The Cavaliers organization is preparing to fold up the paint-splatted tarps, take down the scaffolding and scrub everyone from finger nails to elbows with Lava soap, signaling an end to one of the wildest rebuilds in league history. But, this October will not the first time LeBron James has tightened the draw-string on a pair of wine and gold shorts. So, it seems fitting to take this mid-summer’s time when the NBA news cycle has finally (finally!) receded to its yearly low tide to take a look back on some of the other Cavs teams LeBron James has led and where the starters on those clubs, those not-quite-ready-for-championship players, are now.
Let’s start at the very beginning… with your 2003-04 Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs began the 2004-2005 NBA season without Carlos Boozer, and with serious questions in the backcourt. They lost their first 3 games before finally defeating the (winless) Hawks. Phoenix strutted into Cleveland having won their 1st 4 games by an average of 23 points. This was the beginning of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and they were devastating. And yet, the Cavs, behind a raucous home crowd, hung on until halftime. At some point in the 3rd quarter, Steven Hunter scored 10 billion points in about 7 seconds. It was so devastating I still vividly remember Steven Hunter. I had to look up the box score to verify my nightmares. Actually, Hunter scored 6 points (mostly on dunks if I recall) in just under 2 minutes, so, mild exaggeration, but the Suns built a seemingly insurmountable lead heading into the 4th: 85-66. But the Cavs, somehow, slowed the juggernaut offense and found a way to cut the lead to 8 with 2 minutes remaining. After Steve Nash hit 2 free throws to give the Suns a 3 point lead with 6 seconds left, this happened.
It was such a huge shot for a team struggling with its identity. In overtime, the Cavs snowballed, helped by two more buckets from Big Z. It was a dramatic momentum change for the team. They won 7 of their next 8 games, and Big Z was huge in those games as well, as this was really the prime of his career.
Around this time, it really started to appear that the Cavs were going to get back to the playoffs for the first time in years. They were 30-21, and the inside/outside punch of Z and LeBron was making up for some deficiencies elsewhere. Z averaged more than 22 and 10 (on 50% shooting) in the month of February, 2005. Maybe it was his on-court demeanor, or his soft-spoken humility, but for whatever reason, some people dismissed Z as not a “real” big man, arguing that he was too much of a finesse player. And then, he capped off an all-star month with a Chamberlain-esque performance against rival Chicago. He completely dominated the Bulls’ frontline of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. Unable to double Z in the post, for fear of LeBron, the Bulls were left with no recourse but to foul. And foul they did. Big Z went to the line 19 times. He made 17 of those, and kept the Bulls on their heels by mixing in a healthy diet of mid-range pops. He also showed the Bulls exactly what they could do with their “weak stuff”, swatting 7 shots. After the game, LeBron had this to say: “We’re the two All-Stars on the team, and we’re All-Stars for a reason. We showed why tonight.” The Cavaliers were trending upward, with their two all-stars continuing to get better and better. Management was under pressure to surround them with more talent in the wake of the Boozer incident. Nothing else was sticking, and they were willing to try anything. Here’s another post-game quote from that same game: “I’m dialing more than it’s ringing,” said Paxson, who won’t make a deal that could cut into the $20 million in salary cap space the club will have this summer to spend on free agents. “We’ll listen to anything we think could make us better, but I would not like to hurt potential flexibility.” That was from Jim Paxson. Literally minutes after that quote was printed, the Cavs dealt a 1st round draft pick for Jiri Welsch. Clearly, this move triggered the curse of Rocky Calovito to be summoned. The Cavs lost six straight games, limped back into the lottery, and Welsch was cut after 16 games featuring just 12 made field goals on 51 attempts. It was a disappointing end, and I wonder how far the Cavs could have gone in the playoffs that season with Carlos Boozer. It may be hard to remember this version of Z, the dominant big-man and all-star, since he was at his best when the Cavaliers weren’t very good. But the last time a true, low-post threat and rim-protecting center suited up in a Cleveland jersey, it was the one that’s being retired today. This game was the high water mark.
