Basketball

How Good was Peak Andrei Kirilenko?

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Small-ball in the NBA is not a new innovation, but like all innovations, it has both been pushed to the brink and to its seemingly full potential with players like Draymond Green. Unlike Draymond Green with the Warriors’ death lineup, not all players end up on a team that maximizes his talents, and some players don’t even play in an era that embraces his talents. Andrei Kirilenko falls into both categories.

Like my previous Grant Hill article, this piece is meant as a supplement to my recent Kirilenko video where I use film to analyze his game. I suggest watching that first because I will be referring to it, and this article won’t include specific film clips. This is meant to fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t fit in the video.

Watch this first!

What’s So Interesting About Andrei Kirilenko?

Any NBA fan who has played around with Basketball Reference’s BPM 2.0 statistic has found a a couple of peculiar standout players in the early 2000s. Here are the top 20 players in BPM from 2003-04 to 2005-06:

PlayerSeasonBPM
Kevin Garnett2003-0410.2
Kevin Garnett2004-059.5
Andrei Kirilenko (41 games)2004-059.2
LeBron James2005-069.1
LeBron James2004-058.6
Tim Duncan2003-048.5
Dirk Nowitzki2005-068.1
Andrei Kirilenko2003-047.9
Kevin Garnett2005-067.8
Dwyane Wade2005-067.7
Kobe Bryant2005-067.6
Tim Duncan2004-057.6
Dirk Nowitzki2004-057.3
Manu Ginobili2004-056.9
Manu Ginobili2005-066.8
Elton Brand2005-066.7
Tracy McGrady2004-056.7
Andrei Kirilenko2005-066.6
Tracy McGrady2003-046.4
Chauncey Billups2005-066.2
I bolded a couple of names for you

You are reading that correctly: Kirilenko has the 3rd (only behind KG), 8th, and 18th highest BPM during those three seasons. I’ll concede that he only played half the games in 2004-05, but in 2003-04, his 7.9 BPM surpassed the likes of Wade, Kobe, T-Mac, Shaq, and a host of other hall-of-famers. And for a stat whose aim is to “estimate a player’s performance relative to league average by using a player’s box score information and his team’s overall performance,” clearly Kirilenko was doing something right.

So, What was Andrei Kirilenko Doing Right?

A lot.

How Good was Andrei Kirilenko at His Peak?

We’ve looked at BPM’s view of Kirilenko, so let’s see how other statistics view him. According to Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM, Kirilenko was 4th in 2003-04 (behind KG, Duncan, and Ben Wallace), 3rd in 2004-05 (behind Manu and Duncan), and 3rd in 2005-06 (behind Wade and KG).

Based solely off impact metrics, Kirilenko should’ve definitely been one of the best players in the NBA, but here’s where the conversation becomes interesting: throughout his entire career, Kirilenko only ever received two total votes for MVP. Both of those votes were in 2004 and for 5th place. How is this possible? How is it that a player with such an immense statistical impact only received two career MVP votes?

Two reasons: first, here were Kirilenko’s box score averages across those three years: 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3 blocks. Even in today’s analytically-driven league, nobody is slinging MVP votes towards a dude averaging 16-8-4 at best. Seriously, prominent writers still think that Steve Nash averaging 18-10 cheated Kobe out of an MVP because his lack of scoring despite literally leading 5 of the top 11 offenses in the last 30 years. There was no way Kirilenko had a chance.

Second, Kirilenko’s Jazz teams were terrible at that time. During that same three year stretch they played as many NBA playoff games as I have in my career: 0. However, the team played significantly better with Kirilenko. During those three years, the Jazz’s net rating improved by 12 points when Kirilenko was on the court versus when he was off. That’s equal to this season’s -1.3 Suns improving to the top-seeded +10.7 Bucks. Furthermore, Utah’s estimated wins improved by 17 in the 41 games that Kirilenko played in 2004-05, and they improved 25 estimated wins in the 69 games he played in 2005-06.

Statistically, the Jazz were terrible, but it was far from Kirilenko’s fault. However, and this is the nuance we’ll get into, he also deserves a share of the blame.

Andrei Kirilenko’s Scoring

In his lone all-star season back in 2004, Kirilenko led the Utah Jazz in scoring with 18.4 points/75 possessions: good for 73rd in the league. With a true shooting percentage 4.3 percentage points above league average, Kirilenko’s scoring profile fit more of a 2nd option than a first option.

