Zydrunas Ilgauskas may be returning to action as soon as Thursday. Even though the Cavs obviously missed his length, his physical presence in the paint and his shooting touch, they scraped together enough wins during his absence to still contend for the best record in the NBA. In fact, the Cavs only trail the Lakers by a half game and they have a better winning percentage than the Celtics.
The Cavs were 19-3 when Ilgauskas injured his foot. They went 2-1 in the next three games without him and then won five games in a row when he came back. He was only sporadically effective, though, and after he produced eight points and five rebounds in a 104-95 loss to Miami the Cavs ran some more tests and discovered that Ilgauskas had a small fracture in his foot. Ilgauskas has not played since that time and the Cavs have gone 8-3 without him, losing to a horrible Wizards team, a mediocre Bulls team and the league-leading Lakers. The Cavs beat Boston and New Orleans at home and finished their Western road trip with three straight victories after the setback in L.A.
Although the Cavs have not lost much ground in the standings, they clearly did not play at the same level without Ilgauskas, not just because 19-3 is obviously a better record than 10-4 but also because when Ilgauskas was in the fold the Cavs were posting an astonishing point differential of better than 13 per game, which would have shattered the NBA record in that category (12.3 ppg, set by the 1971-72 Lakers). Now their point differential has dropped to 10.7 ppg overall (including 7.5 ppg in the past 11 games); that is still tremendous and still the best in the league this season but the drastic decline reflects that the Cavs have not only been losing more frequently but also that they have squeaked out some close decisions, including three wins out West by six points or less.
The two main players who picked up the slack for Ilgauskas were LeBron James and Anderson Varejao. James has reached double figures in rebounding five times in the past 11 games after doing so only twice in the first 31 games of the season. He has shifted to power forward and even center at times when the Cavs used a small lineup and he has narrowly passed Ilgauskas, Varejao and Ben Wallace to take over the team lead in rebounding for the season (7.4 rpg). Varejao took Ilgauskas’ place in the starting lineup and has been playing more minutes than usual. After not receiving much playing time early in the season, rookie J.J. Hickson has been pressed into service, taking over Varejao’s role as the first big man off of the bench. Hickson has played well at times but this is where injuries really affect a team; Varejao can capably replace Ilgauskas in the short term but then there is not anyone on the team who can fill Varejao’s old role.
When starting shooting guard Delonte West went down with a broken wrist five games ago the Cavs’ depth was once again tested but Sasha Pavlovic—a starter during the run to the Finals in 2007—has played well in West’s absence. Cleveland’s performance in the past month should forever put to rest any notion that this is simply a one man team. While James is indisputably playing at an MVP level, the Cavs legitimately have 10 players who can be productive members of a winning squad.
Cleveland faces Sacramento at the Q tonight before heading to Orlando to play the Magic for the first time this season. The Magic wreaked havoc during their recent trip out West—beating all three division leaders—so the Cavs could definitely use Big Z if he can return in time to match up with Dwight Howard.