ISTANBUL —When the NBA locked out its stars last offseason, Andrei Kirilenko rode into Russia on his wild horse to exorcise the memories of CSKA Moscow’s atrocious 2010-11 Euroleague season, in which they failed to make it to the Top 16 after a record eight straight Final Four appearances.
Kirilenko’s debut was something straight out of 2005: 17 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a 74-87 road win against Sonny Weems’ overmatched Zalgiris squad.
His casual dominance landed him the Week One MVP, and the former Utah Jazz forward followed it up with four more stat-stuffed beauties before a bloody fall in the Russian League sidelined AK for CSKA’s next five Euroleague bouts with a concussion, a broken nose and a bum shoulder.
When Kirilenko returned for the Top 16, he was the same old Andrei. The silent killer that everyone heard.
If a whistle blew off the ball, it was Kirilenko stepping to the free throw line. If a lightning quick touch pass led to an easy lay-in, odds are it was AK notching the dime. If a red blur flew in from the weak side to swat a lay-up into the stands, the camera would inevitably settle on Kirilenko’s razor-sharp jawline as he glared at the mess he’d made.
Night after night, Andrei Kirilenko was the answer if the question was “Who was that?”
What the former NBA All-Star has done in his first year back with CSKA Moscow—Kirilenko played three seasons for the Russian giants between 1998 and 2001—is nothing short of historic. His 24.1 player index rating (Or PIR, PER’s simpler cousin) is more than three points better than any other Euroleaguer’s this season and the highest since Anthony Parker averaged 24.9 in 2004-05 en route to his first of two MVP trophies with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It’s true: Andrei Kirilenko has been the best player in Europe this season. He is not, however, the Euroleague’s most valuable player.
That would be Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos. Like Kirilenko, the bearded two guard will play in the Euroleague Final Four here in Istanbul on May 10. But unlike Kirilenko, Spanoulis’ team wouldn’t have made it nearly this far without him.
Long thought to have a crippling addiction to the sound of his own dribble, even diehard Olympiacos fans wondered if Spanoulis could lead the Reds beyond the Top 16 after the front office stripped the roster down to its skivvies and auctioned off the parts.
Ioannis Bourousis to Milano. Theo Papaloukas to Maccabi. Milos Teodosic—the 2010 Euroleague MVP—joined forces with Kirilenko in Moscow. Rasho Nesterovic retired, starting big man Loukas Mavrokefalidis went to St. Petersburg and Jamon Lucas signed with the Turkish club, Galatasaray, where he would lead the EL in steals.
Spanoulis was the last starter standing, and the last big fish flapping its fins in a Piraeus pond drained of its stars. Operating under a leaner budget, Olympiacos brought in names that were little more than shrugworthy.
Martynas Gecevicius was flown in from Lithuania as little more than a stand-still shooter who kept mistakes at a minimum. A well-aged Lazarous Papadopoulos offered experience more than explosiveness. Pero Antic capitalized on Macedonia’s unlikely fourth place EuroBasket finish in the form of a contract with the Reds, for whom his shot selection has been as questionable as his facial hair is carefully manicured.
Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas and Butler’s Matt Howard arrived from the college ranks, but left midway through the year as further proof that finding EL success without low-level European seasoning is about as common as a baseball player getting burn in the majors without paying his minor league dues.
Kalin was no Koufax, Howard no Horner.
Among Olympiacos’ summer signings, only Kyle Hines, a wide-bodied beast generously listed at 6-foot-5, has had a consistent impact. Still, when your biggest addition is a power forward who doesn’t even make it into the back row on team picture day, one might fear the worst.
Playing the role of Gene Hackman opposite these replacements was Dusan Ivkovic, the 68-year-old Serbian legend who guided Olympiacos to its one and only Euroleague title back in 1997. With a Scotch-taped roster and a challenging Group A looming, the old man drastically departed from the ancient Yugoslavian coaching creed and relinquished control to his star, his Shane Falco.
Spanoulis would not let him regret it.
