Andrei Kirilenko Is Back — Maybe

The Minnesota Timberwolves and their often-ridiculed general manager, David Kahn, signed Andrei Kirilenko this offseason for about $20 million for two seasons. After an incredible beginning to his career with the Utah Jazz during the inchoate millennium, Kirkilenko tapered off over his last four seasons in Utah. When “AK-47” signed with Minnesota in July, many thought it might be a mistake. But how has he done through the first 15 games this season? It turns out, not so bad, at least from the offensive end.

Kirilenko didn’t play in the NBA during the strike-shortened 2011-12 season. Instead, he signed a deal with his old Russian team, CSKA Moscow. In his lone season in the Euroleague, he was named MVP, and averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds a game in less than 30 minutes per game. It was a reversal of sorts from his last couple years in Utah where he failed to reach the potential so many people foreshadowed after his All-Star 2004 season.

After making that All-Star team as a third-year forward with the Jazz, people started to think maybe Kirilenko could become one of the best foreign-born NBA players in history. Kirilenko, it seemed, was like a seven-tool player in baseball: he could pass and shoot and defend at a highly efficient rate, and combined with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, he helped form the three-part nucleus of a couple Jerry Sloan-coached teams that made the Western Conference Finals and the Western Conference Semifinals. Kirilenko, for all the talk about his abilities in all facets of the game, was first and foremost a defender. He made the All-Defensive first or second team each year between 2003 and 2006. He could defend so well, he almost averaged more than two steals and two blocks per game for a full season; he fell just short, averaging 1.9 steals and 2.8 blocks per game in 2004. The next season he averaged 3.3 per night for the season, leading the league.

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But his rebounding and defense fell apart the longer he stayed with Utah, and he became a favorite whipping boy for Sloan, who had sang his defensive praises earlier in his career. During the 70 games he appeared in during the 2006-07 season, Kirilenko reached career lows in points, rebounds, blocks and steals. The five-tool player had burned out, and even though his stats improved after that steep drop-off in ’06-’07, he never really returned to the heights that had seen him chosen for an All-Star team three years prior. So the question for many ‘Wolves fans going into this season was how Kirilenko was going to do back in the NBA after his Russian sabbatical last season?

Through 15 games, the results have been mixed, but on the whole he’s been a valuable addition for a team that — at one point — just needed bodies to fill out their roster. The Timberwolves lost Kevin Love to the broken hand to begin the season; Ricky Rubio has been out all year with his surgically repaired knee (but he’s back doing full contact drills and they’re expecting him to be back on the court by Christmas); Brandon Roy‘s knees needed yet another procedure, and there’s not much hope he’ll ever be back (not that people really expected him to be after all his knee trouble in Portland). Nikola Pekovic, J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved have all missed a couple game this season, as has Kirilenko. But when you look at the team’s collective plus/minus, AK-47 is second to Love in 82games.com’s ratings. A strange development occurred in the season’s first month, too.

While Kirilenko was always a defensive presence in his time with Utah, he’s added more offense for Minnesota, and — through 13 games — they’ve actually given up more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court (per 82games.com). The Timberwolves give up 102.1 points per 100 possessions when Kirilenko is on the bench, and 102.6 when he’s on the court. So he’s actually been a disadvantage for their team on defense when he’s playing. That’s saying something, too because currently, the ‘Wolves are sixth in the league in defensive efficiency, per Hoopdata.

How has he made up for the slightly stunted effect he’s had on Minnesota’s defense? Well, when Kirilenko is off the court, the Timberwolves score 97.2 points per 100 possessions. That puts Minnesota 27th in a league offensive efficiency. However, with Kirilenko on the court, the Timberwolves score 106.3 points per 100 possessions. That would bring the Timberwolves all the way up to fourth in offensive efficiency.

All told, the Timberwolves score at a below-average rate on the season, averaging just 98.4 points per 100 possessions, which puts them in the bottom third of the league (24th). But defensively, as a team, the Timberwolves hold opponents to just 99.2 points per 100 possessions, which is sixth in the league at present. They’re also in the top six for opponents’ shooting percentage and three-point shooting percentage. So Kirilenko is a lot more valuable than you’d first guess because his presence is almost negligible on defense, but he’s helping them score more, which is something they struggle with as a team — especially a team missing its two, key offensive cogs through the season’s first 10 games.

All told this season, Kirilenko is about where he was on a 36-minute basis for steals and blocks (1.5 and 1.8) through his last few, down years in Utah. Maybe that’s why they’re actually giving up slightly less buckets when he’s off the court. But on offense, where the ‘Wolves have struggled without Rubio and as they’re acclimating Love back into the lineup, he’s shooting better (over 50 percent from the field and over 37 percent from three), and he’s grabbing 2.1 offensive rebounds a game, something he hasn’t done since the 2005-06 season. As a whole, he’s rebounding at a clip, 7.7 per 36 minutes, that’s his highest since he was an all-star all the way back in 2003-04.

Andrei Kirilenko is looking like a good pick-up by Kahn, even if Roy isn’t, but he’s helping his team in ways he didn’t previously, and because he’s so unselfish with the rock, and a terrific passer, he’ll fit right in when Rubio returns and Love is more comfortable being back. The AK-47 that regularly blocked opposing bigs, and picked the pockets of opposing guards, might be gone for good, but the Kirilenko that’s back in the league, is still finding ways to help his team win. Even if they’re not the ways we’re all used to seeing.

What do you think?

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