Defensive stalwart Andrei Kirilenko will return to the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Andrei Kirilenko is 11 years older and set to make more than 11 times the money than he did the first time he jumped to the NBA.
And he's no longer a fresh-faced rookie but, rather, one of the final pieces to a roster that
Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn has been reassembling for weeks.
Kirilenko's signing Friday came immediately after the Timberwolves finalized a trade that sent Wes Johnson to Phoenix, freeing the salary-cap space that was necessary to add Kirilenko. The team did not release the terms of the deal that brought Kirilenko back from Russia, but according to multiple reports, the contract is for two years and worth $20 million. Yahoo! Sports reported that the contract includes a player option for 2013-14.
Kirilenko, 31, made his debut in the NBA with the Jazz in 2001-02. He played 10 seasons with Utah before returning during the NBA lockout to play in Russia, where he has remained since. In Utah, he averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds over the course of his career. Kirilenko's three best seasons came from 2003 to '06, when he averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds, but his numbers did not fall off much as he aged. In his last season with the Jazz, 2010-11, Kirilenko still averaged 11.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, starting 62 of the 64 games in which he played.
In Utah, Kirilenko received numerous NBA honors. He was selected to the All-Rookie first team in 2001-02 and was an All-Star pick in 2004. In addition, he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive first team in 2005-06 and second team in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
"Over his time in the NBA he has proven to be one of the best defensive players in the world," Kahn said in a release. "His ability to play multiple positions and big-game experience will be wonderful assets to our team . . . We are excited to see him in a Timberwolves uniform."
Kahn said Kirilenko is capable of playing multiple positions and can score without plays being run with him. In addition, he has experience in big games; he's played in 45 playoff games and won 18.
Although Kirilenko did not play in the NBA last season, Kahn said he does not see that as a disadvantage. In fact, by not playing the compressed 66-game season and instead having a much more normal schedule in Russia, Kirilenko preserved his body and feels "tremendous," Kahn said.
"We had Kirilenko No. 2 on our board of small forwards," Kahn said, "and I think that it's fair to say that as soon as we learned there was not a chance for us to obtain Nic Batum, not only we set our sights on Kirilenko, but Kirilekno set his sights on us."
Kahn said Kirilenko has many of the same skills as Batum and is taller and longer than the Portland forward. He fit the requirements for what the Timberwolves wanted, Kahn said, and he provides a new type of player to the team's roster.
The biggest drawback to the Kirilenko signing is his age. The forward will be 32 in February, and his years of being an effective NBA player are likely numbered.
However, the theme for the Timberwolves this offseason has been to build a team that can win now, both to please star forward Kevin Love and to entice him to exercise his fourth-year option on his contract. In addition, coach Rick Adelman will be unlikely to tolerate another season like the last, his first with the Timberwolves and the worst of his coaching career. Consequently, the Timberwolves have been willing to mortgage some amount of their future to win in the short term.
Despite his age, Kirilenko hasn't suffered a major injury since he broke his left wrist in 2005. Although the Timberwolves did give up Johnson, a former No. 4 pick, to create the cap space necessary to sign Kirilenko, there are numerous upsides to the older player. Not only has Kirilenko's play remained relatively consistent but he should be a leadership force in a young locker room. In addition, Kirilenko's numbers in his worst season, 2006-07 — he averaged 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds coming off the season in which he broke his wrist — are still better than any of the Timberwolves' wing players posted last year.
"I'm excited to be returning to the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves," Kirilenko said in a release. "The Wolves have one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Adelman, and I feel my game fits in well with his style of play. I also like the talent that Minnesota has on the team with star players like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio."
The Timberwolves have not had a wing player on their roster with a player efficiency rating — PER measures a player's per-minute performance, basically reducing a player's contributions to one number — of more than 16.0 since Wally Szczerbiak's PER was 18.1 in 2006. Last season, Michael Beasley finished with a PER of 13.0 and Johnson had a woeful 8.0. In 2010-11, Kirilenko boasted a PER of 16.6, and his average NBA PER is 19.1. The league-average PER is 15.0. In addition, though Kirilenko is not the lockdown defender he once was, he has averaged more than one blocked shot and one assist per game in every season of his NBA career.
Kirilenko is currently preparing to play in his third Olympics with the Russian national team, so his introduction to Minnesota will be put on hold until mid-August. The Russian team includes Kirilenko's future Timberwolves teammate Alexey Shved, who signed with the team Wednesday.