The Cold-blooded Russian
This is a guest feature from Basketball John, the man responsible for the web’s finest Utah Jazz coverage. For more Utah Jazz coverage, check out BasketballJohn.com.
What a difference a New Year’s makes. After beating the Trailblazers on December 31st, the Jazz decided to loosen up a bit and start winning again.
There are a lot of things that have changed since then. First, it seems as though Memo is finally healthy. Second, we were able to steal Korver from the Sixers. The Jazz have gone 10-2 since that trade. But today I’d like to sing the praises of the self proclaimed cold-blooded Russian, Andrei Kirilenko.
In what shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, but was, Andrei requested a trade through his wife’s blog last September. He was having the worst season of his career both statistically and mentally. The Jazz finally had a healthy Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Suddenly AK became the fourth option on the team. He stated that he had spoken numerous times with Sloan about his diminished role with the team. The problems between him and Jerry Sloan came to a head during the playoffs against the Rockets when he broke down in front of reporters. And after a great run in the playoffs was terminated at the hands of the Spurs, Jazz fans were optimistic for the next year.
But suddenly Kirilenko wanted out. He didn’t want to play under Sloan any more. He had many reasons, but the most telling was from this quote:
“I’m trying but it doesn’t work. I am not allowed. I do not get support from the coach and from the club. I’m convinced that Sloan’s methods have a negative impact on me.”
The reactions from Jazz fans were split into either the “good riddance” or “good for AK” groups. I was initially a fence-sitter but then leaned towards trading AK. It just so happened at the same time Shawn Marion wanted out of Phoenix. My reasoning that was if we were going to have a disgruntled SF/PF, we might as well only have one year left instead of AK’s huge contract. There was even a deal in place to bring the Matrix to Utah.
But perhaps being skilled in defusing all of Karl Malone’s trade demands and threats that he had played his last game as a Jazz man, the front office had a meeting with Sloan and AK during the pre-season to talk it out. In fact, Andrei’s wife Masha stated that maybe the biggest reason for the lack of communication between the Drago look-alike and John Deere coach was a language barrier. Sloan promised to involve AK more in the offense. And we haven’t heard a peep about it since except when a reporter tries to bring it up.
The Jazz have had many different heroes during the last twelve games. You could say the wins came because of the individual heroics of Boozer, Okur or Williams. But the consistent force for each game has been Kirilenko. After disappearing offensively last year, AK hooked up with former Jazz man Jeff Hornacek to work on his shot. And as a result, he’s shooting a near-career-high 49% from the field, a career-high 36% from three-point land, and has his free-throw percentage at 79%, above his career average. His five assists a night is also a career high and trails only Paul Pierce and LeBron James in that category amongst forwards. It could be argued that he’s the best non-guard passer in the game.
And that’s not mentioning his defensive efforts every night. You know about the blocks, but unless you watch the Jazz on a regular basis, you won’t see the numerous deflections, altered shots, and fast-break crushing stops.
So it appears for the time being that he and Sloan are on the same page. The biggest fear amongst Jazz fans now though is that AK has never publicly rescinded his trade demand. Will the Jazz move him for a defensive center? His value probably hasn’t been higher. His max contract makes it difficult enough to move him. But who could the Jazz get back that would improve the team and still make salaries work? I don’t think that there is anyone. But then again, I’m the one who said we should have traded him last fall.