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Kirilenko and Johnson: The unsung

I've written on here a few times now about Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and what I think they bring to this Nets team. Everyone knows that Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are the younger faces of the team. But while there's been excitement about Andrei Kirilenko unexpectedly taking a huge pay-cut to play in Brooklyn this season, I still don' think that enough attention has been paid to what the Nets have in Kirilenko and Joe Johnson.

Johnson and Kirilenko have both spent large portions of their career as leading players on playoff caliber teams. While they may have never been megawatt superstars, both have spent time on All Star teams and proven that on any given night they can be the best player on the court...no matter who else is on the court with them. But leading this Nets squad won't be their roles this season, and it's the other part of their resumes outside of their individual accomplishments that makes this such an exciting prospect.

Because while both Johnson and Kirilenko have proven that they can be All Stars as individuals, more importantly they've both proven that they can make major team impact contributions in a variety of roles. Both of them have diverse, unselfish, and intelligent styles of play that allows them to make their marks on games without having to dominate the basketball. And that will be huge on this now star-studded Nets roster.

Johnson is the more known commodity in Brooklyn, as he has been on the team for a year. He made his name and earned his large contract for being a consistent 20+ ppg scorer in Atlanta, and last season with non-scorers Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace starting games Johnson was relied upon heavily for shot-creation. But what excites me about Johnson on this team is his other offensive talents. He has excellent floor-vision and decision-making ability for a wing, even capable of spending some time playing point guard. He averages 4.4 assists/game for his career (with a peak of 6.5 apg in his first season in Atlanta) but more importantly sports a career 2.1 assist/turnover ratio. And he is an excellent 3-point shooter, with a career 37% average from behind the arc on heavy volume.

Put that together, and it paints Johnson as a player that makes good decisions on offense, takes care of the ball, and whose presence on the court will create spacing and lanes for his teammates to drive/post-up even when he doesn't have the ball due to the threat of his long ball.

Kirilenko has always been one of the most unique talents in the NBA, and his unique skill-set fits perfectly on these Nets. He made his name with his excellent defense, as his always surprising length and awkward angles created blocked shots and steals numbers that made fantasy basketball owners love him. Kirilenko is even more unorthodox on offense, as a 6-9 athlete that scores primarily off the face-up, off of cuts, or on garbageman buckets around the rim that can also handle the ball and make the great pass when called upon.

While he may no longer put up video game defensive box score numbers (though he has averaged a combined 2.5 steals/blocks in each of his last three seasons) or be a threat to post yet another 5x5 (at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks in a single game), Kirilenko's skill set absolutely screams "Swiss Army Knife" on this team. He can be used to guard dominant offensive wings like LeBron, Carmelo or Durant, but he can also be utilized defensively in Garnett's role as the defensive middle linebacker. He can put all of his energy into hustling on defense, then still get his 11 ppg by being a garbageman on offense. And while he's still capable of playing well at the SF (according to 82games Kirilenko played most of his minutes at SF last season, with better PER/opponent PER splits at that position), Kirilenko has evolved to be the perfect small-ball power forward in an NBA where small ball is currently King. The "small" line-up featuring the 7-1 Garnett and 6-9 Kirilenko at the big positions is frankly scary, with all of the offensive advantages of small ball but simultaneously unlimited defensive potential that's normally associated with going big.

I'll conclude with a brief summary of their measured impact through the years. Based upon their yearly Regularized Adjusted +/- (RAPM, using only prior informed +/- info in the calculation) both Johnson and Kirilenko have consistently been among the higher impact players in the NBA without even looking at their box score numbers. Johnson ranked out between #27 and #54 in the NBA every year from 2008 - 2011, then after a down year in 2012 bounced back to have the #31 mark in the NBA again last season in the most recent update. Kirilenko's impact history is even more sparkling, as he never finished below # 19 in the NBA in any season between 2004 and 2009 (peaking at #8 overall) and he was still finishing well in the rankings up through his stepping away from the NBA in 2012.

It seems almost obligatory that every critic of the 2014 Nets must make reference to the 2013 Lakers, but Kirilenko and Johnson are exhibits 1A and 1B for why that comparison makes no sense. Because while both squads went four players deep with "big names", the Lakers saw a steep drop-off after that. On the Nets, on the other hand, once you get past the Deron/Garnett/Lopez/Pierce grouping you still have Johnson and Kirilenko poised to be huge difference makers. (And I haven't even gotten started yet on Blatche, Terry, Livingston, Evans, ...)

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