Oklahoma City center Nenad Krstic will become a free agent following the 2010-2011 NBA season, when his $5.8 million contract will expire with the Thunder. In 2008, the last time Krstic was faced with an expiring contract, he chose to leave North American basketball for greener pastures in Europe. Following the events that transpired last week, if Nenad should chose to once again flee to Europe this summer, my guess is he will no longer be welcome to play in Greece. Last Thursday, Krstic was the most notable player involved in a bench-clearing brawl between his Serbian National Team and the Greek team in front of a crowd of about 5,000 at the Athens Olympic Arena. Watch the brawl. Although punches were thrown by several players on both sides, Krstic provided the exclamation mark by throwing a chair at the head of Greek center Yiannis Bourousis. Needless to say the Greek faithful were hardly pleased with the surprising actions of the Serbian center as many of them rushed onto the court and Krstic was ultimately escorted to the locker room. Although he acknowledges that he has “committed an act of stupidity”, Nenad spent Thursday night in custody and now faces a possible suspension from the World Championships which will begin this coming weekend. While this would be a crushing blow to Krstic who has always been passionate about representing his native Serbia, it may just be the beginning of a season filled with disappointment for the Thunder’s starting center.
Last season, Krstic started all 76 games he played for a Thunder team that was in desperate need of his services in their uninspiring front court. At 7 feet, he was the only true center on a roster that also relied heavily on the inconsistent and undersized Nick Collison and the young and still very raw Serge Ibaka. Due to the lack of legitimate competition, Nenad’s job as the starting center as well as his 22 minutes per game were secure for most of the season. However, it became evident throughout the year that his career regression and surgically repaired knee were a poor fit for a younger and quicker team like the Thunder. Still 27, Krstic was once a promising and highly skilled big man who should only now be entering his prime. His scoring and rebounding numbers improved in each of his first three seasons with the New Jersey Nets, where he also excelled in the playoffs. However, a ligament tear in his left knee ended his third NBA season in 2006 and since then Krstic has looked like a very different player. Prior to going down with the injury in 2006, he was averaging a career-best 16.4 points per game. He returned the next season as a much slower, less mobile version of himself and his scoring average reflected this, dwindling down to 6.4 points per game. When his contract expired with the Nets in 2008, Krstic chose to sign on to play in Russia in an attempt to reinvent his once promising career. Since rejoining the NBA and playing the last couple seasons in OKC, he has been solid, but never great. He still features a very efficient mid-range game that is very difficult for opposing big men to guard. However, his deficiencies stand out far more than his strengths at this stage of his career. His mediocre rebounding ability is a liability playing alongside an undersized Jeff Green and his horrendous defense is unacceptable on a team that preaches strong defensive fundamentals.
This season may be Nenad’s last chance to get it right in the NBA, only this year playing time will not come cheap on a Thunder team that is on the cusp of becoming contenders in the Western Conference. Rookie Cole Aldrich may never become a spectacular NBA player but even in his first year he will do the things that Krstic does not; rebound, defend and block shots. It shouldn’t be long before the fundamentally sound Aldrich surpasses Krstic on the big man hierarchy in OKC. The Thunder will have other options up front, as Collision will be motivated in a contract year and the 21 year old Ibaka is a freak of an athlete. Ibaka’s minutes are also expected to rise this season based on his strong showing at the end of 2010. As the Thunder played their way into the playoffs during the final month of the season, Ibaka averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds per game, while playing roughly the same amount of time as his Serbian counterpart. Krstic will now have to channel the 2006 version of himself if he intends to fight off his competition for enough minutes to prove himself this season. Although there should be room on most NBA rosters for a backup center that can knock down the mid-range jumper, Nenad will have to prove himself to be more than that if he hopes to find a starting gig next summer. If he continues to regress, he may even find himself forced to return to Europe. Although he probably will not be joining his new friend Bourousis or former Raptor Rasho Nesterovic playing for Olympiacos Piraeus in the Greek League.
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Written by Josh Lewis