Andrei Kirilenko can opt out after this season, but is enjoying his first year in Minnesota.
By JOAN NIESEN FS North
MINNEAPOLIS — So far, so good, says Andrei Kirilenko.
That's as much as the veteran forward is willing to offer about his future in Minnesota, a future that began on the promise of building yet another Rick Adelman playoff team on the backs of
Ricky Rubio and
Kevin Love and has evolved in a far different fashion than anyone could have imagined. The promise of a reconstructed, winning team stalled considerably as December crept into January and the
Timberwolves' injuries mounted, and calling this group a playoff team is right now a long shot, but Kirilenko isn't giving any inclination of a plan to bolt for calmer waters.
After taking a year-long break from the NBA and playing the 2011-12 season in Russia, Kirilenko signed with the Timberwolves last summer to the tune of $20 million over two years. His contract has a player option for its second year and the $10.2 million it entails, and the forward will have to decide whether he wants to remain with the Timberwolves, even if this ends up yet another lost season in Minnesota, or if he'd prefer to test the market come summertime.
Kirilenko has made it clear since Day 1 that he'd always planned to return to the NBA after last year's lockout-shortened season, and there's little doubt that he wants to stay in the league going forward. It's just a matter of where at this point, and the 31-year-old must decide whether, in his 11th season, he has the patience for a longer-term rebuilding than he'd expected.
"So far, I like everything," Kirilenko said. "We need to start winning games, though."
Over the course of his 10 years in Utah, Kirilenko's team went to the playoff six times, and he experienced just two losing seasons. Even so, he said, he's no stranger to struggles, and he remembers well his team's reaction to its 26-56 record in 2004-05, the season before it drafted
Deron Williams and became a Western Conference powerhouse. He said the group grew up after that season, that it used the experience to get better and better.
After that one season in which the team was in the Northwest division cellar, Kirilenko's Jazz were a model of consistency and success, and the chemistry the group had on the court sticks with him to this day. It's a kind of cohesiveness he never expected immediately in Minnesota, not on a roster that boasted eight new players at the beginning of the season. He expected more wins, sure, but he knew he was buying into a massive rebuild, and now that injuries have interrupted things, he's looking to his teammates to step up.
"We're just building a team right now," Kirilenko said. "It's the first season. It's going to take time to adjust to each other and get that game chemistry. Not the human chemistry; we've got a great relationship. But the game chemistry."
"Right now, we have not a great stretch, but we're going to get over it and get better."
Kirilenko won't offer anything more than that he's pleased right now with his place in Minnesota, but when he gets going about this team and how it's building toward something, you can't help but think it's going to take something big to chase him away. After all, this is a man who played 10 years in Salt Lake City, who values consistency over all else.
His 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game through Tuesday -- along with his health and ability to play big minutes -- should speak for themselves, and Kirilenko is hardly the NBA player in his twilight that many expected upon his return to the league. Averaging numbers as good as those he posted five years ago, Kirilenko could be a hot commodity elsewhere, but perhaps not worth the $10.2 million he has in store from Minnesota.
But right now, Kirilenko's free-agent value doesn't seem to be a concern. He's more worried about getting this team right, about leading it by example, about getting a few wins on a tough homestand. Things aren't half bad for Andrei Kirilenko, and no matter how noncommittal he is about his future, he seems to be genuinely enjoying his new team, apart from the heavy hand of bad luck it's been dealt.
"It feels very good, feels very warm," he said. And then he paused, and laughed, and realized he should clarify. "It feels very warm with the team, not very warm outside."