It’s clear from the film that Kirilenko had no interest in being the main initiator on offense. Because of this, he meshed well with Jerry Sloan’s “flex” offense which “involves constant movement from all five offensive players, with down screens and cuts utilized in multiple areas of the floor” and is “designed to maximize good looks at the rim via passes off cuts.” While Kirilenko wasn’t Reggie Miller, his constant movement jumps out as he spots up in the corner, cuts in for dunks, and throws down transition put-backs.

Additionally, he didn’t shy away from contact on these cuts. In 2005-06, Kirilenko was 4th in the league in free throw rate compared to all players who played at least 50 games and scored at least 15 points/75 possessions. Seeing as his free throw percentage hovered in the high-70s (career average of 75.4%), this was an efficient way to score points without a reliable three-point shot (32.2% in his three-year peak). Again, it’s important to emphasize that he accomplished most of this through off-ball work instead of isolation or pick-and-roll ball-handling.

Andrei Kirilenko’s Passing

While I wouldn’t call Kirilenko a great passer, he was definitely both willing and good. He seemed to play with a pass-first mindset which worked to lubricate the Jazz’s offense. I previously pointed out how much better the Jazz played in games with Kirilenko, but when you isolate his offensive impact, it’s actually greater than his defensive impact (we’ll get to that). I only used 2004-05 and 2005-06 since Kirilenko didn’t miss enough time for a good sample size in 2003-04.

2004-052005-06
Offensive Rating when AK plays107.5105.9
ORtg when AK doesn’t play103.599.8
ORtg Difference+4+6.1
For reference, league average ORtg was 106.1 and 106.2 in 2004-05 and 2005-06 respectively

As the previous section discusses, this offensive impact is thanks to Kirilenko’s efficient off-ball scoring along with his passing ability. Like Draymond Green, Kirilenko relished in leading the break and setting up a teammate for an easy dunk or layup in transition.

I’m not sure what the consensus is on Kirilenko’s passing because YouTube is filled with slick assists, but as I discuss in the video, Kirilenko wasn’t breaking down defenders with his dribbling and creating shots in a Nash-like sense. When looking at Ben Taylor’s passer rating, Kirilenko only crested 8 once in his career while Draymond did so multiple times (and reached 8.8 at one point). Through stats like this and watching film, I’d paint Kirilenko as a top-40 passer in the league during his 3-year peak vs. Draymond being closer to a top-5 passer.

Kirilenko’s heart was always in the right place, but sometimes his delivery would be a little off, or he wouldn’t be able to squeeze a pass in a tight place. Draymond is tremendous at capitalizing in almost every passing situation, but Kirilenko maximized his simple passing opportunities like hitting a cutter or dropping a well-timed dime in transition. Now, his passing certainly improved as he aged, but this article is meant to focus on his early prime seasons.

Was Andrei Kirilenko’s Defense as Good as the Stories Say?

When watching Kirilenko, the first thing that stands out is his frenetic pace. On both sides of the ball, he excitedly shifts around like a heated particle. In fact, I claim in the video that he might have the greatest defensive motor in NBA history though I’d have to watch Garnett more closely to see how he compares. I’ve never seen a player either cover so many defensive mistakes or just help a teammate defend in the post. In some cases, a teammate would get crossed or caught on a screen, and Kirilenko would swoop in to contest the shot.

Playing at the Wrong Position

Because of the reliance on bruising power forwards during that time, Kirilenko played 55% of his minutes at the 3 and 45% at the 4 (if he were playing today, those would be shifted over to 55% at 4 and 45% at the 5). Since he primarily guarded other small forwards, he was tasked with more perimeter-oriented assignments such as chasing Peja Stojakovic around screens or switching onto Dwyane Wade. He was incredibly switchable, but as I discuss in the video, he didn’t have the quickest feet, and he wasn’t very nimble in dodging screens. Moreover, his rim contests primarily came from his ability to quickly cover ground since he was tasked with guarding strong wing threats.

All this is to say that he wasn’t utilized properly, and had he be deployed like today’s Robert Covington, his defensive impact might have been even greater. Though, like Covington and Draymond, Kirilenko struggled with strong post players, so he definitely wouldn’t have been an effective defensive matchup for guys like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic.

