Many people often talk about how Lebron carried trash Cavs teams to 60 win seasons and finals, or how Larry Bird took a 29 win Celtics team and turned them into a 60 win powerhouse as a rookie, or how Kobe carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs.
Players who carry teams like this are often recognized and considered all-time greats by fans, often having flashy stats, plays, and titles to go along with these carrying seasons which makes sense, as only all-time greats should be able to lead a team in such a way.
Andrei Kirilenko’s 2003-04 season for the Utah Jazz seems to be an exception though, as despite not having those things AK47 carried that team as much as anyone has carried a team before, and although his career as a whole wasn’t much more than average his 2003-04 season should be considered up there with the ones that the likes of Lebron, Bird, and Kobe produced.
On the face of it, the 2003-04 Jazz was an average team and AK47 was merely a decent player, the team went 42-40 but missed the playoffs by 1 game in a competitive western conference after losing stars Karl Malone and John Stockton in the previous offseason. Kirilenko was clearly the best player on the team but his raw per game statistics of 16/8/3 didn’t scream superstar, and as such few took notice of his performances with a second-team all-defense selection, two 5th place MVP votes and a low-end all-star game appearance being all Andrei got for his efforts that season. So on the face of it nothing special, but a deeper look into that season shows a much more impressive story.
Firstly it might seem mad to suggest that a team that only went 42-40 were “carried” at an all-time level, so let’s look at the 9 main players AK47 shared the floor with that season (players with 35+ games for the Jazz):
Carlos Arroyo, Deshawn Stevenson, Greg Ostertag, Raja Bell, Jarron Collins, Raul Lopez (Rookie), Sascha Pavlovic (Rookie), Michael Ruffin, Mo Williams (Rookie).
Kobe’s 2005-06 Laker teammates were bad but AK47 basically had the same without even 1 decent player (Lamar Odom). This collection of players were all-time bad, only 1 had a PER above the league average of 15 (Arroyo), 1 had a positive +/- across the season (Ostertag), 1 had a TS% above the league average (Collins) and 1 had a positive BPM (Ostertag). It was so bad that Pavlovic, Ruffin, and Williams all had NEGATIVE offensive WS, that’s an insane 1/3 of Kirilenko’s supporting cast with literally negative OWS! Those 3 players PER’s barely add up to Kirilenko’s and craziest of all if you ignore Ostertag the other 8 players had a combined VORP of an absolutely mind-boggling -1.3.
The only regular on the 2005-06 Lakers with a negative VORP was Sascha Vujacic, who had -0.1, and none of that team had negative OWS or even below 0.6. 2005-06 Chris Mihm compared to these Jazz players in 2003-04 would rank 2nd in PER, 2nd in TS%, 1st in WS/48, and 4th in BPM. He wasn’t in the top 2 of any of those for the 2005-06 Lakers (minus Kobe of course). 2005-06 Lamar Odom compared to these Jazz players meanwhile is a god among scrubs. He would lead them in PER, WS/48, BPM, and be 2nd in TS%. He’d lead these Jazz players in PPG, RPG, APG, SPG and be 2nd in BPG. That Lakers team won a total of 3 more games than these 9 players + Kirilenko. Arroyo was the highest scorer of this bunch with, 12.6 PPG… The only decent player here is Mo Williams, but as a rookie, he only played 13 MPG and was awful in literally every way on the court.
So his team was absolutely dreadful, what did Kirilenko do about it? Well, he did just about everything. He led the Jazz in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks, and led all of those stats per game while being 3rd in assists behind PG’s Arroyo and Lopez. His stats weren’t flashy but were so all around that no one else in NBA history has ever put them up before or since (16.5/8.1/3.1/1.9/2.8) which may seem a bit cherry-picked, however, he did all that on a super low pace team, the 12th slowest team in NBA history in fact. If you adjust it to per 100 possessions no one even comes close to AK47’s all-around statistical dominance!
So we’ve concluded that his stats were far more impressive than it originally seemed and that his team was shockingly bad, so just how much did all of this come together to create a legendary carry? The Jazz with Kirilenko on the floor outscored their opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions, over the course of a season you’d expect a team that did that to go on average 48-34, so the Jazz was a ~48 win team with AK47 on the floor, good enough for the 9th best record in the league that year. Without him, however, the Jazz was worse, a LOT worse. Compared to being a 0.500+ team with AK47 the Jazz was outscored by their opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions without him, 11 points! That wouldn’t only make them the worst team in the league that season, that would make them the 8th worst team of ALL TIME, worse than the 2015-16 76ers that went 10-72! On average you’d expect them to go 12-70 with that points differential. All of this fancy math was put into practice when Kirilenko missed 4 straight games in January 2004 (the only games he missed that season). They lost every single of those four games by an average of 14 points.
In fact, the Jazz lost in all 7 of Kirilenko’s worst 7 performances, only once by less than 7 points. We can include the 4 games he didn’t play to make it 11 losses out of the 11 games in which AK47 had the least positive impact with only 1 being by less than 7 points. It’s also funny to note that even in his worst 30 performances the Jazz were still on course for 10 more wins than they were without him. In his best 30 performances however the Jazz were good, very good in fact, like the best team in the league that year good. So if you needed more convincing of how important Kirilenko was to the Jazz when he was on form he essentially turned a bottom 10 team of all time into the best team in the league. Sounds like the sort of thing that only a certain rookie from that season could do… Oh and by the way the Jazz were part of the Midwest Division that season, they had the worst record of the 7 teams in that division, that’s right, they went 42-40 and were still the worst team out of 7 in their division. Out of teams that went .500+ only 2 in NBA history had a higher SOS (strength of schedule), the 2011-12 Mavs, and 1998-99 Hornets, though you may notice that both of those were in lockout seasons. In just his division AK47 faced Garnett, Duncan, Dirk, Pau Gasol, Yao, and Marcus Camby. Basically, he did all of the above in as tough a division as you will ever see.
League-wide AK47 was top 50 in the NBA in PPG, RPG, APG, SPG, and BPG, including 3rd in BPG and 4th in SPG in an era with prime KG, Duncan, Ben Wallace, Artest, Camby, and Shawn Marion. He was also 12th in WS/48 that season, his PER was 8th and his BPM and VORP was 2nd only to KG, with Tim Duncan the only other player anywhere near him. Yet he finished 13th in MVP voting with a mere 2 total votes, only made the all-defensive 2nd team (even though he had far more DPOY votes than KG who made the first team at forward) and didn’t make any all-NBA team. 6 of the 12 players that finished ahead of him in MVP voting were worse than him in all 3 of the main advanced stats (WS/48, PER, and BPM) and 2 of them (rookie Lebron and Baron Davis) played on teams that won fewer games, as did T-Mac who made the all-NBA 2nd team despite his Magic team going a league-worst 21-61. I remind you that Kirilenko’s team was the 8th worst team of all time without him.
So overall the way Kirilenko carried the absolutely dreadful 2003-04 Utah Jazz is every bit as impressive as the way all times greats such as Lebron and Kobe carried teams to places they didn’t belong, the fact that the Jazz missed the playoffs, and that AK47 wasn’t flashy on the court or on the stats sheet, and that injuries while playing even more impressively the next season eventually derailed his career means that nobody remembers him as more than a versatile low-end all-star who put up a few 5×5’s (plus the awesome nickname!), but if you dig deeper he was far more impressive and unfortunately one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history (he’s 2 years younger than Dirk!).