LOOK AT Andrei Kirilenko's life from afar and you're likely to come to one conclusion: It's good to be Andrei Kirilenko. It's good to be a cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, which at week's end was 9--5 and in first place in the Northwest Division. It's good to be a max-contract guy, one who has already pocketed $23 million in the first two years of a deal that will pay $63 million over the next four. It's good to be an icon in Russia, where he is so beloved that he was chosen to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. It's good to be married to a brainy Russian pop star, a God-gave-with-both-hands-then-He-gave-again blonde bombshell who has granted her husband permission to break the bonds of marriage once a season. (Not that he has any intention of doing so, but still.) Life, as they say, is a dream.
But it hasn't always been a sweet one. Really. There has been a seven-year relationship with coach Jerry Sloan that can be charitably characterized as rocky. There has been a made-for-TV meltdown after a playoff loss in 2007, when Kirilenko wept openly for the cameras. There has been controversy after he threatened to walk on his contract and return to his motherland. And there have been two years of declining production. "At times, things have been rough," says the 27-year-old Kirilenko.
But just when the spindly 6'9" Kirilenko seemed about to snap, he has been rejuvenated by ... a demotion. A preseason ankle injury to sixth man Matt Harpring left Sloan worried about the strength of his second unit, so he gave C.J. Miles the starting small forward job and made Kirilenko a sub. "We needed someone to give us energy off the bench," says Sloan. "Andrei has done that. Do I think he'd like to be a starter? Yes. But he's done a great job for us in this role." Now the NBA's highest-paid reserve, Kirilenko is playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals through Sunday—up from 9.7, 4.7 and 1.1 as a starter over the last two years.
Pigeonholed as a small forward in a first unit that is strong at every position, Kirilenko has filled in everywhere but center with the second team, creating mismatches all over the floor. His ball handling allows him to ignite fast breaks, and his size makes him effective around the basket. Last week he averaged 17.5 points and 7.0 boards in victories over the Suns and the Bucks, and he had 10 assists in a defeat of the Grizzlies. "Coming off the bench, I get to see the rhythm of the game," he says. "I've always been more of an analyst. I like to watch where players like to go on the floor. And when I get in, the other team is usually tired and I have fresh legs."
While his offensive game needed a boost, Kirilenko's D never left him. With his 7'4" wingspan and superior reflexes, he can block a shot even when his hands are dangling by his side when the ball is released. Late in the fourth quarter against Phoenix, Kirilenko rejected two shots from Shaquille O'Neal on the same possession. Both times the ball had already left Shaq's fingertips when Kirilenko made his move. (With 3.3 per game in 2004--05, Kirilenko became the shortest league leader in blocks since it became an official stat in 1972.) And he's not just a shot swatter. With Utah clinging to a late four-point lead against Milwaukee, Kirilenko poked the ball away from Bucks point guard Ramon Sessions and took it the length of the court for a game-sealing dunk. What was special about that steal—his fifth of the night—was that it came during a dribble handoff. As Sessions gave the ball to Richard Jefferson, Kirilenko slid his arm between the two and knocked the ball free. "Did he just do that?" marveled a scout watching the game. "He's Rope Man. He can get those arms in the smallest of spaces."
By settling into his new role, Kirilenko has eased any potential tension with Sloan. That's not to say there isn't any tension. After Kirilenko uncharacteristically blew a defensive assignment against the Suns, he and Sloan could be seen shouting at each other from opposite ends of the court. And after watching Kirilenko launch an ill-advised jumper early in the shot clock later in the game, a visibly agitated Sloan spun and stormed back to his seat on the bench. "Coach doesn't like those kinds of mistakes," says Kirilenko, a toothy grin creeping onto his face. "I don't blame him for being mad about that."
Says Sloan, "Andrei and I are fine. I don't need my players to like me. I need them to play for me."
KIRILENKO SAYS he prefers to bottle up his feelings until they "explode out of him," so he is quick to downplay any rift with the 66-year-old Sloan, who recently became the first coach to reach 1,000 wins with the same team. "Jerry is a legend," says Kirilenko. "He is the face of the Jazz organization. He has his style, and it works. It has worked for me too."
Kirilenko's wife, Masha, though, has her own opinions. A singer (the video for her 2002 hit single, Saharniy—which translates loosely to sugary—quickly rocketed to No. 1 on MTV Russia) with brains (she holds an undergrad degree in foreign languages and a masters in art) and ambition (in addition to running her husband's charitable foundation, she recently opened her own clothing boutique), Masha rarely misses a home game. When Andrei is on the bench, she'll mouth—in Russian—anything from I love you to postgame dinner plans. When Andrei is in the game, he'll often turn to her and shout in Russian after a significant play. They're not quite ready to replace Doug and Jackie Christie as the NBA's first couple of idiosyncratic communications, but Masha is, safe to say, a full partner in Andrei's career.
Relaxing at the Kirilenkos' spacious, modern Salt Lake City home, Masha's eyes grow wide when told that Sloan didn't care whether his players liked him.