Advanced data highlights Kirilenko impact

MINNEAPOLIS – If you are halfway intelligent about basketball and have been watching the Timberwolves lately, you miss Andrei Kirilenko. Miss, that is, in the sense that you want him back on the court, not that you overlook what he does. But that, too, can be easy to do.
Kirilenko is not a thunderous dunker or a flashy passer. He’s not a scoring weapon, not a tough-as-nails rebounder. Instead, he’s a little of everything, averaging 13.3 points on 51.0 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocked shots in this, his 11th season in the NBA. And so for their past five games, when he’s sat with a strained right quad, the Timberwolves have missed Kirilenko’s offensive spark, his passing, his facilitating, his leadership… you get the picture.
In order to better quantify what the forward has brought to the team this season, I obtained data from STATS and their SportVU 3-D camera system, which is installed at the Target Center and collects a wide variety of richer, more contextualized statistics for the team at every game. (I wrote more about the cameras in December, if you’re curious.) The 16 teams that subscribe to the SportVU service share the data the cameras collects, which is not widely available to the general public. However, STATS provided me with some insight into the upsides of Kirilenko’s game that an average box score misses, upsides the team should be getting back after the All-Star break when he returns from his strained right quad injury. (The SportVU data on Kirilenko this season was captured in the 30 games he’s played in camera-equipped arenas. He has played in a total of 41 games.)
One of the things that stands out most about Kirilenko’s game is his ball-handling. He’s said often throughout the season that he’s leery to look for his own shot, calling passing his “bread,” and that’s evident in the SportVU data, which reveals that Kirilenko possesses the ball an average of 49 times per game, for an average of 80 seconds per game. That’s the largest amount of time holding the ball for any player on the team that does not play at all at the point guard position. (SportVU categorizes Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Alexey Shved and Ricky Rubio all as point guards.) In addition, Kirilenko averages 29 dribbles per game and 0.6 dribbles per touch.
Kirilenko’s hesitance to shoot comes not from a lack of confidence in his shot – he’s been one of the team’s most effective shooters this season – but from a desire to always take the best shot. Kirilenko averages 9.4 field goal attempts per game to go along with his 13.3 points, and among qualifying players (those who have attempted 600+ field goals this season), no one averages that many points on fewer attempts than he. Kirilenko is patient with his shot, touching the ball an average of 5.4 times per field goal attempt; to compare, Derrick Williams touches the ball an average of 4.3 times per attempt, Kevin Love 3.9 and Nikola Pekovic 3.3. In addition, 73.4 percent of Kirilenko’s shots come when he has not dribbled the ball, and 48.0 percent come when there is not a defender within four feet of him at the time of the shot.
The camera data also puts numbers to a concept too often cited by coaches and interpreted as some meaningless description: motor. At 32, Kirilenko’s motor should be fading, but according to the data, it’s doing anything but. SportVU defines rebound chances as any time a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound, and Kirilenko has 11.7 of those per game. That’s trailing just Love (20.5 rebound chances per game) and Pekovic (15.6), players who you think of much more as conventional rebounders than Kirilenko. Additionally, 31 percent of Kirilenko’s rebounds are offensive rebounds, which is an impressive mark.
Monday marks Kirilenko’s 32nd birthday, but watching him play this season, there have been moments when you have to pinch yourself and remember that it’s 2013, not 2006. He’s not in the prime of his career, at least physically, and he is getting older. As well as the Timberwolves’ game runs when Kirilenko is on the floor, there are moments when he has to come out, moments when he needs a break, days when those back spasms flare up or it seems a better decision to give him a few more nights to recover from a strained quad. But even now, this far into his career, Andrei Kirilenko is still Andrei Kirilenko, the kind of player, as this data proves, that cannot be reduced to a box score.


Joan Niesen on