Zydrunas Ilgauskas, of course he's
coming back, isn't he?
He'd better, because with Shaquille
O'Neal on the mend, the Cavaliers need help desperately in the middle.
They had discovered their shortcomings
there in the playoffs last season. With Z at center, he couldn't alone handle
the muscle inside of the Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, so Cavs general manager Danny Ferry
sought help and picked up Shaq for a bucket of bolts and a case of Gatorade.
With Shaq getting most of the minutes
in the middle, the Cavs would now be able to double-team the bulkier NBA centers,
freeing LeBron James to do what he does better than any player not named Kobe
Bryant: dominate the endgame.
And Ferry's decision to add Shaq was a
smart move. Indeed, he had been the incredible force inside. His presence helped
the Cavaliers forge a comfortable lead in their attempt to claim the No. 1 seed
in the Eastern Conference.
All was working as Ferry had intended: A run to an NBA title was within sight for Ferry, King James, the Cavaliers and the legion of championship-starved fans who pack The Q on game nights.
But somewhere along the way, good intentions often get sidetracked, and sports fans in Northeast Ohio understand that better than most. They have seen too many promises of a title prove about as reliable as the weatherman's forecast: no snow tomorrow, eh?
And then what does Cleveland get? A blizzard.
Clevelanders know this uncertainty well. Team after team has disappointed them. A bad break here, a trade not made there, a fumble, an error, a missed jumper, an untimely injury ... something unexpected always seemed to ruin their team's runs to glory.
Their latest disappointment was the injury to the aging Shaq, no Superman after all. Surgery on his right thumb looks as if it might sideline him for the rest of the NBA season. With Z traded, the Cavs have no one to fill in for Shaq, a void that must confound and frustrate Ferry and coach Mike Brown.
All along, the trade that brought forward Antawn Jamison was just a precursor to Z's return. Everybody in the NBA knew as much, even if Ferry, Brown and James, Z's good friend, couldn't say so.
They all watched the plan unfold: As expected, the Wizards bought out Z's contract, and the Cavs are waiting 30 days for the right to re-sign him.
Z's re-signing would strengthen a team that was the strongest in the Eastern Conference if not the strongest in the NBA. Ferry knew it; LeBron knew it; and fans knew it.
The rest of the NBA knew it, too.
So will other teams, all of which can sign Ilgauskas now, bid up Z's price? Will they offer him what the Cavaliers might not be willing to offer? Can the Cavs ill-afford not to pay whatever price Z demands? Can he ignore all he has meant to this franchise?
It would be unfair to put any blame on Zydrunas Ilgauskas for anything that might happen next. Yes, he should return. He'd be welcomed like a conquering general. Is there anyplace else that would treat him better?
As LeBron said after Z was traded, basketball is a business, and the business of basketball can be awfully ugly. Understanding that the Cavaliers need him now, maybe Z needs more than they can offer.
But they have to hope that, for once, a professional athlete looks at this blue-collar city and its die-hard fans as worthy of his affection. They must hope Z isn't the next Jim Thome, Albert Belle or Manny Rodriguez, popular athletes who sucked all the love out of this town before taking the dollars in places that never worshiped these men the way Cleveland did.
Z has to appreciate this loyalty, doesn't he? He has to see the Cavaliers need him more than any other NBA team does.