It’s been a period for NBA refugees to find new homes in Russia with Victor Claver and Gal Mekel both making the jump but no move sent shockwaves around Europe quite like the return of Andrei Kirlenko to CSKA Moscow, writes Emmet Ryan.
The return was a cameo, just 5 minutes and 2 points in a 75-81 loss to Fenerbahce, but it made the return real. The man who brought CSKA closer to a Euroleague title than any other time since their 2008 championship was back with the red army. That Andrei Kirilenko was at the peak of his powers, fresh off heavy usage in the NBA and en route to playing a huge role in Russia’s bronze medal run at the 2012 Olympics.
This isn’t the 2011/12 season but that goes multiple ways. Kirilenko may not be the same player but, if anything, this CSKA team looks even more capable of lifting the trophy in Madrid this May. While not sweeping opponents aside with the same gusto, this is a team which has looked extraordinarily competent. It’s the least flawed outfit in Europe and one that doesn’t look designed to throw away victories from near certain positions of success. Basically, this is a CSKA team that doesn’t look like it’s going to CSKA.
Where Kirilenko fits in to this line-up is the big question.
“Obviously AK is not the same guy who won Euroleague MVP and Best Defender honors in 2011/12. Just talk to Lionell Hollins who played him over 10 minutes on one lonely occasion this autumn in Brooklyn. The acclaimed Russian played a mere 55 games (including playoffs) for Jason Kidd a year ago. Time and injuries took their toll on Kirilenko’s body and his recent track record proves that. His shape and ability to stay on the court are the biggest issues at hand. On the bright side, the European schedule isn’t nearly as brutal as its NBA counterpart so Kirilenko will have a shot to shake off the rust in time for postseason,” Timur Rustamov, reporter with Sport-Express told BallinEurope.
Alexander Chernykh, reporter with Sports.ru, has similar concerns over what Kirilenko has left on the clock. “One should consider not only Kirilenko’s physical age, he turned 34 last month, but the fact that he’s been playing pro, men’s level basketball since he was 15, and later didn’t rest between NBA marathons, having to carry the Russian national team during summers. This is a banged up guy who already has a set routine for rehabbing his back because it bothers him in every season he plays,” said Chernykh.
Despite Chernykh’s worries over Kirilenko’s health, he said he is confident Kirilenko will be a huge factor for CSKA.
“I expect Kirilenko to be a star player in Euroleague again – or rather hope for it, being a fan of his game. But if I had make a bet, there is no reason to say that he will be just as good as three years ago. There will be an adjustment period, like with any player who joins an established team during the season. The big question is what to do with Andrey Vorontsevich who is having a career year in Khryapa’s absence. The good thing is, Kirilenko is so versatile, playing both forward positions, and Vorontsevich is also able to play at SF, PF and some minutes at C. They will find a way to coexist, but it may take a few games to click. Vorontsevich can be a beast fighting under the rim, but he is also a more reliable outside shooter than Kirilenko and is probably quicker guarding the perimeter. Their defensive assignments and their roles on offense will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on,” said Chernykh.
“Kirilenko has a history of surpassing expectations. He was widely considered as ‘washed up’ in the NBA before spending a great season on CSKA and Team Russia and then coming back ‘rejuvenated’. Thing is, he was always the same great player, only his role on the team was changing. So even if I sounded a bit sceptical – if it all falls into place in terms of tactics in CSKA, Kirilenko may surprise and impress once again.”
If Chernykh sounds concerned on one hand and hyper confident on the other, it’s not because he’s sitting on the fence. Kirilenko is a legend in Russian hoops, he has done more than any other player in a CSKA or national team jersey since the fall of the USSR. Balancing what to expect from a player with Kirilenko’s age and rust with what he means to the sport in Russia and what he has shown he can do is no easy task. Even with that MVP season in 2011/12, Kirilenko donated all of his earnings with CSKA to charity. His star only grows brighter in Moscow.
Against VEF Riga in his VTB League comeback, we saw a bit more of the Kirilenko to expect over the rest of the season.
“There’s no debate Kirilenko reached star status in Russia long ago. The paradox is he never played star-type basketball. Both his NBA All-Star selection and European personal trophies were earned by dominating with energy and defense, while scoring mostly on cuts, put-backs and chances created by team offense. So his return to Moscow shouldn’t disrupt any collective flow. On the contrary Kirilenko will try to utilise his abilities to the best of the club. Don’t look for him to try to carry the scoring load with Weems, Teodosic, De Colo and Fridzon by his side. He’ll rather help maintain the balance on offensive end and clean up for his teammates on defense. It’s only natural that fitting in AK will take time and a cut-and-try approach. Anyway something tells me incorporating Kirilenko midseason is the headache that a lot of European coaches would gladly agree to experience,” said Rustamov.
“Don’t overlook the locker room factor that AK brings along. Kirilenko also steps in as a stabilising piece that boosts team confidence and becomes something to unite around. He might be a long needed medium that bridges the differences in basketball philosophies of Khryapa, Weems and Teodosic. Fair enough if you’re [Dimitrios] Itoudis.”
Even still, it’s unclear if this is a short-term gig of if this is the real homecoming for Kirilenko.
“There’s too much uncertainty about Kirilenko’s future right now. Especially after he missed a lot of time due to family reasons and hinted at retirement at recent press conference. If I had to guess I’d say Andrei will stay in Moscow. To play basketball or to live a family life? Better ask AK,” said Rustamov.
Chernykh is similarly uncertain. The table is set for this to be a longer term partnership but it will take the rest of this season to work out what AK’s intentions truly are.
“Kirilenko already announced that he will retire after he plays his last CSKA game, and that he will return to talking about his future in summer. I believe it will depend a lot on his health, and probably on team results and quality of his own game. So one thing is for sure – he’s not coming back to both the NBA and to national team, and the rest is really impossible to predict, we just have to wait a couple month,” he said.