In an offseason where the Houston Rockets snared Dwight Howard, the Warriors added Andre Igoudala and the Pelicans grabbed Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans out of thin air, there are a lot of candidates for which team enjoyed the best offseason.
However, the Brooklyn Nets have all challengers beaten. The Boston Celtics’ sudden decision to rebuild their nucleaus was to the benefit of the Nets, who were able to unload their two most cringeworthy contracts – Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries – while picking up productive veterans with Hall of Fame pedigrees in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They also grabbed one-time NBA champion Jason Terry in that deal and added former Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank to Jason Kidd’s new coaching staff. The Nets had a pretty darn convincing case to say that they had arrived and were ready to improve upon their solid debut season in the Big Apple.
But they weren’t done.
Andrei Kirilenko opted out of a $10 million dollar deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves and quickly became one of the most coveted players on the market after Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith inked their new contracts within the first few days of free agency. Reports were coming that linked the Russian sharpshooter to the San Antonio Spurs, but it’s alleged nothing materialised because the Spurs were hamstrung by salary cap restraints and instead went with the substantially cheaper option, ex-Bull Marco Belenelli.
‘AK47’ proceded to shock the league shortly after by signing a modest 2 year deal with the Brooklyn Nets for a mere $3.1 million. That’s $12 million less than J.J. Hickson’s deal with the Nuggets, $3 million less than what Chris Copeland got at the Pacers and $600,000 than what Al-Farouq Aminu re-signed with the Pelicans for. It should come as no surprise then, that there’s some suspicions around the league.
New Clipper Jared Dudley tweeted “Another Russian AK47 for the NBA opted out of a 10 million dollar contract to sign a contract with the Nets for 3 million?!!! #nocomment” while Yahoo! Sports’ Adiran Wojnarowski had this quote from a Western Conference executive:
"“Brazen,” one Western Conference GM told Yahoo! Sports. “Let’s see if the league has any credibility,” one NBA owner told Yahoo! Sports. “It’s not about stopping it. It’s about punishing them if they’re doing it.”"
While Nets GM Billy King has earned a mountain of credit for his bold acquisitions over the past three seasons, this recruitment has people looking beyond King and instead at Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. In the Nets’ introductory statement announcing their huge signing, Mr. Prokhorov released the following statement:
“It gives me great pleasure to welcome Andrei to the Nets. He is a true talent with tremendous versatility. As a fellow countryman, I am especially proud that the best Russian player in the history of the NBA will be wearing a Nets jersey.”
While the Russian connection is nice and hearty, is it really worth $7 million dollars? There’s many executives around the league who baulk at that idea. It wouldn’t be out-of-the-question to believe that Prokhorov, a political heavyweight in Russia, could fashion some side dealings outside of the salary cap to make the Nets seem more compelling for Kirilenko. It’s not to say that happened. Such happenings are purely speculation at the moment and should remain so. Perhaps the NBA could investigate as executives allegedly are clamouring for, but Kirilenko should be applauded and not criticized for taking less money.
Kirilenko’s agent Marc Fleisher quoted his client as telling him “I’ve made well over $100 million in my career. The difference isn’t going to change my lifestyle so, let me pursue the ability to possibly win a title.”
With the new-look Nets, he certainly will have that possibility. As it stands right now, the Nets will be fielding a starting line-up of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez with Kirilenko and Andray Blatche leading the charge from the bench. That’s a terrifying outfit. Kirilenko isn’t the first player to take a paycut for a good team. Heck, he isn’t even the first this offseason. Andre Igoudala could have gotten more had he signed with the Kings but instead opted with the playoffs bound Warriors. Dwight Howard famously left $30 million on the table to spurn the Lakers, but there’s no accusations of Daryl Morey making under-the-table deals.
The Russian connection may be flimsy to explain the $7 million dollar sacrifice, but winning a championship isn’t. Almost every player in the NBA (except maybe Kobe Bryant) would give up $7 million dollars if it meant going from a lottery/borderline playoffs team to a legitimate championship contender. Kirilenko went from having no hope at a ring with the Wolves to a very good one with the Nets. Truthfully, the allegedly Russian connection is only a poor excuse in one context: alleging something dodgy happened.
The free agent and the owner are from the same country. That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t warrant an NBA investigation. In this article, there’s two examples in a field of many who gave up money to play for a team that could put them in championship contention. In the case of both Igoudala and Howard, the owners of their new teams are both Americans just like them. That doesn’t mean anything dodgy happened. The potential for underhanded, illegal deals certainly do exist in the Kirilenko-Nets case, but they do in every signing from from Chris Copeland to Chris Paul. Until the evidence proves otherwise, Kirilenko should be applauded for playing basketball for all the right reasons and not subject to this cloud of controversy.