As Jerry Zgoda over at the Strib reports, Andrei Kirilenko has decided not to exercise his $10.2 million player option for next season and will instead become an unrestricted free agent. Kirilenko could still be back with the Wolves next year, but at this point, it doesn’t seem likely, given that he wants to get a longer three- or four-year contract to finish out his NBA career and the Wolves don’t want to commit money that far out, especially with future contract negotiations with Pekovic, Rubio and Love looming.
Overall, I have the sads about this because Kirilenko was probably my favorite player on the Timberwolves this past season, both for his play on the court—where he filled in just about every required gap and did hundreds of little things that went unnoticed and unappreciated by a lot of people—and for how generous he was with his thoughts and his time for the media. Honestly, he was always the first guy I wanted to talk to in the locker room because he was a great mix of funny, smart and engaging on what had just happened on the court, even after a loss. He played far too many minutes and ended up missing games because of injury, which is one reason I would love to see him somewhere like San Antonio where he would almost be guaranteed to play fewer than 30 minutes a game, plus see the playoffs.
And let me stomp all over any idea that Kirilenko wouldn’t make sense for the Wolves next year. Is he a knockdown shooter? No. Is he a lockdown defender at the age of 32? No. But over the course of the whole season last year, he was the Timberwolves consistently best player. He’s not a guy to build a team around—he’s almost too cerebral for that, too reactive and adaptive to force his will on a game—but he’s a guy any team should be happy to have because on any given night he can be the best defender, passer or cutter on the floor. He might rarely be all of those things, but he will give you something each and every night, and that’s to be commended.
Now, let me make a digression about Kirilenko’s choice to opt out and try to put in perspective. (I know I have some Russian readers, so if I’m completely off-base on this, just let me know.) I’ve been re-reading The Brothers Karamazov recently and it is concerned in large part with the question of what is unique about the Russian character. The book was written at a time when the influence of Europe and European thinking was beginning to seep into Russia, when youths where nihilistic and philosophical, plus often dismissive of the simplicity of the Russian way of like in the mid-19th century. In many ways, the novel is about the collision of these two cultures, asking questions about what deserves to survive, whether faith has a place in intellectual thought.
I also spent some time in Kirilenko’s hometown of St. Petersburg about ten years ago and was struck by what I perceived to be the no-nonsense character of the people I met there. One woman—an art grad student—took us around the Hermitage and was amazingly generous and kind to us, pointing out different things about the works and answering our questions in unswervingly fluent English. But when a stranger in the museum leaned over to her and said, “I know we’re not in your group, but I was wondering—” she cut them off with a curt, “No you are not” and turned her back. What I perceived was a veneer of politeness that quickly gave way to an Iron Curtain of toughness.
But my perception comes from my cultural upbringing, which I think is very distinct from that of Russia. I’m completely throwing out things here that I have no sociological basis for, but I feel like Dostoevsky’s concern for the invasion of European thinking and the current Russian love/hate affair with authority born from Communism and its collapse are at the heart of a different kind of thinking that doesn’t have as much to do with loyalty or greed as we might think it does.
Kirilenko’s logic here might seem cold to us, but I think it’s actually a fairly simple calculus: He is 32 years old, and the choice is between taking one more guaranteed year at $10 million, or looking for a longer term contract at likely less money per year but more money total that would ensure his employment through the end of his effective playing days. For what it’s worth, I think he’s right not to put too much emphasis on loyalty to an organization whose main priority is not Kirilenko’s well-being. Here in the U.S., we place a weird emphasis on getting it done together, as a team, in a marketplace that’s supposed to and often does engender cold-blooded wheeling and dealing that we then conveniently overlook. I don’t think Kirilenko’s calculation will be a Sprewell-esque “I have to feed my kids” kind of entitlement issue. It will be absolutely bottom-lining, true to a Russian character that sees things a little more black and white.
So I can respect and understand Kirilenko’s decision, but if we’ve seen him steal his last tip-off for the Wolves, it’s a sad day indeed.