Andrei Kirilenko, a free agent who has spent his entire 10-year NBA career with the Utah Jazz, has signed one of the more unusual three-year deals in NBA history with CSKA Moscow, the Russian powerhouse for whom Kirilenko played before decamping to the U.S. The deal gives Kirilenko the right to return to the NBA one month after the lockout ends, a slight tweak on the usual opt-out clause most NBA players have in their overseas deals. But Kirilenko’s deal also gives him a similar out after each of his first two seasons with CSKA, meaning he has negotiated himself a bit of flexibility that most players either don’t have or don’t want.
The decision came down to CSKA and Spartak St. Petersburg, but the deciding the factor was that CSKA plays in the Euroleague, while Spartak plays in a lower division. And his deal is befitting of his status as Russian basketball royalty and of the level of play he showed for Russia in this summer’s EuroBasket tournament. Kirilenko looked like a different player in leading Russia to the bronze in that competition. He was in the conversation with Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Bo McCalleb as the tournament’s top overall player, bringing the sort of all-around wizardry that had been slipping from his NBA game. He ranked eighth overall in Player Efficiency Rating in EuroBasket and cracked the top 20 in offensive rebounding rate, steal percentage and block percentage — classic nutty Kirilenko stat-stuffing. He passed and cut beautifully, as usual, and both Kirilenko and CSKA are right to wonder if he’ll just function better in European ball as he ages.
And Kirilenko is aging. He’ll be nearly 31 when the NBA season starts, if it ever does, and he posted the second-lowest PER of his career last season. He doesn’t block shots like he used to and his long jumper deserted him; Kirilenko hit just 34 percent of his long two-pointers last season, far below both the league’s average (around 40 percent) and Kirilenko’s recent marks (also around 40 percent). That may represent a random statistical blip, but so might his sudden transformation into an above-average three-point shooter. He shot 37 percent from deep last season, heady stuff for a career 31 percent shooter from three. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Beyond that, Kirilenko’s defense appeared to slide last season, though that was party the result of Utah’s overall slippage on that end. The stat-tracking service Synergy Sports ranked Kirilenko a below-average defender overall, and he was especially ineffective locating spot-up guys on the perimeter. Again, part of this is due to team context. Utah’s bigs had trouble all season containing the pick-and-roll, and when you can’t contain that, wing players have to sag down to help in the paint a bit further than they’d like, making it harder than usual to recover out to the perimeter when the ball gets kicked there. On a better overall team, Kirilenko is still a plus defender. But he’ll have to be more careful reaching for steals and jumping into passing lanes as he ages, because his quickness will inevitably decline.
The broader concern with Kirilenko, at least in NBA terms, is how he’ll function as an offensive player outside of Jerry Sloan’s flex system. That motion-heavy system maximized Kirilenko’s talents as a creative cutter, finisher and passer, and it minimized his limitations as an isolation scorer and so-so jump-shooter. It’s fair to wonder whether any of the teams set to have significant cap space have reason to give Kirilenko an above-average NBA contract, though the thought of him sealing up the wing on a short-term deal with the Clippers is drool-worthy. Of course, the cap itself is a wild card; we don’t know where it will end up or exactly how it will work, and given a workable amnesty clause, a few teams that don’t look to have cap room now might work themselves to some space. And if the mid-level exception exists, even in a reduced form, any number of contenders (Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City — if they have roster space) could use a strong backup wing at the right price.
“He’s open to all teams,” his agent Marc Fleischer said of Kirilenko’s free-agent options. “He loved his time in Utah and would be happy being back there, but he has not ruled out anything. His first intention is to return to the NBA if the right situation presents itself, but he would be happy to play out the year and the contract in Russia.”
That’s the sort of dilemma Kirilenko will probably face — a choice between staying in Russia or returning to the NBA at what by his standards is a middling salary. It’ll be an interesting choice.
One side note: Kirilenko will donate any money he makes in Russia to charity, which is very cool.