By Rob Mahoney
In the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Russian national team was a fitting foil for the star-laden favorites from Spain and the USA. Their offense was simple, but predicated on effective, flex-style movement. Their defense was suffocating, as Russia's bigs would draw life out of their opponent with possession after possession of timely pressure and quick rotations. All in all, crisp execution and pliable personnel earned the Russians the bronze, a triumph for a program that had only made the Olympic cut earlier that summer at the last possible qualifying tournament.
It was a team effort, but at the core of Russia's success were two men: uncompromising head coach David Blatt and the infinitely versatile Andrei Kirilenko. Now, less than a year later, both men are out of the national team program for the foreseeable future. Blatt formally resigned his post as head coach of the Russian Basketball Federation late last year, but Kirilenko dealt the bigger blow in announcing that he would not be participating in any international competition during the current Olympic cycle. That leaves Russia rudderless for EuroBasket, the 2014 FIBA World Cup (formerly the FIBA World Championships) and the 2016 Summer Olympics, supposing the team can even qualify for the latter events without Kirilenko in the fold.
The plurality of superstars on Team USA can distort the perception of the national team structure, but Kirilenko was a single, pivotal force for the Russians in the same way that most franchise centerpieces are to their respective NBA teams. He was a primary shot creator and a vital defender, and without him, the Russians lose their ability to manipulate matchups to their advantage. Viktor Khryapa will succeed Kirilenko as something of an AK-lite, but the loss of Kirilenko's leadership and Blatt's strategy could deal the current phase of Russian basketball a crippling blow.