There’s No Place Like Home

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One man who has everything to do with CSKA’s early-season resurgence is power forward Andrei Kirilenko, who is Euroleague Basketball’s choice as bwin MVP for October. Kirilenko returned to CSKA this season after a decade abroad and has made sure nobody has forgotten about his talent or intensity. Kirilenko delivered right away with a monster performance in the Euroleague’s Opening Game in Kaunas by helping his team all over the court to earn Week 1 bwin MVP honors. Far from being satisfied, Kirilenko led CSKA to a convincing home win against Brose Baskets. The 30-year-old Kirilenko leads the 2011-12 Euroleague in performance index rating average (30), rebounding (9.5 rpg.) and blocks (2.5 bpg.) and is also tied for fifth place in assists (5.5 apg.). In other words, Andrei Kirilenko is the logical selection as bwin MVP for October!

via bwin MVP for October: Andrei Kirilenko, CSKA Moscow – Latest – Welcome to EUROLEAGUE BASKETBALL.

Oh, Andrei. Why must you tease us so? You beautiful, enigmatic bastard.

The notion of Andrei Kirilenko being the best player over a monthly Euroleague span is nothing out the ordinary. Of the NBA players to make a trans-atlantic leap while their brethren fight over BRI points, only former teammate Deron Williams is a clear cut better player than AK47, and Williams’ team didn’t even make Euroleague qualifiers, let alone the actual tourney. By name alone, Kirilenko is probably the best player working his way through the continent (depending on how you feel about Nicolas Batum or Danilo Gallinari), and a first month MVP for the 30 year old Russian more than makes sense.

However, the leap from “former all-star, former all-NBA defender, current solid rotation player” Andrei to “best player in the continent” Kirilenko is one that requires more than just an understanding of the different competition these two versions face. It requires an understanding of Kirilenko himself, an understanding which is incomplete at best by its very nature. The nuances between the NBA and European basketball and how these nuances relate to Kirilenko’s game are things that we can analyze; the effect of Kirilenko’s mental make-up, though, is a pointless exercise in armchair psychology, even though it is probably even more descriptive.

Kirilenko has long been a frustrating case of a mind that just can’t keep with the frenetic pace set by a unique combination of physique and talent. His lean build masks his athleticism well, but accentuates his length, and enables him to deftly maneuver between the gigantic men that share basketball courts with him. Between the speed, the quickness, the surprising vertical outbursts that stand in sharp contrast to his appearance, the entire basketball court is often just a single step away from Andrei’s long reach. In his purest form, Kirilenko was created with omnipresence in mind.

Somehow, in the NBA, this raw tendency has always been obstructed. It may be Carlos Boozer pushing him out of the power forward position, but I don’t buy it. Placing Kirilenko in any semblance of a “natural” position is severe miscasting, as Kirilenko is in every way the positional revolution incarnate. Clearly, he isn’t a guard, and isn’t a center, but he isn’t really a forward either – he’s an everything, just tall enough to fit between the 2 and the 4, which inevitably ends up being listed as a 3. If anything, the disservice to Andrei is not that the prefix to his “forward” listing is the word “small” instead of “power”, but that he’s been cast as anything at all.

Of course, when complaining about positional discrimination, it’s important to note just where Andrei has been playing throughout his NBA tenor. Under Jerry Sloan’s flex offense, Kirilenko wasn’t exactly being shipped out to the corners, being forced to do nothing but spot up. The entire flex premise is designed around movement and 5 players remaining involved at all times. Which only makes Kirilenko’s failure to realize his full potential that much more disappointing.

Whatever these shackles are, they seem to be lifted the second Kirilenko gets off the plane on European soil. From his 2007 MVP trophy on a Eurobasket winning Russian squad, to his blistering start of 2011-2012 on CSKA Moscow, EuroAndrei is the Andrei we envision in our minds. Be it stage fright, homesickness, or just plain coincidence, it’s a comfort zone that can’t be replicated when trudging in the brighter lights of NBA arenas.

Nowhere was this more prevalent then in the 2011 Eurobasket, which saw Russia win bronze. It’s easy to attribute Russia’s success to a friendly draw, to having one of the top basketball minds in Europe in David Blatt, or just to more natural talent than most other squads, with two NBA players (remember, children, Timofey Mozgov is good in Europe) and several top Euroleague contributors.

But more than anything, the Russian team was built in Kirilenko’s  image – long, athletic, capable of everything in multiple positions. Russia’s starting line-up had three forwards (Kirilenko, Victor Khryapa, and Sergey Monya) ranging from 6’8″ to 6’10”, all capable of both scoring and defending in and out, and a 4th, Andrey Vorontsevich, who is less perimeter oriented but who is just as athletic; Khryapa, in particular, is memorable around these parts mostly for flaming out in Portland, was second in the entire tourney in assists. Alexey Shved is a bumbling package of everythingness coming off the bench who would either be in the NBA or on his way if he weren’t so damn inconsistent. Mozgov really does have skills on offense – these don’t translate to the NBA because they manifest so slowly, but they are there.

And all these cogs work together in unison, whether be it on a perfectly executed ball reversal towards yet another 3 pointer by Vitaly Fridzon, or be it a halfcourt trap that an opposing point guard just has no chance of getting away from without turning the ball over. It’s Kirilenko at his finest – too long, too fast, too everywhere, with the original, ultimate Andrei lording over his smaller, lesser clones.

Perhaps this is the reason why Kirilenko never truly worked in the NBA. Perhaps the unique blend of skills that he possesses just isn’t enough to mask the fact that ultimately, on aggregate, he just isn’t good enough. Kirilenko could never lord over his Jazz teammates the way he does in Russia, because there was always a player or two that was just better than him. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Kirilenko’s best seasons – from his 03 breakout campaign, to his 04 all-star appearance, and his three all-defense selections in 04, 05 (second team), and 06 (first team) – were in the transition period between the Jazz of Stockton and Malone to those of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, a period in which Kirilenko was the team’s best player and the Jazz won squat. Maybe Kirilenko just needs to be “the guy”, a position that would never be possible on an NBA team with actual aspirations.

Or perhaps, it really is an issue of the mind. Maybe those insane numbers from an injury plagued 2004-2005 season – 24.4 PER, 60% true shooting, and a ridiculous 8.5 block percentage, in what was sadly just a 41 game campaign – and the infamous 5X5s are what Andrei really is, and he could just never really be that guy for a long stretch. Perhaps, despite his wife’s well publicized rules to make road travel easier, are all Andrei needs is to be at home so he can be himself. Sadly, these are things that we’ll never know.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.