When Andrei Kirilenko opted out of a $10.2 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 32-year-old forward did so presumably looking for one last long-term deal of his career.
Then the Russian star decided to sign a two-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets that will pay him just over $3 million this season, and the conspiracy theories immediately started. The Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, so surely there was some backroom, nudge-nudge agreement for further compensation under the table, right?
"No," Kirilenko said Thursday during a conference call. "Those type of rumours I can't control. I guess it comes from the history because of Russia, the KGB. I don't know what to think. I played 12 years in the NBA. It makes it look funny for those type of accusations."
Earlier this summer, Prokhorov chalked up the talk to the kind of suspicion that is rooted in cinema and Cold War thinking, not modern reality.
"I think old stereotypes, they are very hard to beat and to break," Prokhorov said. "And I want to thank our fans and members of the press, because they have been very quick to support us. And I respect all the NBA rules, and we play by the NBA rules. But I want just to stress once again, like with the luxury tax, I will do whatever I can in order to win championship, but under the NBA rules, please make no mistake about this."
Kirilenko said the reason he chose Brooklyn is much simpler. After spending his first 11 seasons in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and Timberwolves, his motivation has changed from making money to chasing championships.
"I play in NBA for 12 years and I think there is a time to take a shot to win a title," Kirilenko said.
After spending the lockout year playing in Moscow, a rejuvenated Kirilenko averaged 12.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and shot 50.7 per cent for the Timberwolves last season. He also helped turn a team that had struggled mightily on defence for years into a respectable unit on that end of the floor.
His contributions had team President David Kahn assuring Kirilenko that he would get a new, long-term deal from the Wolves this summer. But Kahn was fired after the season and new team President Flip Saunders wasn't willing to give Kirilenko a three or four-year deal worth more than $30 million, numbers that were discussed during the season. So Kirilenko opted out of the final year of his deal with Minnesota and hit the market.
"At that time I was feeling I want to be in Minnesota for a long time," Kirilenko said. "But there were some changes to Minnesota and I really respect Flip Saunders and I respect his decision that he decided not to sign me for a long time. I can't do anything with that. That kind of opened up all my options. I start looking to other teams and start comparing situations to other teams."
Lured in by the Nets' spending spree
He had conversations with several teams, and the Timberwolves did offer him a three-year deal that would have paid him $6 million to $7 million annually to anchor the team's defence. But Prokhorov was in the middle of a summer spending spree, swinging a massive trade to land Celtics stars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry that would send the Nets' luxury tax bill skyrocketing.
It's the kind of bold, brash moves that Kirilenko watched Prokhorov pull off when the two were teamed up for Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, and he liked what he saw.
"He's always been known as a guy who is really trying to get the result," Kirilenko said. "He's a competitor and he wants to win. It's always great when your owner is really passionate about basketball."
And the Russian roots don't hurt, either. When Prokhorov first bought the Nets, Kirilenko said he envisioned himself one day playing in Brooklyn. He goes to New York, where there is a vibrant Russian community, another big plus for him.
"It's a huge part," he said. "It's kind of reminding me that I'm playing at home. In the lockout year I played back in Moscow and I feel so great that I had Russian friends and all the fans. Everybody speaks Russian. It makes you feel like you are home."
Taking such a big pay cut certainly was a part of the discussions he had with his wife and children about the move. But they looked at living in New York, playing for Prokhorov and playing with a star-studded team that also includes Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, and decided they couldn't pass it up.
"I understand the money is not that great, is not what I could have made," Kirilenko said. "If you take a look at the situations, 10 years ago, I'm not sure I would've taken that deal. Right now it was certainly best option possible to take the chance and win the trophy. I'm not saying we're going to win. ... But for first time in my career I'm starting the season when I know we have a chance to win the whole thing."