We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.
As a member of the Utah Jazz and a student of Jerry Sloan–legendary codger, American Gothic come to life–Andrei Kirilenko spent the first decade of his NBA career toiling within that nest of cuts, screens and re-screens known as the flex offense. The flex is both highly choreographed and Pynchon-esque in its complexity; and Sloan was an exceedingly exacting and demanding coach. In each offensive set, players would be expected to arrive at certain spots on the floor at certain moments in the shot clock. If they didn’t hit their mark, they could often be treated to a profane tongue-lashing from the old man.
Such military-style precision may not have been much fun to execute (although it could be a real thing of beauty when it was humming), but his apprenticeship gifted Kirilenko with an almost preternatural instinct for the game. Which is to his credit: many players so-schooled might find it difficult to thrive in a less systematic environment. For AK, though, the flex’s rhythm and flow have become internal. His intuition for off-the-ball movement and for the dynamics of an offensive possession are nearly unmatched in the league. You could just see him envisioning the flows of movement and open space even before they occurred. The perfectly timed backdoor cut; the telekinetic high post feed; the interior touch pass–these were the staples of Kirilenko’s game. (By the way, if you ever want to feel better about life, I suggest checking out all 177 of AK’s assists from this past season. Really makes you breathe easier.) Watching him play was one of the real joys of the Wolves’ year.
As for the defensive end of the floor, for much of the season Kirilenko was a holy terror. He used his length and quick hands to disrupt passing lanes; he swallowed up multiple pick-and-roll options on the same possession; he played with inspiring energy and determination. What he may have lost in quickness since his All-Defensive Team years in the mid-2000′s, he has more than made up for in savvy and anticipation.
Eventually, though, Kirilenko was overtaken by the same malaise that afflicted the Wolves as a whole. First, the Wolves early run of injuries forced him to play longer minutes than his well-traveled 32-year-old body could probably handle. Not coincidentally, as the season progressed he began to miss bunches of games with a variety of nagging injuries, most notably a strained calf muscle. When AK finally returned for good, long after Kevin Love’s departure, long after Rick Adelman’s extended absence, long after the season became another disappointment, his game was noticeably diminished. He was slightly less active offensively, slightly less passionate on D. Its not as if he fell into some kind of Shved-ian abyss, but all of Kirilenko’s stats took a slight dip after the All-Star break.
Andrei Kirilenko is neither a Jordan-esque genius of competitiveness, nor a grim-faced enforcer. He’s a friendly, somewhat sensitive guy who likes to read, once wept during a media availability and just happens to desperately love playing basketball. Fatigue, injury, disappointment: those have been known to sap the spirit of tougher, more resolute men than AK.
This summer, Kirilenko has the choice either to earn $10.2 million from the Wolves or become a free-agent. Considering that his improvisatory movement and passing fits perfectly within Adelman’s offensive concept, considering that the equally touched Ricky Rubio is his perfect counterpart, considering the fact that the Wolves need every ounce of veteran savvy and emotional stability that they can muster, here’s hoping AK opts in.