Big Z Returns

Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned to the Cavaliers Sunday.

After being traded to the Wizards as part of a deal for Antawn Jamison, and submitting to a 30-day waiting period during which he could play in no NBA games, Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned Sunday to the Cleveland Cavaliers — the only team for which  he has ever played an NBA contest.

The long and thin Ilgauskas is a fan favorite in Cleveland and deservedly so. He endured several years with the team when it had absolutely no chance at contention, and he didn’t even consider other teams’ offers this season; he went right back to the Cavaliers.

Big Z works hard every game, combining rare height (in fact, I think he’s the league’s tallest player in Yao Ming’s absence) with a shooting touch out to the three-point line. While he lacks the strength to adequately defend the heftier and stronger centers in the NBA, his length can easily disrupt attempts at the rim by shorter players.

In 2009-2010, his performance has dropped significantly, as he’s lost five points, two rebounds and half a block off his per-game averages. The arrival of Shaq to start at center combined with the emergence of Anderson Varejao as a solid rotation player (and sixth-man contender) has eaten into Zy’s minutes drastically, but he doesn’t complain. And he gives his best effort when he is on the hardwood.

But in the shadow of Shaq’s thumb injury, which should hold him out for a few more weeks still, Ilgauskas’s return is received just as well from a basketball standpoint as from a loyalty standpoint. The Cavs had been playing without a true center, relying on Varejao and youngster J.J. Hickson to fill in at the 5. Now, those guys can spend more time at the 4 and fill in for Ilgauskas when he needs a rest.

As far as the playoffs go, Zydrunas’s return helps the Cavs immensely. When they face teams like the Celtics, Magic, or Lakers, his outside-shooting ability will require those teams’ primary interior defensive presences to step out, leaving the lane less congested for LeBron and co. to get to the hole. Above all, though, he’s a presence for the players and fans that adds to the team’s camaraderie, which is very crucial to their success.

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