According to In-The-Game, only three teams used their respective top guns more heavily than Olympiacos did Spanoulis: Caja Laboral’s Mirza Teletovic, SLUC Nancy’s Nicolas Batum and Zalgiris’ Sonny Weems.
Neither Caja Laboral nor SLUC Nancy even made it past the ten-game regular season, while Zalgiris might as well have saved airfare and stayed home; Weems’ Lithuanian side went 0-6 in the Top 16.
Yet here Spanoulis sits, weeks away from another crack at the Continental Trophy.
Whereas Kirilenko (who’s way down at 35th in usage rate per game) stabilizes CSKA Moscow’s pulse with his unassuming brilliance, Spanoulis’ unyielding aggression makes the opposition’s heart beat out of its chest. Here’s what I mean: Vassilis Spanoulis has made more free throws (102) than anyone other than CSKA’s Nenad Krstic has even attempted.
This is not to say Kirilenko is, was or has been aloof at any point this season when he’s on the floor. As a matter of fact, Spanoulis has had several off nights while AK has only one uncharacteristic line on his game log. Their numbers match up like this (a bolded stat denotes a top five finish in that category):
Andrei Kirilenko: 14 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.9 blocks, 24.1 PIR in 15 games
Vassilis Spanoulis: 16.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 6 fouls drawn, 16.4 PIR in 19 games
Standing back-to-back with AK in a statistical showdown usually doesn’t end well, and this MVP debate is no exception. But note, if you will, the final number.
Those five games Kirilenko missed after that nasty fall will end up accounting for 23 percent of Moscow’s 22 Euroleague contests—they’ve played 20 thus far; two more remain in the Final Four—and exactly half of CSKA’s ten-game regular season.
With October MVP Kirilenko banged up, CSKA still cruised to five more victories to complete a 10-0 regular season as Nenad Krstic picked up the November MVP duties and legitimized himself as an All-Euroleague First Teamer. Meanwhile in the backcourt, Aleksey Shved was growing into a top-tier European guard (‘Finally’, said everyone) as the EL assist leader Teodosic kept things clicking for the Red Army.
CSKA boss Jonas Kazlauskas would have loved to have Kirilenko, of course; but he did not need him.
Meanwhile, as Kirilenko watched from the bench, Spanny was busy fixing Olympiacos’ 1-3 start. In Week Six—AK’s first week in street clothes—Spanoulis put up his gaudiest stats of the season against Bilbao, 29 points and six assists for a 34 PIR in an 88-81 win that wound up keeping Olympiacos out of a messy three-way tiebreaker in Group A.
Two weeks later, Spanoulis’ 21 points on only 10 shots knocked off Teletovic and Caja Laboral by just a pair of points. A week nine win against Top 16-bound Cantu and a clincher against the lowly, Batum-less SLUC Nancy squad (Spanoulis missed this one due to injury, his only DNP of the year) and the revival was complete.
From 1-3 and last place to 6-4 and second, Vassilis and the Reds were Top 16 bound. Without their MVP candidate, they’d have been watching from Piraeus.
So while the four-game difference between our two competitors is negligible at first blush, consider this: What if Derrick Rose had missed 19 of the Bulls’ 82 games in 2011? What if Sheridan’s Milwaukee brethren, Ryan Braun, sat for 38 of the Brewers’ 162 (let’s stow the ‘roids thing for now), or if Aaron Rodgers skipped four of 16 starts for the Packers?
Wes Unseld would still be the NBA’s youngest MVP, while Matt Kemp and Drew Brees would have new trophies to polish. That’s what.
The Euroleague’s unique format makes it an apple among oranges, but it’s still a thought that deserves thinking. On any platform, missing nearly a quarter of your team’s games should not be entirely excused.
MVP or not, history will harken back to Andrei Kirilenko’s Euroleague season as one of the finest of all-time, and the lanky Russian is deserving of both the First Team selection and Defensive Player of the Year award he will most certainly be handed come Final Four weekend.
And when the envelope flips open to reveal the league’s MVP, odds are Kirilenko will wear out that same stretch of carpet on his way to the podium.
I will applaud, knowing the best player in Europe got his paws on the continent’s top individual honor.
The best. Just not the most valuable.