The Cleveland Cavaliers have acquired the proverbial “stretch 4”—i.e., power forward who can shoot jumpers and/or create his own scoring opportunities—that they have been seeking (and their fans have been dreaming about) for quite some time: as part of a three team deal involving the Washington Wizards and L.A. Clippers, Antawn Jamison will join the Cavaliers, while the Cavs will ship center Zydrunas Ilgauskas plus a first round draft pick to Washington.
We live in a society that craves instant reactions and immediate feedback but the truth is that this deal really cannot be completely evaluated until 30 days from now when Ilgauskas will have the option of returning to Cleveland if Washington buys out his contract. It is easy and obvious to say that the Cavs have tremendously upgraded their roster–Jamison (20.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is significantly outperforming Ilgauskas (7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) this season—but Ilgauskas’ impact on Cleveland’s roster should not be lightly dismissed. Even though Ilgauskas’ per game numbers are hardly impressive and on a per minute basis he is having the least productive season of his career in terms of scoring and blocked shots, he comprised one third of a three headed center monster with Shaquille O’Neal and Anderson Varejao. That gave the Cavs tremendous matchup flexibility as well as insurance against injuries and/or foul trouble: the Cavs could go super big with O’Neal and Ilgauskas on the court at the same time or they could go small with Vareajao at center and LeBron James at power forward. Each center could stay fresh because none of them averaged even 30 mpg.
Jamison is a highly skilled player but he is not a center, so it is very important now for O’Neal to stay healthy and out of foul trouble; O’Neal and Varejao will have to combine to fill Ilgauskas’ 20.5 mpg for at least the next month. After that time, according to NBA rules, the Wizards can buy out Ilgauskas, who would then be free to re-sign with the Cavs (if the Wizards buy out Ilgauskas before the 30 day period ends he could immediately sign with any NBA team except the Cavs).
There are good reasons to assume that the Wizards will buy out Ilgauskas and that he will decide to return to Cleveland but none of the involved parties can publicly talk about that scenario. Assuming that Ilgauskas does indeed join the Cavs for the end of the regular season plus the playoffs, the Cavs will be stacked. Since before the season began I have been praising the Cavs’ depth but think about the options that Coach Mike Brown could have at his disposal a month from now: the aforementioned three headed monster at center, a power forward rotation consisting of James, Jamison, Varejao and J.J. Hickson, a small forward corps of James, Jamario Moon and Jawad Williams and a backcourt consisting of Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson. The Cavs have shooters, defenders, rebounders and playmakers, plus enough depth to withstand an injury to any one player (other than James, obviously). It could not honestly be said that any team in the NBA poses an unsolvable matchup problem for that roster.
Still, the cautionary note must be sounded that Ilgauskas’ return is not a foregone conclusion: the Wizards may not buy him out or they may buy him out past the deadline when a player who signs with a team is eligible for postseason play. Also, a team like the Dallas Mavericks may step up and offer Ilgauskas a far better contract than the Cavaliers can put forth, plus the potential opportunity to start. If Ilgauskas does not return to Cleveland then the Cavs will still have a very formidable team but their depth at center could become an issue.