Defensive Impact

Earlier in the article, I foreshadowed that Kirilenko’s statistical impact on offense was greater than on defense. For greater context, here are the full numbers using games in which the Jazz played with and without him:

2004-052005-06
ORtg when AK plays107.5105.9
ORtg when AK doesn’t play103.599.8
ORtg difference+4+6.1
DRtg when AK plays108.9107.3
DRtg When AK doesn’ play111.8111.2
DRtg difference-2.9-3.9
Remember, a negative DRtg difference is good while a positive ORtg difference is good

Even though the Jazz felt Kirilenko’s defensive impact, it’s not as fat as other defensive superstars. For instance, Utah’s defense was 10 points worse during Gobert’s 26 missed games back in 2018, and New York’s defense was 10.4 points worse in Porzingis’ 19 missed games in 2018. Kirilenko’s -2.9 and -3.9 are meager compared to these double-digit impact numbers.

On the other hand, Defensive PIPM (Jacob Goldstein’s impact metric that looks at defense) casts a brighter light on Kirilenko. Here is where he ranked in this statistic during 2004, 2005, and 2006:

Kiriilenko DPIPM rank
200415
20054
20067

Between these numbers and the game film, I’d say that Kirilenko was one of the best defensive players in the NBA at that time; however, next to players like Garnett, Duncan, and Ben Wallace, he wasn’t quite impactful enough to win Defensive Player of the Year. Compared to nowadays though, strong, rim-protecting big men were more valuable, so let’s pretend Kirilenko played in today’s NBA. I still think that Draymond is a better defensive player because of his strength, aggression in the post, and patience to not bite on pump-fakes, but Kirilenko would definitely be in the conversation for DPoY.

I’m Currently in an All-Time Draft. Where Should I Draft Andrei Kirilenko?

In the video, I fully endorsed Kirilenko as the most portable player in NBA history meaning that he would fit on any roster construction. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense, and on defense, he doesn’t even have to guard the other team’s best player to blow-up opposing offenses. Between jumping passing lanes and patrolling the paint, he can coexist next to rim-protectors like Rudy Gobert and heliocentric offensive stars like James Harden.

(This will have to be a post for another day, but if I were to list the most portable players in NBA history, Kirilenko would be competing with the likes of Garnett, Scottie Pippen, John Havlicek, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, and Reggie Miller.)

On the other side of the coin, the only role that Kirilenko wouldn’t fulfill is primary scorer/facilitator. D’Antoni couldn’t run the Rockets’ offense through him nor could any team build a top-tier offense around him. Because of this, I would absolutely not take him in the first round nor would I consider him in the second round.

The third round is where it gets tricky. Since he fits next to literally any combination of players, he provides you with unparalleled flexibility. Ideally you would want him in the 4th or 5th round, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to see him going in the mid-third round. Maybe if you’re trying to copy Houston’s game-plan, I would go in a different direction because he probably makes the machine of an egalitarian offense function more efficiently, but it ultimately doesn’t matter.

Drafting Example

Let’s say you want a player like Kirilenko and players like Shawn Marion and Draymond Green are available, you would have to decide on what kind of team you want. As an example, if your team is built around guys like Larry Bird or Stephen Curry when they don’t necessarily need the ball in their hands, then Draymond is probably the best choice with his ability to create shots for teammates.

If you’re building around ball-stopping centers or any ball-dominant scorer like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, or Kobe Bryant, then Kirilenko probably slots in better because he can facilitate some ballhandling duties without needing to do much while adding flexibility at the power foward position.

Finally, take Marion if you need more of a dynamic scoring and rebounding punch because you’re building around pass-first guards like Stockton, Nash, and Chris Paul. Of the three, Marion is the most dependent offensive player whose creation abilities are more limited.

Conclusion

Despite all-time BPM numbers, Andrei Kirilenko’s peak is probably closer to All-NBA level rather than a true MVP candidate. Similar to Draymond, he’s a role player (3rd, 4th, or 5th option) who’s so much better at being a role player than 99% of NBA players that he almost breaks impact metrics.

With alien-like length, a GOAT-level motor (especially on defense), a willingness to pass with a slightly above average passing ability, a moderate ability to shoot-threes, an ability to lead the break, and top quartile athleticism (we didn’t talk about his super underrated foot speed), Kirilenko is a 1-of-1 player. With Benjamin Morris referring to Dennis Rodman as the “best, 3rd-best player” by a “wide-margin,” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kirilenko is the best, 4th and 5th-best player in history.

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