Jazz: Kirilenko makes return to Utah in new uniform
By Steve Luhm
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Dec 31 2012 12:04PM
Andrei Kirilenko’s lingering legacy in Utah is a massive contract, a series of injuries and — at least in the minds of some — unfulfilled expectations.
But is that fair?
During a decade with the Jazz, Kirilenko became one of the most versatile and productive players in franchise history.
Only Mark Eaton blocked more shots.
Only John Stockton, Karl Malone, Rickey Green and Deron Williams handed out more assists.
Only five players, led by Stockton, Malone and Adrian Dantley, scored more points.
Still, Kirilenko and the Jazz went their separate ways before the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. He played in his native Russia last year — and enjoyed spectacular success — before deciding to return to the NBA.
In July, Kirilenko signed a two-year, $20 million contract with Minnesota, which visits Utah on Wednesday for what will be his first-ever game against the Jazz.
"It is overwhelming for me — coming back to EnergySolutions Arena," Kirilenko said. "And it will be very strange — going to the guest locker room — because I have so many great memories with Jazz. But I am with Timberwolves now, so I must go to guest locker room."
He is playing well.
Although Kirilenko has missed four of Minnesota’s 27 games because of injuries, he averages 13.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists for coach Rick Adelman.
"It’s been great, coming back from Russia," Kirilenko said. "I had to change my schedule again, but the team is looking good. The coach is good. They have created the same atmosphere as Utah — you know — during Stockton and Malone."
The Jazz selected Kirilenko with the 24th pick in the 1999 draft, although he stayed in Russia for another two seasons before coming to Utah. He was 20 years old.
Kirilenko’s athleticism and willingness to complement aging Hall of Famers Stockton and Malone made him a fan favorite.
When Stockton retired and Malone signed for a final season with the L.A. Lakers in 2003, Kirilenko became the cornerstone on a young team some predicted would win 10 games.
Instead, the Jazz finished 42-40 and just missed the playoffs, snapping a 20-year streak of qualifying for the postseason.
Kirilenko played in the All-Star Game.
"He was just so creative," said former teammate Kyle Korver, who now plays for Atlanta. "I remember, I’d throw the ball into him and I’m just cutting through and all of a sudden, he’s bouncing it between his legs and I’m getting a layup. Or he’s coming out of nowhere to block shots.
"He was so good along the baseline. We had a couple guys — him and Ronnie Brewer — who worked the baseline like no one else I’ve ever known in the NBA."
Days before the 2004-05 season, Kirilenko was rewarded with a six-year, $86 million contract.
After a 6-1 start, however, injuries decimated the Jazz. Carlos Boozer, Raul Lopez, Raja Bell and Kirilenko all went down. Utah finished 26-56.
It was the start of an unhappy trend for Kirilenko, who missed 113 games over his final six seasons with the Jazz. That’s nearly one out of every four.
Given the uncertainty caused by the lockout, the makeup of the roster and the salary cap flexibility Utah gained when Kirilenko’s contract expired in 2011, neither side seemed interested in extending the relationship.
"There was not so much talk with Utah," Kirilenko said. "It was the lockout and they had other guys at forward position, so it was just better to go to Russia. But I had a great time in Utah. For 10 years, it was a great experience."
A year later, Kirilenko sorted through a handful of offers from NBA teams before deciding to return with the Timberwolves.
"I had a lot of the same feelings here that I had in Utah," he explained. "I feel good with the team when I watched and there are a lot of European players here. ... A lot of things just came together."
Kirilenko also liked like the idea of moving his family to Minnesota.
"The skiing, it’s not as good as Utah — not as much, you know?" he said. "But there is a lot of hockey, and you know us Russians. We like hockey."
From experience, Korver knows Kirilenko is excited to face his former team.
"You definitely want to play well," he said. "It’s hard [emotionally]. You want to treat it like a regular game. But then you see all these faces that you used to say ‘hi’ to every day — people you had relationships with."
Columnist Kurt Kragthorpe contributed to this story.