Goodbye, Andrei Kirilenko

As far as we can tell, Andrei Kirilenko's time with the Utah Jazz is over. He was a member of our team for ten years. John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Mark Eaton were with the Jazz longer. That's it. And now he's gone.

Anyway, I wanted to write a last piece to him. A blogger's farewell, if you will. We all know AK was one of my favorite players. He gave me ten years of thrills and disappointments. He made the Jazz fun to watch. He played with Stockton, with nobody, with Deron, and with Al.

My thoughts after the jump ...

You can count on one hand how many Jazzmen have ever been better than Andrei Kirilenko. I can count on one hand how many Jazzmen I’ve liked better. Same with how many were more fun to watch play.

What makes me sad is how many fans missed this because he had a huge contract but never scored 20 points per game.

So I’m asking you to take a trip down the previous ten years and remember:

When he came to SLC as a skinny 20-year-old kid, he came to a team going nowhere. They weren’t contenders anymore. They were filling out the roster with washed up vets, just extending the Stockton/Malone years as long as possible. Andrei was the only scrap of future the team had.

He mostly came off the bench. Playing 26 minutes per game, acting as the fifth option on offense, he actually had a higher PER than rookie LeBron James. You can look that up.

At age 21 he was playing like an All-Star. At 22 he was an All-Star. He led a crap-platter team to 42 wins.

Think about that. How many Jazzmen could have made that team successful? Not Hornacek. His crap-platter team (Philly) won 26. Not Pistol. His Hawks teams had tons more talent and only eclipsed .500 once. And his horrible Jazz teams never got above the 30’s. Not even AD. His Jazz teams only made it to the 40’s once Thurl arrived and Griffith, Eaton, and Ricky Green made it to their primes.

Only three other guys in team history could have made that team successful. Stockton, Malone, and Deron. That’s the entire list.

Andrei Kirilenko was, in many ways, the anti-Pistol, the anti-AD. Team success or no, they got their points per game. AK, on the other hand, brought team success by scoring 15-16 and doing everything else—all the little things that usually didn’t get the acclaim, the glory, or the paycheck.

The ironies here are almost too many to enumerate. Those little things actually brought acclaim (the All-Star bid, snubbing both Melo and Pau). They also brought the paycheck—that infamous max contract. And that max contract—given out in appreciation for a guy who didn’t have to score to make his team better … well, it would end up bringing the ire of many Jazz fans. Because he didn’t score 20 per game.

How much of a difference was Andrei Kirilenko in those days? Well a team of total scrubs plus AK won 42 games. Those same scrubs, plus Boozer and Memo, but minus AK for half the season because of a broken leg—that team won 26.

Nobody has ever had that big of an effect on a Jazz team just by suiting up or not. Stockton missed 18 games in 1997 because of knee surgery. The team went 11-7 (having Malone and Hornacek, of course, helped). After Deron was traded last year the team was horrible—but they still won 39 total games.

Losing AK for half a year changed the team from a virtual lock for the playoffs into a 26-win joke.

He was everything those years. Even with Memo and Boozer. AK was everything. Those 16 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals and gajillion deflections could change the course of the NBA, it seemed.

And we all know what happened next. The Jazz got themselves a new PG. A brilliant player who was hesitant to trust the wild Russian. And unfortunately for AK, the PG brings up the ball and decides who will get it next.

But I don’t want to dwell on the negative. I don’t want to dwell on the absurdity of having an 22-year-old All-Star PF, and then signing a new PF. I don’t want to dwell on the salary craziness of taking that guy putting up 16-8-4-3-2, giving him a max contract, and then giving him a bit-role.

Instead I want us to remember what he still did for the Jazz during the Deron years. He offered to re-do his contract to because he thought he wasn’t earning it. During the most successful of the Deron years, he was the only guy providing any post OR wing defense. He literally played 1-on-4 defense for several years. And lest you think I exaggerate, remember while AK was a decent man-to-man defender, his real strength and genius was his help defense. For 30 minutes a game he rotated to the post to save Boozer, covered when the PG or wings got past the perimeter (just about the easiest thing to do, given today’s rules), all while still keeping his own guy’s performance below average. He'd jump in the middle to help, then fly out to the perimeter to close in on the three-point shooter, and then rotate to the back-door baseline—often all on the same possession. Over and over and over again. And we wonder why his body started breaking down.

Even so, that 1-on-4 D was enough to keep the team’s defense above average, enough to get us to the conference finals in 2007 and a Boozer-melt-down away from the NBA finals a year later.

Here’s the list of primary Jazz players in 2008: Boozer, Memo, Millsap, Deron, CJ, Ronnie B., Kyle Korver, Matt Harpring, Jarron Collins, and Andrei Kirilenko.

Aside from AK that list includes: one decent defender when the mood struck him (Deron), one below average defender who happened to get steals (Ronnie B.), and seven full-blown defensive liabilities of varying degrees.

That team ranked 12th in defensive effectiveness. And some say AK didn’t earn his paycheck.

He did everything the team asked him to do. He adjusted his role. And aside from a single, infamous meltdown he never complained. While Boozer was a starter, regardless, AK went back and forth to and from the bench.

And for two glorious months in 2010, when Deron finally learned to play with him AK, they gave us the greatest stretch of basketball any of have seen since the glory days of Stockton and Malone. A tragic cameo of what could have been all those years before.

Remember that. It wasn’t Boozer, it wasn’t Memo, it wasn’t Millsap. It was AK and Deron that catalyzed that magnificent run of basketball that was just too short.

So goodbye Andrei Kirilenko.

You were a hell of a player, and you were a hell of a lot of fun. Without you the Jazz could easily have been the Warriors. Every crazy pass you came up with, every time you covered Boozer’s butt, every time you rotated because nobody else would, every screen you set so somebody else could score, every decoy route you ran … they made the Jazz a team worth watching.

And I would like to apologize—if I can.

Apologize for the ignorant fans who blamed you for everything, apologize for the fans who exaggerated your limitations and ignored your strengths, apologize for an ownership (an ownership I like) who didn’t appreciate you, for a coach (a coach I loved) that didn’t understand you, for a PG (a PG I adored) who didn’t learn to trust you nearly soon enough.

You were one of the best five or six players in Jazz history. You were one of the four greatest Jazz players during my lifetime as a fan. Nobody in team history can match what you did on the defensive end. For ten years I defended you to every ear that would listen. For two years I have written tens of thousands of words extolling what you brought to this team.

And now it’s time to say goodbye.

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