Seeking a longer-term deal, last Saturday 32-year-old Andrei Kirilenko opted out of the final year of his deal with the Timberwolves (that was set to pay him $10.2 million in 2013-14) to become an unrestricted free agent.
Kirilenko spent the first 10 seasons of his NBA career with the Jazz before playing the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season for CSKA Moscow. He returned to the NBA last season with the Timberwolves, posting averages of 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds (both were his highest since 2005-06) while shooting 50.7% from the floor.
Although he never lived up to the max-contract extension he signed in 2004, Kirilenko remains a fan-favorite in Utah and given the Jazz’s considerable capspace as well as their front office’s penchant for bringing back former players – it only seems logical that a return to the Jazz would be a possibility.
What He Brings:
At his very best (2003-2006), Kirilenko was a fill-in-the-blanks Swiss army knife who was one of the league’s most unique talents. At 6-9 with athleticism and long arms, he was a defensive monster who blocked shots and racked up steals all over the court with his incredible range. Offensively he was a creative playmaker and gifted passer who particularly excelled in the open-court. He could pass from the high-post or off the bounce and made energy and hustle plays that got his team extra possessions and denied his opponents easy baskets.
After consecutive seasons averaging over 3 blocks per game in 2004-05 and 2005-06, Kirilenko’s blocks have steadily declined in each subsequent season to a career-low 1.0 in 2012-13. At age 32, he’s no longer the disruptive defensive player he once was although he still has enough length and athleticism to be a solid defender and back-side shotblocker.
AK remains an above-average passer (particularly from the high-post), and also is still a sub par perimeter shooter (has only shot better than 34% on threes twice in career). Nevertheless with his length and skill he’s a double-figure scorer and on a team with an effective half-court offensive system – a high percentage FG shooter. Although he’s been a starter most of his career, during his final two seasons in Utah he willingly accepted an off-the-bench role.
How He Fits: At his age and cost, I would only ever consider signing Andrei Kirilenko in the event Paul Millsap signs elsewhere. As I wrote yesterday, I believe Paul Millsap should remain a part of Utah’s frontcourt rotation – even though he will command a higher salary than Kirilenko, as Millsap adds much more value to the Jazz than AK could at this point. That said, Millsap’s departure would leave Utah in need of a third bigman – a role Kirilenko could play due to his versatility. Although the “Kirilenko was an all-star because he played power forward” narrative is mostly untrue – for the first 32 games of the 2003-04 season AK did start at PF and was quite effective playing next to 7-2 Greg Ostertag (who took some of the interior pressure off Kirilenko’s slender build). The arrival of three quality bigs (Boozer, Okur, Millsap) negated AK’s ability to play the 4, but with two promising paint presences in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter – Kirilenko could easily fill-in as a backup PF, giving Utah a small-ball 4 that many of the league’s elite teams possess.
What He’s Worth: Kirilenko opted out of a $10.2 million salary because he prefers a contract that offers longer-term financial security. While his annual salary will likely take a hit, he could easily command something along the lines of a 3-year deal at somewhere between $6-8 million per year.
Prior to re-signing Tiago Splitter, the Spurs reportedly showed interest in Kirilenko. While it remains to be seen if that pursuit continues, I could also see AK signing with a capped out playoff team at their full mid-level exception.
Final Verdict: Kirilenko is one of my 10 favorite Jazz players of all-time. From all accounts he’s a great person and I’ve never faulted his effort or held the 6-year $86 million extension against him. With that said, he’s a 32-year old who has constantly battled injuries for pretty much the past 10 years. In his past 5 NBA seasons alone he’s missed an average of 17 games per season (by comparison Carlos Boozer has missed an average of 15 games the past 5 seasons) and given his age those numbers don’t figure to improve over the next 3 seasons.
Ultimately, the Jazz need to build their roster with the goal to achieve a 3-4 year upswing. Their goal should be to determine what they have (players and coaches included) this season followed by steady improvements in each of the next three seasons as they hopefully build towards becoming a contender. Kirilenko’s age and probably decline figures to offset that trend (as opposed to Millsap who is still only 28 and nowhere near the downside of his career). Were the Jazz a legitimate top-8 team now, adding Kirilenko would make sense, but at a considerable price tag he’s simply not what the Jazz need at this time.
The Andrei Kirilenko-era in Utah represented quality and entertaining basketball and for the most part was an enjoyable experience (certainly more fun than watching Josh Howard). Even with a 2013-14 rotation featuring Burks, Hayward, Favors, Kanter, (and hopefully DeMarre Carroll) – Kirilenko’s abilities could fit in well. A year or two down the road however, his age and potential salary wouldn’t. In the short-term Kirilenko could help, but in the long-term he simply doesn’t mesh with Utah’s rebuilding process. After two years stuck in neutral, the Jazz are rebuilding and it’s time to finally embrace that process.