Before the Cavs’ rivalry with the Celtics materialized, there was the arguably more violent, more visceral showdowns with the Detroit Pistons. The Cavaliers demonstrated their tenacity in 2006, coming back from a loud blowout in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals and a heartbreaking loss in Game 2 to grind out 3 straight wins against the Pistons before falling in 7 games. The much-anticipated rematch in 2007 began much differently than the previous season. There would be no one-sided bullying, no blowouts, and no backing down. Both teams got in the trenches and fought. In game 1, the Cavaliers lead for most of the game, thanks to a herculean effort from Big Z. He led the Cavs in scoring and rebounding (22 and 13) and scored 8 straight points in crunch time to keep pace with a devastating parade of big shots by the Pistons. Six of those 8 points put the Cavs ahead by 1, in a half-court slugfest where every free throw’s arc cut through an air of palpable intensity. Ultimately, Chauncey Buh buh buh Billups drained one of his big shots, and the Pistons won the battle. However, with each passing quarter, you got the sense that the Cavs were so close to breaking through. And of course, they did. They won the war, en route to their first (and only) NBA Finals appearance. Zydrunas was a key player during this series. He shot 50% from the field, rebounded well, and averaged 13 and 9 (which doesn’t sound that impressive but neither team averaged even 90 points per game in the series). Game 1 was where he really left his mark. His play, especially down the stretch demonstrated that, unlike in 2006, the Cavs weren’t going to beat themselves this time around. Z made clutch shot after clutch shot in the 4th quarter of game 1, setting the tone for the rest of the series, which has gone down in history as one of the top 3 Cavalier playoff series of all time. (Miracle at Richfield and Larry Bird’s Final Season)
The final game of the 2nd series of the highly-entertaining rivalry between the Cavs and the Wizards was one of Z’s finest playoff games. You could tell the Cavs were somewhat disinterested during this series. They had already proven to be the superior team and it was hard to get worked up against a Wizards team that was missing its two best players, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas. Still, or maybe because of that attitude, the Cavs found themselves in dogfights in the last 3 games, winning all of them by less than 8 points. In the closeout game, the Wizards never let the Cavs get any momentum. They lead up until the start of the 4th quarter, when Z and the boys decided to put their collective foot on the gas. Z had 10 points in the 4th quarter, capping off a 20 point, 19 rebound effort. After the game, LeBron was quoted as saying: “We can’t win if these guys don’t play well, Z and Larry,” James said. “Simple as that. I need them every game to be a factor.” Z was the biggest factor that night, propelling the Cavs along their march towards the Finals that spring.
Despite having a feathery-soft touch, not only around the hoop but at the free throw line and on deep jumpers, Z was never much of a 3 point shooter. And that is an understatement. He made exactly 5 threes in his first 18,860 minutes. That’s Five (one two three four five) in Eighteen Thousand Eight-Hundred and Sixty (don’t count). But as the Cavaliers offense continued to evolve, Z spent less time posting up and more time flaring along the baseline, providing a nice safety valve for anyone whose dribble drive penetration was cut off.
On the left is Zs shooting zones from 2005, on the right is 2009.
And beginning in the 2008-2009 campaign, the corner 3 became a new tool in Z’s arsenal. He made 26/62 3s between 2008-2010, good for 42%. Probably the best remembered example of stretch-5 Z was an overtime game with Sacramento right before Christmas. Z hit three 3s in 2 minutes, all from the same spot, as the Cavs blanked the Kings 13-0 in overtime. It was Z’s NBA Jam moment of the season, and it gave the Cavs the boost they needed to overcome a scrappy road opponent. I remember being home for Christmas and absolutely losing it when he hit those 3s. It felt weird that this was my 2nd or 3rd memory of Z, since it happened in a regular season game in December, but back then every game was monumental. Enjoy this video. I had tons of fun listening to Fred and AC.
Z goes Coast to Coast
I can remember two separate incidents where Z led a fast break. Both are fun to watch. The first appears in this video. (Thanks to FtS commenter RoyistheBoy for finding the video.)
A young, incredibly spry Z accelerates up the court before going behind the back to avoid an incoming defender. It was a guard move by a man that stands 7’3″. It makes me wonder if Z played a decade too soon. He had troubles from time to time with the Shaqs and Yaos of the world, and guys like that are an endangered species today. He also wasn’t as much a power player on offense as a highly skilled big, and yet he was fighting in the trenches for the vast majority of his career.
