The Sacramento Kings are reportedly one of the teams chasing Andrei Kirilenko, a free agent who is playing for CSKA Moscow in his native Russia. The 30-year-old has spent his entire 10-year NBA career with the Utah Jazz, where he made the 2004 Western All-Stars and three All-Defense teams from 2004-06. He made $17.8 million last season and would be expected to be much cheaper this time around, though still not terribly cheap.
As has been noted in the discussion on this site, the Kings have an advantage if there are truly 15 teams interested in the forward, as the Kings still have plenty of salary cap space after locking up Marcus Thornton and Chuck Hayes. Assuming the $33 million figure for Thornton's four-year deal -- there's been some confusion, so we'll err on the high side -- the Kings would be expected to have about $13 million in cap space. (That also accounts for Jimmer Fredette's rookie contract and minimal salaries for second-round picks Tyler Honeycutt and Isaiah Thomas.) Most teams are over the cap and, without using a sign-and-trade with the Jazz, have just the $5 million mid-level exception at their disposal. Teams like the New Jersey Nets have more, but seem to have other priorities (like Nene or Dwight Howard).
It's unlikely that anyone can make a more lucrative offer than the Kings.
But should the Kings make a lucrative offer? What does Kirilenko bring?
The All-Star nod was eight seasons ago. AK's last All-Defense nod was in 2006, or six seasons ago. His block rate, once the best in the league (8.5 percent in 2005), is down to a fairly mundane 3 percent. (That would almost assuredly lead the Kings still; Samuel Dalembert came in at 4.3 percent last season, and no other King broke 2.6.) His rebounding is solid at small forward, but nothing terribly special. (It is much better than John Salmons, Donte Greene and Francisco Garcia, but that certainly speaks more to their deficiencies.)
But are we positioning Kirilenko as an upgrade on Salmons ... or an upgrade at power forward? The team just signed Hayes, and Paul Westphal has slotted him as the starting power forward. I hardly think Chuckwagon was a contingency plan against a failed Kirilenko chase. The Kings wanted Hayes. Sacramento also likes J.J. Hickson enough to have traded for him, and Geoff Petrie seems more attached to Jason Thompson than he had been Spencer Hawes or Kevin Martin. Power forward, in terms of non-star depth, is not a need. Small forward is.
It's hard to argue that the team has much faith in Donte Greene -- Omri Casspi competed with him for a job for two years, the team brought Salmons back to take, Westphal even tried Thompson and Carl Landry at the position over Greene and, in the most damning indictment, Francisco Garcia started 34 games there last season. So while we as fans of The Show see Greene as second on the depth chart at small forward, the team more likely sees him as roster fluff. That's unbearably sad, but it seems to be the case.
I hardly think the Kings are deluded themselves on Salmons: Westphal has emphasized that he's a veteran, not some great talent. Westphal wants vets, and Petrie is giving him vets. That's what Salmons is: a player who can be consistent and who has been to the rodeo a few times. Salmons is the equivalent of an innings-eater in baseball: he's not going to wow anyone, but sometimes he's a lot better than the alternative. I'm pretty convinced that team understands his limitations.
For those reasons, I think Kirilenko would be brought in as a small forward, even though he has historically had more success as a power forward.
His defensive success as a small forward is nothing to blink at, though. Last season, per 82games.com, he played 40 percent of Utah's SF minutes. In those, he held opposing SFs to a 46 percent effective field goal percentage (well below average) and a 12.2 PER (well below average). The numbers weren't as strong in 2010, but he still outperformed his opponents at small forward. His small forward defense in 2009 was nasty, holding match-ups to 42 percent shooting and an 11.4 PER. In 2008, the numbers weren't as strong, but AK outperformed his opponents at small forward and the team had a huge +7.9 rating differential when he was at the position.
In each of the past four seasons, Kirilenko has beaten his match-ups at the small forward spot.
Salmons played only 8 percent of the Bucks' small forward minutes last season, but did win his match-up by a good margin. (He lost his two-guard match-up handily.) He played 13 percent of the Bulls' SF minutes in 2010, and lost his match-up despite good apparent defense. (He broke even at two-guard. In limited time with the Bucks that season, he was excellent and won match-ups at both positions.) In 2009, he played 22 percent of the Bulls' SF minutes and broke even. That season he played 30 percent of the Kings' SF minutes and came out just ahead. In 2008, he played 22 percent of the Kings' minutes at SF and was outperformed.
In the past four seasons, Salmons has come out ahead as frequently as he has been beaten.
Clearly, based on match-up data, Kirilenko is the better bet at small forward.
That match-up data takes offense into account, obviously, but it's worth noting to two players' differences. Salmons is historically the better three-point shooter, and the two are about even on long two-pointers. The single most critical and noticeable difference on offense, though: Salmons' percentage of makes assisted is typically down around 40 percent, whereas AK is consistently above 70 percent. Most of Kirilenko's shots come within the flow of an offense, while Salmons creates his own.
If we need shot creators, that'd be good. But we don't. We have two starting guards in Thornton and Tyreke Evans who can create shots for themselves and others, and we have a center in DeMarcus Cousins who can do the same (though the quality of shots he creates tends to be poor at his young age). This is where the backlash over Salmons' ball-pounding enters the fray: Kirilenko doesn't do it, and it's likely better for the sake of our guards that he doesn't do it.
To me, Kirilenko seems like a real upgrade at small forward, and I wouldn't blink if the Kings offered him four years, $35 million (roughly what remains on Salmons' contract). For perspective's sake, the mid-level exception is worth $21.3 million over four years.
With Kirilenko as a starting small forward and Hayes at power forward, this could turn into a pretty decent defensive club almost immediately. A lot would depend on how Evans and Cousins develop at that end, but the potential for a good defensive team would be there.