Andrei Kirilenko's departure from Brooklyn was a postscript to a story that began five years ago, when the best player in Russian basketball history talked with the president of his former basketball team, CSKA Moscow, about his plan to buy an NBA team. Mikhail Prokhorov had been Kirilenko's boss for three years, then later his friend and confidante.
According to Kirilenko, Prokhorov told him about his plan to buy the Nets a week before the deal went down in September and asked what he thought. The two trusted each other. From 1998 through 2001, Kirilenko played for CSKA Moscow, Prokhorov's team, before joining the Jazz. In 2007, Prokhorov had even tried to buy out Kirilenko's contract with Utah so the star of Team Russia, the European champs, could return to Moscow and CSKA!
Eventually, everyone thought that AK-47 would join the Nets. It was just a matter of time, and indeed, the Nets talked to him in the summer of 2012.
By July of 2013 - the offseason following the Nets' inaugural year in Brooklyn, the two were finally reunited. When the deal was announced, it was billed as an absolute steal.
At the time, Brooklyn was looking to add a gritty player like Kirilenko to their roster, but given their rigid financial circumstances, it was very unlikely they could get Kirilenko - or even a player of his caliber. He had made $10 million in Minnesota the year before and wanted a multi-year deal starting at $7 million. There really was no market and then something happened.
After the Nets missed out on their "plan B" in Bojan Bogdanovic, they went after their "plan A+" --as one of the ownership group put it. After initially resisting, Kirilenko decided to join Brooklyn for a very discounted price, $3.1 million and for only two years, the second year, a player option.
Reporters who spoke with Kirilenko's agent, Marc Fleisher were told, "at this point of his career, he's fortunate to have made a lot of money and while money is important, I think they convinced him that signing with a team that had a chance win--and that had Russian ownership--was too good to pass up."
He was viewed as the final piece in a summer of great moments -- hiring Jason Kidd, trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. It's easy to see the lure for both sides. He was the first Russian player to be a member of the Nets during Mikail Prokhorov's tenure, a cause for celebration.
But not everyone was all that thrilled. Other owners inferred a Russian conspiracy between Prokhorov and Kirilenko, that perhaps somewhere on the Eurasian continent there was a cache of cash or gold or whatever the currency was for Russian conspiracies. Although they lacked any true evidence, one or more teams called the commissioner's office for an investigation. The probe was serious. The Nets had to provide financial and communications records and key front office personnel had to be interviewed. It was not a perfunctory look.
Of course, it wasn't just Russian ownership that lured Kirilenko to Brooklyn. He cited how Brighton Beach and Brooklyn's huge population of Russians and Russian-Americans was a major reason for signing with the Nets, saying "It's kind of reminding me of playing home". As time progressed, the executive's attempt(s) to somehow expose the Nets were laid to rest. It was all above board, the NBA determined.
Deron Williams - a former teammate and longtime friend of the Kirilenko's - also played a role in Kirilenko's discounted signing in Brooklyn. The two were friends from Jazz days. When AK-47 played in the FIBA Europe Finals in Turkey in 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Williams were on hand, then flew back to Moscow in a private jet for a guided tour of their friend's country.
But it didn't work out.
Under Jason Kidd, Kirilenko missed 25 of the first 29 games with back spasms. After that, he barely received consistent minutes or a legitimate role on the team. He averaged a mere 5.0 points and 3.2 rebounds in 19.0 minutes per game. He saw little time in the playoffs, sitting more than one game, leading to a social media post by his wife, who complained of his limited role.
In the summer, he picked up the option on the second year of his two-year, $6.5 million contract with Brooklyn, his family settled in New York by Gehry, a Manhattan apartment tower owned by Bruce Ratner.
As the summer came around, Kirilenko was still undecided and the Nets had other things to worry about. \Kidd had received permission to talk to the Milwaukee Bucks about a possible coaching job.
Then two weeks after Kidd left for Milwaukee, Kirilenko decided to opt-in to his second year and finish out his contract with the Brooklyn Nets. He had hopes of more minutes and a bigger role, of course.
Kirilenko was optimistic about his upcoming season with the Nets, telling Russian tabloid SavSport, "Everyone is waiting for a championship in Brooklyn." It seemed like the Nets, Kirilenko and new coach Lionel Hollins bonded at Basketball without Borders in Africa.
Andrei seemed to be satisfied with a new coach in town, or rather that Kidd was on the outs. Following his re-signing with the Nets, he dissed Jason Kidd when speaking to Russia reporter Nikolai Mysin by saying, "So the pressure is huge. And Kidd couldn't handle it. Or maybe didn't want to." He called the team's second round exit a "lack of success."
He did not minch words.
"When Kidd became head [coach] of the team, no one really knew what to expect," he added. "Of course he had colossal experience as a player but no coaching experience. Or reputation. At the beginning it was difficult. What else could it be when you're losing more games than you're winning? Things were a bit easier for me as I was injured at the time and couldn't be on the court and do anything about it, no matter how much I wanted to. So, inside, I was calm."
Those were optimistic days for Kirilenko and the Nets. They went sour, quick; seven games to be exact. Kirilenko played in just seven games under Hollins before taking a personal leave on November 20, a week after his last game played vs. the Golden State Warriors. During the seven games, he averaged 0.4 points in 5.0 minutes per game. His opportunities were scarce.
Kirilenko oddly returned for one day of practice on December 1st. He knew he wasn't going to return again.
In an interview with a Russian sports publication at the time of his leave, Andrei Kirilenko said "optimism is over" for him and that Hollins had told him after first few games of the season, "Andrei, I do not see your role on the team." Kirilenko says he was surprised and contends he can "probably help the team."
The calls began. Any deal was complicated by his family matter. Kirilenko wasn't going to leave his wife's side, not until the matter was resolved, which could take till mid-season. No one was offering an established player for a 33-year-old who appears to be in decline. A rumor of interest by the Jazz turned into just that, a rumor. The two teams never talked.
Then, on December 10th, after over a season with the Brooklyn Nets, Andrei Kirilenko - once a VERY hyped addition - was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers along with Jorge Gutierrez, two future second round picks and cash for Brandon Davies. It was a salary dump.
Moscow had to approve the deal. They approve all of them and it must have been a bitter pill for them. They were thrilled when he agreed to sign. This was the greatest Russian player (along with Hall of Famer Sergei Belov) in basketball history! More than that, Kirilenko was a friend, but the NBA, it's a business.