The second might be a bit embarrassing to Big Z, but it was fun to watch and a smart basketball play. During game 3 of the 2009 sweep of the Pistons, Z led a fast break and found himself still with the ball even as he approached the foul line. He picked up his dribble, took two steps, and must have thought “How has LeBron not passed into my peripheral vision!?” So instead of forcing a floater from the key he turned around in the air and flipped an awkward pass to LeBron who finished.
It was the right play, something Z knew from years of playing with the greatest finisher in the history of the NBA. Z always had a soft touch as demonstrated by both of these highlights. Somewhat serendipitously, the way I found the second video was by trying to determine the game in that series from which it occurred. That brought me to a Bill Livingston article where he happened to draw a link between the two plays as well!
I was lucky enough to attend this game with my wife (fiancé at the time). It was her first (and only) NBA game and the last Cavs game I have seen in person. This game meant many things to many people and not everyone understood buyout rules and other such things to the extent that I did at the time. I never really worried that Z wouldn’t come back, and the threat that the Wizards wouldn’t give him a buyout seemed far fetched. But many fans did, so this game was a huge sigh of relief. For me, it was really just another indication of Z’s high character. He did everything the organization asked of him and never showed any ill will when they jerked him around. This was our chance as a city to reward Z for his loyalty. Unlike tonight, when Z will be showered with cheers and adulation during a disappointing season where any positive distraction is a welcome reprieve, Z’s homecoming happened during one of the most exciting times in the history of the franchise. And yet, everything was pushed aside that day, as we vanquished our vocal chords during warm ups at the first sight of Z in Cavalier garb. It was an unbelievable moment, and a very touching example of the power of the relationship between professional athletes and the people they represent.
Of course, these are just a small handful of memories. Zydrunas is the Cavaliers’ all-time leader in games played. What are your fondest memories of Z?
Editor’s note: in honor of the retirement of Big Z’s jersey this weekend, we’re going out of order. In addition, all the sites involved in #CavsRank, will be doing a profile on Ilgauskas. Here is WFNY’s profile,. While Kirk focused on the basketball side of Z’s contributions, I chose to focus on what a unique individual Z was, and his more ethereal contributions and history with the Cavaliers. Tom Pestak also contributed significantly to this article and will be posting more on Z tomorrow.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas was born in Kaunus, Lithuania, then a part of the USSR, on June 5th, 1975, when Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet Premier. Ilgauskas watched the collapse of the Soviet Union during his early teens, and when he was 14, Z’s country became the first republic to declare its independence from the USSR. Ilgauskas talked about that moment, and the corresponding Soviet invasion with Mary Schmitt Boyer in 2012, when the film, The Other Dream Team, about the 1992 Lithuanian Bronze Medal team, was released.
He [Ilgauskas] was 15 in January, 1991, when his father woke him up in the middle of the night to tell him the Russians had invaded their hometown of Vilnius, Lithuania. With air-raid sirens and car horns blaring, the family gathered around the television to watch the news. There were soldiers and tanks everywhere. One of the armored vehicles even ran over a young girl.
I was at a game during the holidays some years back, and they interviewed everyone and asked them what their favorite memory was, and Z’s answer was, “the first year we were allowed to have a Christmas tree.” Z’s career represents a bridge not just from the 90’s Mike Fratello led Cavs to the LeBron James years, but Z is also a bridge to the end of the Cold War and the first wave of basketball players from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc to play in the NBA.
As a Cavs fan, I know all about hurt. Usually, they are hurting me emotionally. Sometimes, they are hurting themselves physically. You just never know.
“Since the advent of rookie-scale extensions and maximum contracts, no player has turned down a max extension offer before entering the final year of his rookie-scale deal. Irving potentially has the chance to make history” [Amin Elhassan, ESPN]
Nate Smith is an Associate Editor. He grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and moved to NE Ohio in 2000. He adopted the Cavs in 2003 and graduated from Kent State in 2009 with a BA in English. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @oldseaminer on Twitter.
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