The Suns, by any measure besides championship banners, are one of the most successful franchises in NBA history. They missed the playoffs just seven times from 1975-76 through 2009-10, with 19 50-win seasons in that span. But they’ve missed the playoffs three straight years now. Last season, the first of the post–Steve Nash era, might rank as the most depressing in the modern history of the team. Phoenix has since acquired Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler in a three-team sign-and-trade that Phoenix hatched with Milwaukee and the Clippers, but they still figure to be among the dregs of the league as a new regime enters an earnest rebuild.
The Suns, like several others in this crazy summer of coaching hires, settled on a first-time head coach to helm that rebuild — Jeff Hornacek, the sweet-shooting combo guard who played a crucial role on the 1980s Suns and 1990s Jazz. Hornacek got the head job in Phoenix after a half-decade as an assistant in Utah, where he began as Andrei Kirilenko’s shooting coach. He spoke one-on-one with Grantland in Las Vegas this week about the challenges ahead.
Ryan McDonough, the team’s new GM, says you blew him away in the interview process with your preparation — your knowledge of the team’s roster, and your plans for how the team should play, especially on offense. So: What’s that offense going to look like after a year of struggling to find an identity without Nash?
It has been a rough year for Kevin Love and the Timberwolves in basketball terms. Love broke his right hand twice, first doing knuckle push-ups, and then during a game shortly after returning. Love wasn’t himself in those 18 games, shooting just 35 percent, and the Wolves never really had a chance to compete for a playoff spot as injuries claimed just about every rotation player at some point.
But Love’s off-court life has gone well. The NBA awarded him its Community Assist award in December, an honor that comes with $10,000 to the charity of Love’s choice. He selected St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which cares for pediatric cancer patients around the country and seeks a cure. Cancer has claimed a couple members of Love’s extended family, and that’s in part why he's involved year-round with St. Jude and formed his Spreadlove campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Love played a large part in the NBA’s St. Jude Week at the end of February, and he chatted with Grantland in an extensive one-on-one about his charity work, the Wolves’ lost season, the future of the franchise, and Nikola Pekovic’s “aura.”
In Russia, Andrei Kirilenko says, there’s an old maxim about changing jobs every six years. He’s not sure where it comes from, but since 2008, it’s applied to even the office of the Russian president. It doesn’t matter who you are — six years, and it’s time for something new.
Maybe it’s that idea that makes Kirilenko describe his time in Utah as an overachievement, perhaps even an overstaying of his welcome. Today, there are 49 active NBA players who debuted in or before Kirilenko’s first season (2001-02), and in that span, those players have played for an average of 4.7 teams. Kirilenko was permitted 10 seasons in Utah, 726 games in the same uniform, and 711 of them for the same boss, Jerry Sloan.
By the end of Kirilenko's days in Salt Lake City, his stay had spoiled. When he returned to the NBA after spending last year’s lockout-shortened season in Russia, it had to be somewhere new. The Jazz had moved on, and Kirilenko knew it was time for him to do the same.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, projected as a clear playoff team — and one that might have surprised folks by pushing something like 50 or even 55 wins. They were a .500 team when healthy last season, and they upgraded one of the two or three worst wing rotations in the league with Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy, and the jack-of-all-trades game of Andrei Kirilenko. Toss in some internal improvement and a full season of Nikola Pekovic producing during minutes in which Darko Milicic generally crapped the bed, and the Wolves looked like a playoff lock.
Heading into the Olympic basketball competition, there are several teams that are a threat to medal, and maybe even contend with Team USA. As the Games ramp up, we’ll be providing looks at the strengths, weaknesses, and medal chances of these possible contenders.
With a third-place finish in last year's EuroBasket competition, Russia’s path to the London Olympics had to go through the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament. There they made quick work of the competition. Russia went undefeated in its four games, winning three by double digits. Looking at Russia's roster, there are a number of well-known names (including Andrei Kirilenko) and talented players, which has Russian fans believing in their team’s medal chances.
Sometimes, the basketball gods smile upon you. For Don Nelson, that moment came in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, when he clinched the title for the Boston Celtics with one of the luckiest bounces to ever come off an NBA rim. For Russell Westbrook, it was that 18-foot, and-1 scoop shot from Game 5 of the Thunder's second-round series with the Lakers this year. For me, it was stumbling into the craziest of Andrei Kirilenko crazy faces.
It happened under the most innocent of circumstances. I was putzing around the website Euroleague Adventures and found an interview with AK47 before last month's Euroleague finals (Kirilenko's team, CSKA Moscow, lost to the Greek club Olympiacos). It's not an especially groundbreaking interview, and out of boredom I dragged my mouse along the YouTube timeline and saw second-by-second thumbnails of Kirilenko's face. Again, nothing spectacular, until I reached the 1:24 mark and found what you see here. The title of the video, "Andrei Kirilenko Says He Is Not a Robot," refers to the way Kirilenko explained how he and his teammates felt nervous heading into the championship game: "We're not robots. We have feelings and we have emotions."