The Brooklyn Nets' mid-July signing of Andrei Kirilenko raised quite a few eyebrows for a couple of reasons. First, there was the initial shock of what signing the former Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves forward, who earned $9.8 million last season, on top of three incumbent max-contract players (Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson) and two incoming eight-figure additions (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) would do to the Nets' already skyscraping luxury-tax bill. Then, though, came the jaw-dropping realization that Brooklyn had somehow managed to land the versatile 32-year-old veteran, who turned down a $10 million player option in Minnesota, for the bargain-basement price of the $3.18 million taxpayer's midlevel exception. (It's a two-year deal, but Kirilenko can opt out next summer if he thinks he can land more than $3.33 million on the open market.)
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As Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported, plenty of league executives had questions about that "somehow," with owners and front-office types insinuating that Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov had reached some sort of side deal with Kirilenko, a player he'd previously employed as the owner of CSKA Moscow, for whom Kirilenko played between 1998 and 2001. The suggestions were immediate and loud:
"Brazen," one Western Conference GM told Yahoo Sports.
"Let's see if the league has any credibility," one NBA owner told Yahoo Sports. "It's not about stopping it. It's about punishing them if they're doing it."
Another Eastern Conference GM: "There should be a probe. How obvious is it?"
As it turns out, there was a probe, according to Fred Kerber of the New York Post ... and it turned up nothing:
At least one owner — possibly more — complained to the league.
“When there is a formal complaint, the league will look into it,” said one league official who spoke in generalities and refused comment on the Kirilenko issue.
So the league launched its investigation, questioning participants. Nets officials were summoned — at one point over a weekend, which is usually a time off in the summer for league execs.
“It was a very, VERY, thorough investigation,” one source maintained. “They checked everything.”
(I bet I know at least one fellow owner who dropped a dime and made a call to the league office.)
The findings, or lack thereof, dovetail with Kirilenko's post-signing assertion that his decision to go from $10 million starter to $3 million reserve was predicated on a combination of the Nets' location, the strength of their roster and their chances of competing for a championship. Misjudging the multi-year market after the initial thrust of free agency for a 32-year-old who hasn't played 70 games in a full NBA season since 2008 was a likely factor, too; Kirilenko's agent, Marc Fleisher, told Kerber that "the offers and things we had from other teams," including possible sign-and-trade deals like the one in which the San Antonio Spurs were reportedly interested, "were too difficult to make happen.” To hear player and team tell it, the combination of an attractive opportunity and dwindling alternative options, rather than under-the-table overseas chicanery, led to Kirilenko's on-the-cheap signing, and the league has apparently uncovered nothing to contradict that claim.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the investigation and its conclusions quiet the rumblings about Prokhorov's tactics or his apparent disregard for the punitive measures included in the league's collective bargaining agreement. For now, though, it seems we can table questions about the Nets' methods for adding talent and begin focusing more earnestly on questions of whether Brooklyn's evidently upgraded roster actually stands a chance of threatening the defending champion Miami Heat, conference finalist Indiana Pacers or Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls for Eastern supremacy — the only questions that'll really matter come the opening of training camp in two weeks' time.