With Yao Ming missing the year, he’s the tallest rotation player in the NBA. He’s been with one team for longer than any player not named Kobe, Dirk, Pierce, or Duncan. He’s one of the best-shooting centers in the league. He’s been the starting center on an Eastern Conference championship team and a 66-win team. He’s one of the most successful true centers ever to come from Europe. Growing up, he was a point guard before he had a massive growth spurt. He missed two full years with injuries and many thought he’d never return. He’s the highest-paid player on the Cavs outside of Shaq and LeBron.
With all those odd and fantastic details to describe him, why does it seem like the best way to describe Zydrunas’ tenure as the Cavs’ starting center in the LeBron era as “quietly effective?” There’s no flash to Big Z’s game. However, Z’s contributions as a garbage man around the basket, a staunch defender of the rim, and an offensive security blanket made him one of the top centers in the league last year and the perfect center for a 66-win team, even if his wonky set of skills might not translate to the Cavs bench, let alone any other team.
First off, let’s talk about Big Z’s contributions on the defensive end. For much of his career, Zydrunas was considered a defensive liability. With his glacial lateral movement, he was often exploited one-on-one by quicker defensive players, and he could be exploited on the pick-and-roll on a regular basis. However, since Mike Brown came to town, Zydrunas’ defensive +/- have been consistently solid, staying in the +3 points per 100 possession range for every year since 04-05 (a significant change from 03-04, where big Z was a -3), and jumping to over +4 on the defensive end last season. Mike Brown, defensive savant that he is, has been able to create a defensive system where the power forward is the one jumping out on the perimeter to stop penetration and keep Big Z near the rim, where his length, timing, and shot-blocking ability have turned him into a bona fide defensive asset. (For those of you keeping score at home, Zydrunas, Delonte, Mo, and LeBron were all considered defensive liabilities at some point in their career, and they made up 4/5ths of the starting lineup on one of the best defensive teams in the league last year. Mike Brown’s defensive system FTW.) By devising a system that keeps Z near the rim with athletic 4s like Andy, (pre-injury) Ben Wallace, and Joe Smith jumping over the screens on the perimeter, Zydrunas turned his greatest weakness into a strength in the Cavalier system. As a post defender, Z is big and strong enough to keep opposing centers away from the rim, which means only centers with elite lateral movement or advanced moves from the midpost could exploit him, and there aren’t many of those around anymore. (More on this later, I promise.)
Offensively, Z was once a force in the low-post with some seriously weird footwork but a series of off-balance post moves that used his length, height, and touch around the rim to convert baskets from odd angles and positions that no other center could replicate. However, Z’s post game has seriously declined in recent years, and his current repertoire consists of a decent turnaround from the block, a sweeping hook that almost never goes in, or something that will lead to a traveling violation. Because of this, Zydrunas was one of the most perimeter-oriented centers in the league last season, taking only 35% of his shots “inside” and only shooting 51.6% on non-dunk/tip shots from around the basket, which isn’t a thrilling number. His non-post game around the basket is slightly better; Z has a maddening tendency to bring the ball down when he catches a pass near the rim and has almost no elevation or authority when he goes up for the finish, but does have soft hands and is a fabulous free throw shooter when he gets hacked.
For the past few seasons, Zydrunas’ offensive role has been simple: plan B. He has a fabulous midrange touch for a big man, and is comfortable shooting from 18 feet to the short corner from 3-point range. On most teams, this would have made him a novelty. On a team with a power forward with fantastic finishing ability but no range whatsoever and a franchise wing who lives on dunks and layups, this ability made him invaluable. Big Z is often referred to as a “pick-and-pop” player, but in reality he’s not all that effective in the pick-and-pop game: he shot about 38% from the elbows, and his shot loses much of its effectiveness when it’s rushed. His jumper was most effective when he got the ball as the safety valve on a stuffed ISO possession or pick-and-roll between Andy and LeBron, where Z’s man would come down to the paint to cover one of those two players and Zydrunas was allowed to get comfortable from his favorite spot on the left baseline, where he shot 48% from last season. 48% won’t beat a team by itself, but it was fantastic for keeping teams honest against LeBron and Andy’s devastating ability to finish if one of them was able to get the ball near the rim when they ran the pick-and-roll.
Big Z’s other main function as a “security blanket” was his ability to convert tip-ins on the offensive glass; for whatever reason, Z doesn’t need to bring offensive rebounds down before he tips them in, and converted tip-in attempts at 60% last season, one of the best marks in the league. Whenever the weak-side defender would come over to stop penetration and stop a layup, Z would be there to clean up the mess, and it helped the team tremendously.
And from the high post, Z’s smarts and passing ability make up for his utter inability to put the ball on the floor. While he doesn’t approach his countryman Sabonis in terms of passing ability, Z is a smart playmaker who knows how to make the simple and correct play when he gets the ball near the elbow.
Now Z goes to the bench, which I have some extremely mixed feelings about.
First, the good: the elephant in the room when discussing Z’s effectiveness is the fact he’s consistently looked worse in the playoffs, when the opposing bigs get more athletic and the game speeds up. Last playoffs, he took a higher proportion of jumpers than he did in the regular season, and his % on those jumpers fell from 44.2% to 36.5%. When those jumpers get rushed and Z has to take them from awkward positions, they’re simply not all that effective of a weapon. And on the other end of the floor, the news is even worse; Z is fantastic defensively against penetrating guards and hulking bigs. However, bigs with serious skills or serious speed can embarrass Z, and that was never more evident than it was in last year’s ECF when Dwight Howard absolutely blew by Z at every opportunity. Now Shaq has been brought in to solve this problem; it’ll be a while until Cavs fans figure out if that was the correct solution, but at least the brass didn’t pretend that Z would be able to stop the league’s elite bigs next season.
However, the question now is how Z will be effective off the bench; his offensive go-to moves, the wide-open baseline J, the catch-and-layup, and the tip-in, are all products of penetration by other players. As a #1 or #2 option, I’m not sure Z can get it done when the defense is focused on him. The more good things those on the floor are doing, the more Z can play his game. His 39.5% FG percentage coming off the bench this season is less than heartening, despite his stellar performance tonight. To put it simply, I’m worried that Z’s skills were perfectly suited to playing with a finisher at power forward that can’t shoot and LeBron James, and that he won’t be playing with them off the bench.
So that’s what I have for now on Big Z, the Cavs’ silent warrior for the past decade. This is Z’s last year on his current contract, and likely his last year in Cleveland. And as much as I’d love to see his time with the Cavs celebrated in the most grandiose of manners, Z contentedly moving to the bench, giving up the best parts of his game for the betterment of the team, might be as good of a representation of what he’s brought to the Cavs as any grand gesture could be.