Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dear Andrei

There aren't that many former Jazz players I don't mind being booed when they visit the ESA.  Yet the list of former Utah players who receive a less-than-magnanimous welcome extends to almost every former player on the team.  Boozer, Fisher, Humphries, Matthews, and Williams all have been booed during introductions in Salt Lake.  Even Koufos and Korver have a few people who've heckled them just for wearing a different uniform.

I'm guessing tonight will see an unfortunately vocal part of The Solution's attendees greet Andrei Kirilenko with hostility.

Sorry in advance, AK47.

Despite having spent ten productive seasons in a Utah Jazz uniform, Kirilenko remains a hotly debated part of Jazz history.  Some argue that AK was too fragile physically to be effective (he played in 681 of 820 possible games, an 83% availability rate). Some argue that his game fell off after the 5x5 era (AK shot 44% from the field in 2003-04, and 50.6% in 2009-10).  Others argue that he was too emotional, after having shed some tears while discussing his reduced role in 2007.

Of course, the biggest complaint was Kirilenko's final contract with the Jazz.  After Kirilenko told a Russian newspaper in '07 that he was willing to walk from the remaining $63 million owed him by the Jazz and return to Russia, fans were able to do some math and figure that AK was getting paid roughly $16M per year during his final four years as a Jazzman.  That's a staggering number, especially when considered against some of the other contracts on the team.

And the other contracts on the team weren't a bunch of slouches, either.  Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur were all-star level players, and none of them were making what The Back Tattoo was pulling in.  And to complicate matters, during the 2006-07 season, Kirilenko's scoring dropped to 8.3 points per game, the lowest in his career.  In fact, '06-07 saw AK's lowest numbers in attempted field goals, free throw percentage, offensive and total rebounds, and assists.

Further muddying the AK retrospective waters is the fact that something rather important happened with the Utah Jazz in 2006-07.  They went to the Western Conference finals.  Call it a fluke or call it the best team under the LHM group since the statues left, the Jazz knocked on the door of a Conference Championship, only to get punished by the Spurs in five games.

Even if Utah caught a lot of breaks to make such a deep playoff run with such a young team, something shifted in fan attitudes regarding the resident Russian. He was playing poorly, crying on television, telling Russian newspapers he wanted out of the NBA if he wasn't going to be utilized correctly, and straying from the bounds of traditional marriage, all while making more annually than most Utah residents could dream of earning in a lifetime.

The funny thing about history is you can shape it to prove whatever point you desire.  In the paragraph immediately preceding this one, it seems like AK was a real clown and that maybe the Jazz were right to have let him walk.

Alternately, you could remember Kirilenko like this:  a workhorse player who improved every year he was utilized effectively.  Sloan is known for asking his players to play their positions and their positions only.  Following the end of the Stockton to Malone era, the Jazz had a tougher time fielding the 5-position roster with effective and talented players.  The only real bright spot on the team from 2002-2005 was AK47.  The kid could shoot.  He could block shots.  He could steal, he could dime, he could board.  He could run the point or frustrate centers.  There was literally nothing AK couldn't do in a pinch, and somebody in the Jazz front office recognized that.

Kirilenko was granted a monstrous contract because he was the only good part about the Jazz for 3 seasons.  And when the coaching staff tried to push him back into the small forward box, Kirilenko's game suffered.  Can you imagine the Jazz attempting to force a player who can't play a pure Jerry Sloan 3 to accept the role, only to watch him struggle?  If you're having a hard time imagining such a scenario, ask Paul Millsap how well he thinks that works.

Basketball players are human.  And Kirilenko responded in a human way:  he talked to people, cried a little about watching an otherwise stellar career start to circle the drain, weighed his options, and disappeared for a while.  And when he returned, his game had improved.  AK posted his best FG% as a Jazzman in 2007-08, his best 3P% and his career high assists per 36 minutes (4.6).  He continued to harass offensive players to a degree unlike any other post-Statue era player.

While AK's play should have earned him a reprieve from fans, the team's subsequent failure to make it back to the Conference Finals kept Jazzlandia searching for a scapegoat.  "We can't build around Deron Williams with AK's contract."  "Kirilenko is eating up too many minutes."  "Andrei is hurt way too often."  All of these excuses kept a noisy contingent of Jazz fans opposed to Kirilenko's continued presence on the team.

It is hard to dismiss a player getting paid huge sums of money only to miss 30% of a season due to a "phantom" injury like back spasms.  But for anybody who has ever suffered a soft tissue injury, particularly a chronic one, you know there's nothing "phantom" about it.  Yet Jazz Nation scorned AK as a soft player, a label that stuck all the easier since the guy had been willing to weep on camera.

And the money didn't help.  Even as Kirilenko suggested he'd stay with the Jazz on a new contract for nine to ten million per year, fans rabidly called for his head.  The brass, they shouted, on this overpaid ninny to request his market value from a team he missed 18 games with in his final season!  How dare he!

So the Jazz low-balled him, and Kevin O'Connor lied on the radio, telling Jazz fans that Kirilenko was only good for 60% of the games played by the team while he was under contract.  Kirilenko walked, played in Russia for a while, then signed up for two years in Minnesota.  Good riddance.

Thus far in his inaugural season as a Timberwolf, AK47 is shooting 51.6% from the floor, a career high.  He's still good for 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, along with 3.2 assists.  And he's doing it for ten million a year.  Marvin Williams, by comparison, is shooting 45.5%, with 0.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, and 0.9 assists for roughly $8.3M.  Both players have missed 4 games due to injury.

I suppose this article isn't going to change the minds of those whose hearts are set against Andrei Kirilenko.  But the facts bear out a different history than the one propagated by certain Twitter loudmouths.  AK was the heart of the Utah Jazz franchise for three seasons.  He earned an All-Star selection and two All-Defensive team selections.  He is the only player in the history of the NBA, excluding Hakeem Olajuwon, to post two 5-by-5 games in a single season.  Yeah, only eclipsed by HAKEEM F***ING OLAJUWON.  Not bad company.

Andrei Kirilenko represented a new direction for the Jazz, one based on multi-dimensional players with live offenses not limited to pick-and-rolls, but where defense and hustle were still the key playmakers.  Only when the Jazz tried to force AK into a role that simply didn't work for him did Kirilenko falter.  Once the coaching staff realized they were mis-using a powerful tool, AK47 promptly returned to being one of the most efficient players on the Jazz roster.

More than any of that: he was a player who, every year, was fun to watch on both ends of the court.

So boo him if you must, Jazz fans.  But know that you look like a real ass doing it.

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