While the Cavaliers use the All-Star break to rest up (well most of them anyways) we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the season so far, and issue some grades. In addition, we will detail what the Cavaliers will need from each player in order to hoist some team hardware this summer. We start today with Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Season Averages: 20.6 min / 7.5 pts / 5.3 reb / .451 fg% / .77 bk
With the addition of Shaq we all knew that Z’s numbers were bound to go down. The question coming into the season concerning Ilgauskas was how well he would adapt to coming off the bench, both mentally and physically. Let’s start with the physical. If you talk to Zydrunas, he will tell you that he feels great this season. His minutes are down to 20.6 per game, or roughly 8 full minutes off his career average. Add those minutes up for 53 games and it is easy to see why he feels fresh. There is more to it than that though. Zydrunas has always been a player that needs shots to get warmed up. He doesn’t usually start a game off lighting up the scoreboard. That has led to a few games this season in which he struggles to make shots, and just never gets going.
To illustrate that point, there have been 17 games this season in which Zydrunas has scored in double figures. There have been 16 games in which he scored 4 points or fewer. Zydrunas started 6 games while Shaq was out with an injury. Taking those games out of the equation (since we are talking about his effectiveness off the bench) big Z’s shooting percentage in games that he scored in double figures is 62.4%. In games where he scored 4 or fewer, that percentage drops down to 11.6%. We would expect a drop in shooting percentage between these types of games, but this is a pretty drastic drop. Bottom line on these stats is that when Zydrunas can come in and hit a shot or two he is good. When he can’t find the shot right away, he is pretty bad. His free throw shooting has also suffered. Sure, he has 11 triples already on the season (shooting 11-22 from long distance) but if he was shooting his FTs at his career average those extra points from behind the line wouldn’t be necessary.
It may be tough to judge what mental effect coming off the bench has been. There are so many other things going on in Z’s head this year that could be distractions. First you have his family situation. Zydrunas and his wife adopted a pair of boys before the season began. That’s a life change. It certainly would trickle into his career, no matter how hard he tries to filter it out, if he tries to at all.
Second you have the constant reminders about his future with the team. I had the privilege of taking in a shoot around media session not long ago, and Zydrunas was asked question after question about being traded. “How would you feel Zydrunas if you weren’t part of the team and they won a title?” Seriously. With the exception of LeBron’s contract status, perhaps no other single story gets as much attention.
Finally, you have the DNP against Dallas. I’ve gone back and forth on this one. The more I think about it, the more I agree with LeBron. That record (games played as a Cavalier) was much bigger than any one win or loss. It has to sting even now. There is no excuse as far as I’m concerned. Mike Brown has not forgotten to play Zydrunas in ANY OTHER first half this season. What the heck was he thinking? If you were Zydrunas wouldn’t you think that was some sort of message?
Role on the team–
There isn’t another player left from last year’s team that has had a more dramatic role change. With the addition of Shaq, Zydrunas has been free to be a more aggressive defender. He shouldn’t have to worry about committing fouls the way he used to be. His 0.8 blocks per game is off his career average, but that does translate to 2.0 blocks per 48 minutes. The Cavaliers have one of the top ‘points in the paint’ defenses, and Zydrunas is certainly a part of that.
Offensively his role is to come in and open the lane by hitting mid-range shots from the pick and pop. This area of his game has suffered the most from coming off the bench as we detailed earlier. He just isn’t getting comfortable often enough to truly be a weapon other teams fear. His rebounding numbers are on par with his career averages when you consider his minute reduction.
How can Zydrunas best help the Cavs hoist the hardware this summer–
In a way, if the Cavaliers are to win a title it could have as much to do with Zydrunas’ impact as nearly any of the starters. Two different paths here. First, if he remains on the team he can finally focus on just playing basketball. Hit his shots. Be aggressive on defense. Don’t wear down. The Cavaliers have Shaq and Z to match-up against the bigger front lines in the NBA. They would need him against the Magic with Howard and Gortat. They need him against Boston with Perkins, Garnett and Wallace. They need him against the Lakers with Gasol and Bynum.
If Zydrunas is traded, his contract has to fetch the right piece. There is way too much riding on it. I know Zydrunas doesn’t have control of that, but fair or not he will forever be linked to the team’s success or failure even if he’s moved. No matter who we get in return, we all want to see Z come back. Forcing a buyout would be part of his role. The other part would be signing with the organization that just traded him- namely the Cavs. (I have this terrible feeling that Z would spurn the Cavs for some reason and sign elsewhere.)
Zydrunas has been pretty inconsistent this season. But truthfully he isn’t supposed to be a huge scorer on this team. I toyed with giving a C+, but eventually I improved his grade because of the reduction in value of his role. I bet many will disagree, but I give Zydrunas a B- for the first half.