklyn Nets' savior.

Andrei Kirilenko's offseason signing made barely a blip on the basketball radar. In fact, the news came a little too quietly.

The 32-year-old inked a two-year, $6.5 million deal with the Nets this summer (including a $3.3 million player option for next season). What raised suspicion, though, was the fact he reached this agreement just weeks after opting out of the final year of his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that would have paid him $10 million.

After a thorough league investigation found no wrongdoing, the matter was swept under the rug.

But for the first few months of his Brooklyn tenure, it seemed as if that would be his defining moment with the Nets. A nagging back injury kept him sidelined for 26 of Brooklyn's first 30 games. When he made his fifth appearance of the year on Dec. 31, the Nets already owned a 10-20 record.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 8: Head Coach Jason Kidd, Deron Williams #8 and Andrei Kirilenko #47 of the Brooklyn Nets watch from the sideline against the Washington Wizards during the game at the Verizon Center on November 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Kirilenko was boarding a sinking ship. With Brook Lopez already lost to a broken foot and Deron Williams battling more ankle problems, the ship already seemed sunk.

In terms of a championship pursuit, it probably is. But Kirilenko has emerged as an unlikely life preserver, and the Nets have found out there's still some air left in their tanks.

His value is hard to quantify.

The box score labels him as forgettable, if it even remembers that he played. He's seeing less than 16 minutes of floor time. He doesn't have eye-popping numbers in any of the traditional categories: 6.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.6 steals.

What he lacks in stat-sheet impact, though, he more than makes up for in the win column:

He's looked more active and healthy lately than he has all season. Not coincidentally, the Nets are riding a five-game winning streak, with victories over the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat highlighting the surge.

Things are happening in Brooklyn, and not all of them have to do with Kirilenko.

Kevin Garnett is breathing new life into his frontcourt from the 5 spot. Paul Pierce has caught a second wind as a stretch 4. Coach Jason Kidd has cut ties out of his wardrobe and may never get them back:

But Kirilenko's impact as the ultimate glue guy has been hard to overstate.

He's the one keeping his sleeves rolled up and making all of the little plays:

The 12-year veteran has a keen understanding of where and when he's needed most.

"I love playing with him," Shaun Livingston said, via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. "He has all the intangibles you might say. ... He brings stuff you really can't put a value on."

Like great length and knowing how to use it at both ends.

He takes just 3.4 shots a night, but he's someone the defense constantly needs to watch. He's a scoring threat that never needs a play called for him. He moves well without the basketball and crashes the offensive glass (4.2 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes). If he can't get to a rebound, he at least keeps it active and gives his team a chance to track it down:

But he's always saved his best work for the opposite side of the floor, and this season has been no different.

He can harass an opposing offense just off his length and quickness alone. Throw in some veteran savvy, though, and suddenly you're left with the type of defender who can cause even four-time MVP LeBron James some frustration.

Jan 10, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) shoots over Brooklyn Nets small forward Andrei Kirilenko (47) during the second half at Barclays Center. The Brooklyn Nets won the game 104-95 in double overtime. Mandatory Credit:
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

"I thought Kirilenko flopped a few times," James said, via Roderick Boone of Newsday, after fouling out of Brooklyn's 104-95 double-overtime win over the Miami Heat on Friday. "To be honest, I thought he flopped a few times and he got the call."

Some might call it a taste of his own medicine. As far as getting under his skin, though, all would have to call Kirilenko's methods effective:

Kirilenko can make that kind of impact every nightor at least as long as his body holds up.

He can defend anywhere on the floor. His length is a problem for smaller, quicker players, and he's got enough fight that he won't be outmuscled by bigger bodies.

His ability to fill several different spots gives Kidd personnel versatility he didn't have before. Kirilenko can hold his own with any lineupbig, small, fast, slow or anything in between. If Kidd has any matchup questions, there's a good chance Kirilenko is part of the answer.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 10: Andrei Kirilenko #47 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles against Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat during a game at the Barclays Center on January 10, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Nets went searching for intangibles this summer. They thought they'd found what they needed in Garnett's intensity, Pierce's drive and the pair's toughness.

But something else was missing. Something this team couldn't find in its opening-round, seven-game loss to the undermanned Chicago Bulls last season.

Heart. Energy. Intelligence.

Kirilenko has them all. He's a cerebral player, a grinder and an elite-level talent all in one. He's still raising eyebrows—only these ones are rising for Brooklyn's resurrection.

The Nets' championship window will likely stay closed. Slowly but surely, though, they're finding their path out of the basement.

The lone clearance item, bad back and all, is naturally leading this extravagant group.