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.
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:
Kirilenko one of the more underrated offseason signings. Making a difference w/ Nets. 7-3 in games he's played 6-0 when he plays 15+ min— NBA Guru (@NBAGuru) January 11, 2014
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:
Andrei Kirilenko on Jason Kidd's tie: "Burn that tie."— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) January 9, 2014
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:
In addition to drawing two O-fouls on LBJ, Kirilenko has won many crucial loose balls for the Nets tonight. What a valuable guy.— Beckley Mason (@BeckleyMason) January 11, 2014
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:
Angry LeBron now has OT to pull this one out. Side note: Amazing how many times Kirilenko gets his hands on a loose rebound or affects a REB— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) January 11, 2014
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.
"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:
LeBron threw two elbows at Kirilenko on that possession that weren’t called. He’s still steamed.— Brett Pollakoff (@BrettEP) January 11, 2014
Kirilenko can make that kind of impact every night—or 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 lineup—big, small, fast, slow or anything in between. If Kidd has any matchup questions, there's a good chance Kirilenko is part of the answer.
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.