When Andrei Kirilenko opted out of his $10 million salary with the Minnesota Timberwolves to become a free agent this summer, he instantly became one of the most sought-after veterans among teams looking to solidify and/or improve their status as championship contenders. So it was something of a surprise when AK-47 opted for a relative pittance and signed with the Brooklyn Nets for two years at $3.18 million per season, with a player option on the second. It was enough to cause front office executives around the NBA to suggest that Russian oligarch owner Mikhail Prokhorov had engineered some kind of side deal with his countryman Kirilenko, presumably by handing him a controlling interest in Moscow's hottest American blue jeans emporium.
On Thursday, Kirilenko addressed those suspicions with reporters. The explanation probably won't please many who suspect foul play. From Stefan Bondy for NYDailyNews.com:
Why'd you give up so much money? I opted out not because I wanted to sign with the Nets. At that time, I wanted to be in Minnesota for a long time. But there was a change in Minnesota. I respect Flip Saunders decision, but he decided not to sign me for a long time. I can’t do anything about that.
Conspiracy theories rooted in stereotypes? I can't do anything with what people think. I'm coming from the facts. I can't change it. I can't control it. ...Those type of rumors I can’t control. And I guess it comes from the history because of the Russian KGB. It makes it a little funny. What can I do? [...]
Regrets about opting out? No, I don’t have any regrets. As I always sit here with my wife, we sit here talking to my wife about different options, different opportunities. It’s the same as when I signed with Utah I had different opportunities. But all the details, which is –coach, roster, money, goals, city. You kind of combine all those things together and you try to find the optimal option for me, for my family. At this point, the Brooklyn Nets was the best option possible if you combined all those things. …I understand the money is not that great, it’s not what I could have made. But if you take a look at the situation, I’m not sure if 10 years ago I would have taken this. But right now, it’s really the best option possible – to take a legit chance to win the trophy. I’m not saying we’re going to win it. It’s going to take a lot of work. But it’s a great chance and it’s the first time in my career where I’m basically starting the season when I know we have a chance to win the whole thing.
Kirilenko's story is fairly simple on the surface: he opted out to sign a long-term contract with the Wolves, which didn't look quite so promising given that he was making $10 million per season and turned 32 years old in February. So Kirilenko looked for other options and settled on the Nets due to their location, their offseason moves and chances to win a championship, and, yes, the connection to Prokhorov. Yet there are some holes in this argument, including that Kirilenko likely would have had some sense of the Wolves' plans and known that his salary was only tolerable because he was only under contract for a few years. The chances of obtaining a true long-term contract were low, and opting out was an attractive option in part because it gave him the chance to play for a better team. If Kirilenko didn't know what he was doing, then he's a lot more naive than he appears.
On the other hand, none of that means that his deal with the Nets is cover for an under-the-table exchange. As noted by Bill Simmons in between "Midnight Run" quotes earlier this week, Kirilenko has made more than $110 million in professional basketball, which mitigates the differences in salary between the $3.18 million he'll get from the Nets and various offers from the Wolves and others. For a player of his age and experiences, those other factors really do matter, whether they involve playing in a cosmopolitan city, connecting with a powerful Russian leader, or chasing a title. The claims that something nefarious must have happened for Kirilenko to sign with the Nets suggest stereotype-influenced paranoia, the vain assumption that these teams were clearly more attractive destinations, or basic jealousy. Very few seem willing to consider that people define happiness in different ways.
If nothing else, the calls to investigate Prokhorov's actions indicate just how much his free-spending summer has irked the rest of the league. The luxury tax stipulations of the new collective bargaining agreement were supposed to have made it poisonous to load up on expensive talent, but the Nets have added big-salary players as if no such rules existed. Instead of fearing the tax, as most owners have, Prokhorov has acknowledged his considerable fortune and used it to his advantage. If the limits of the CBA serves as an implicit agreement among owners, then he has decided to observe the letter of the law rather than its spirit.
In truth, we have no idea if Prokhorov and Kirilenko are acting legally. But the certainty with which many parties have assumed them to be cheating says a lot more about Prokhorov's more brazen acquisitions this summer. He's defying social convention in a manner that the rest of the NBA considers distasteful. In a way, he's already broken their trust.
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