As Andrew informed us yesterday, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a Cavalier once again, taking a job as Special Assistant to the General Manager, Chris Grant. My first reaction was to applaud the Cavalier organization for bringing Z back to Cleveland, where he was a franchise pillar. The 2-time All-Star and 13-year member of the Cavs will now focus on evaluating players for the draft, primarily in the college game and potentially international prospects as well. While I think this is a feel good story for the fans, Z, and the organization to bring Ilgauskas back, I believe that the big guy will be able to provide value rather than just being a figurehead.
Emotionally, bringing Z back is really important to me as a fan. Austin Carr will always be “Mr. Cavalier”, but to my generation, Zydrunas Ilgauskas represents those same traits. It’s a mix of longevity and loyalty in the face of crippling injuries, a warm personality, and an embracing of Cleveland as a second home. I know the knee-jerk reaction is to say “this is just a publicity stunt by our owner who’s always got an agenda”. I’m not that cynical. Sometimes, an agreement between two parties just makes too much sense to not occur. How else does a former player get a start in the front office anyway? Wayne Embry and Danny Ferry needed someone to give them their first gig. Ferry and Ilgauskas remain close friends, and no doubt Ferry has communicated to Z what it takes to evaluate players from a front office perspective.
What Z’s presence does is secures a piece of that winning era of Cavaliers basketball. Yes, he’s in the front office, so he won’t have daily interaction with the players like a coach would. But, the fact is that Z can certainly have some level of communication with Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. Anderson Varejao has credited Zydrunas with helping him transition to the NBA in the early part of his career, and the two remain very close. Zydrunas’s responsibilities could evolve over time, and I certainly don’t mind having someone with the type of experiences Z has had (quite honestly, the best and worst of the franchise) from which to draw. From Dan Gilbert on down, the focus on high-character talent is evident, so populating the organization with high-character individuals facilitates that goal. With some of the talk that free agents won’t come to Cleveland specifically because of some of Gilbert’s actions, it doesn’t hurt to have one of the more impact players of the era return to the team and help alleviate those concerns.
In terms of talent evaluation, I’m hoping Ilgauskas can draw from his experience as a foreign born center to identify key traits in both big men as well as international players. With Z’s input, maybe we can draft a foreign player in the second round, unlike Sasha Kaun, Ejike Ugboaja, and Milan Macvan, who actually makes it to Cleveland. Perhaps he can also provide some input on whether Semih Erden should be a part of the roster beyond this season.
Ilgauskas also can lend the knowledge base from a player perspective on what made the Cavaliers the contender they were yet prevented them from capturing the top prize. No quote better signifies why I think Ilgauskas will do a good job with the Cavs better than this quote from a Mary Schmitt Boyer article following the Cavaliers’ exit in the 2010 playoffs.
“I was asked all the time this year, ‘Is this the best team you’ve been on?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, if we win a championship.’ But so far the best team I’ve been on is the team that went to The Finals. You can knock those guys who were on the team but we defended. We were the No. 1 team in defense in field-goal percentage and points throughout the playoffs. Yeah, we had LeBron, who was amazing. But everybody else was blue collar guys who did their job. They just went to work. They didn’t look for any recognition or anything like that. You have to do the little things, especially in the playoffs. You have to box out. You have to go for loose balls and things like that. [The Celtics] outhustled us, which is inexcusable in the playoffs.”
Time will tell, but the Cavaliers could have a star in the making in Kyrie Irving. It makes zero sense to compare his game to LeBron’s, but securing the types of complement players needed to be a contender is something that Grant and Ilgauskas alike will be aiming for.
In the end, there’s no telling how successful Z will be in a talent evaluation position until he’s at it for a couple of years. While he has the NBA experience, we’ve seen that’s no guarantee of success, and this will very much be an on-the-job learning experience for him. But, if Ilgauskas puts forth the same effort he did as a center who battled injuries and defied the odds to carve out a long and successful NBA career, the Cavaliers have an old friend who will more than earn his keep.
(Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)