After a detour to Russia followed by a pit stop in NBA's Siberia, Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams are once again reunited. Throw in a couple of Hall of Famers and a coach with the same ideals, and you've got the makings of a fruitful sequel.
The Kirilenko/Williams reunion has been largely understated until now. Then again, sharing a stage with Boston’s showstoppers will do that to any caliber player. It hasn’t helped that Kirilenko has been conspicuously absent from the bright lights since the announcement, opting instead to be introduced via the glitzy medium of a conference call. Even the significance of Kirilenko's arrival, which tipped the Nets’ status from gaudy assemblage of players into potential contender territory, has been eclipsed by cries of foul play. Regardless, despite the headline-hogging dynamics at play this season -- from Kidd’s inaugural coaching season, to KG’s impact on team culture to Pierce trolling hypersensitive Knicks fans -- what should excite Nets fans is the Kirilenko lubricant effect on offense and the lift he’ll provide to a resurgent Williams. Talks of not-enough-shots-to-go-around are typical and usually overblown, but either way, Kirilenko couldn't care less because he’s always been that guy who doesn’t get given many lines but wrings the most out of them.
Before you mention Williams’ transformation from lethargic to scintillating player in the latter portion of the season, you should note that the Nets' plodding pace (25th in the league) and assist-starved ways (28th in the league in Assist Ratio) barely changed after the All-Star Weekend*. A slower pace means more possessions going deeper into the clock. Look across any team’s shot clock usage and you will find the same trend: the longer the possession, the harder it becomes to score. Given the average age of the Nets’ starters, conserving energy and getting easier looks is going to be imperative to a deep playoff run.
For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the 2012-2013 Nets’ shot distribution compared to the pace of the post 7-seconds or less 2007-2008 Suns team:
The O’Neal-bloated 2007-2008 Suns:
The 2012-2013 Nets:
As for the matter of sticky ball distribution, Lopez and Williams developed an undeniable chemistry. Lopez was the beneficiary of a whopping 215 of Williams’ 604 total regular season assists, which was tops in the league in % of a PG’s assists gobbled up by a single player**. On its face, having such a reliable tandem looks like a sure win. But combine the Nets' pace with a somewhat predictable offense, and you get a tarred engine that was especially exposed come playoff time when defenses ‘round the league tighten their screws.
Jason Kidd has already made it clear that he expects even more from Deron Williams this season. Although the double-digit assist goal seems explicitly directed at his star PG, it’s realistically going to be more of a byproduct of picking up the pace and diversifying the entry points to the offense. Say all you want about the starting lineup not being built to run, but implementing an opportunistic running game hinges just as much on wholehearted buy-in and building habits through stubborn repetition as it does on personnel. It only takes one player to slack on those habits before others start picking up on the cues; teammates drag their feet after a rebound, the PG raises his head and sees no one ahead of the ball and that leads to jogging at half-speed on a break that suddenly doesn’t look like much of an advantage anymore.
Those two areas -- scoring earlier in the clock and facilitating the offense -- are precisely where Andrei, with his angular, pack-of-bones physique and malleable set of skills, fits in.
The Man of Many Haircuts and Talents
Focusing on Kirilenko and Williams’ two-man game would be foolish; that’s because their partnership was always more about a pulley-like complementarity and fluency spanning the entire length of the court. It’s hard not to get swept up in a wave of faux-nostalgia when looking back at Kirilenko and Williams’ time together in Utah. Those Jazz teams glided across the hardcourt surface like the Ice Capades and everyone, one through five, knew how to move the ball. But despite the bevy of highlights, Kirilenko was never Williams' go-to target. The 2009-2010 Williams-led Jazz generated only a slightly higher percentage of fast break opportunities than last year's Nets did. Yet, there’s no denying that Deron Williams was a much more efficient fast break player in Utah. He dished it out at a higher clip, and shot it better when he kept the ball to himself. Most startlingly, he only coughed it up on 12.8% of fast break opportunities in Utah, compared to a disconcerting 17.8% of the time last season.
Think of Andrei as a program that has preternatural if-this-then-that anticipation with a creative Plan B for almost every situation that arises. The Eight-Cat’s value (in reference to his cross-category fantasy appeal) comes from a buffet of attributes: he's a disruptive influence on defense and blessed with exquisite instinct on the break, both as a catalyst and finisher, and as a secondary playmaker in the halfcourt.
With that, here are 6 typically anomalous plays that you can expect from Andrei’s lush repertoire and how they lessen the load on Williams as the conductor of the offense:
Whether he’s streaking down the wing ahead of the play, or trailing the break, Kirilenko has a way of finding open lanes and making himself a target for the pass. Here, he lets the play develop and Williams finds him loping down the lane for the vocal finish.
Just like KG, Kirilenko is a master at finding cutters. While everyone’s looking elsewhere, Kirilenko fools unsuspecting defenses by flipping a no-look pass to the cutter, all with a sly smile on his face.
Razzle-dazzle aside, Kirilenko is extremely adept at facilitating the offense in the half-court. He can either execute these plays by curling off a double screen, or he can easily beat his man off the dribble and drop a wrap-around pass a nanosecond before bowling over the defender stationed in the lane. This allows for Williams to be part of the second action in a set (should the ball swing back to him) instead of always having the bulk of the defense’s attention focused on him.
Kirilenko doesn’t shoot much outside of his comfort zone. And while he’s no stretch 4, he still manages to space the floor by occupying and lurking into areas on the court that become vacant -- especially those corners in the lower defensive box. Given the embarrassing number of options on this team, expect this type of play to be a Williams-Kirilenko staple.
Ever the deceptive player off the ball, Kirilenko has learned the principles of the Kansas Shuffle ("They look right …. and you go left") to perfection during his decade-long tutelage in Utah. Here, he utilizes Love as a decoy and finds a sneaky Pekovic sliding behind his defender with the high-low pass.
Where he really stands apart is in his knack for unleashing the momentum from a defensive stop into an immediate kinetic burst going the other way. This clip shows the full gamut of Kirilenko’s versatility: sensing that Curry has nowhere to go, drifting towards the 3pt line, intercepting the pass and salvaging the play with a snap shovel pass after an errant Williams pass.
AK and small ball
Of the 5-man lineups that played more than 100 minutes together last season, only one featured a small-ball lineup with Wallace sliding over to the 4-spot. Despite Wallace's epic shortcomings last season, that lineup still managed to outperform the four more traditional lineups with two bigs in the frontcourt. Replacing Wallace with Kirilenko is like going from a straight-to-DVD movie to a smash indie hit, and it adds spring to an otherwise fairly grounded lineup. Wallace and Kirilenko’s assist numbers may not look all that different to you but not all assists are created equal and Andrei’s lead to higher percentage shots.
We have yet to gauge Kidd’s appetite for small-er ball, but it wouldn’t be a shocker to see many late game situations with KG moving over to the Center position where he now makes his living. That would enable Andrei to play at PF where he can provide the initial spark -- unleashing Williams in the open court -- and be a threatening wing presence, which should help raise Williams’ overall game.
If Williams temporarily lost his way outside of the confines of the Flex, Kirilenko still carries it with him like a phantom limb. He brings the system back to a player that has been longing for one, which is precisely why Kirilenko is Jason Kidd’s biggest ally. You better believe he’s going to play a key role in ensuring that Williams reclaims his membership in the 10-assist club.
* Interestingly, Indiana and New York hovered around the same bottom-dwelling mark in both categories
** The league average for % of plays between a PG and his favorite target was 25% in 2012-2013. Williams-Lopez topped the list with 36% of the team’s connections, with Williams-Johnson a distant second at 15%.