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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Potential Impact of Big Z's Injury

The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to their best start in franchise history and are right behind the defending champion Boston Celtics in the race for the league's best record this season. However, the Cavs will face some adversity in the next few weeks because starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been sidelined by a fracture in his left ankle. The good news is that the injury is not related to and did not compromise the foot reconstruction surgeries that he had earlier in his career but Ilgauskas may miss up to a month, which probably adds up to 14 games--nine of which will be played on the road, including matchups with the Magic and the Lakers.

In my newest article for CavsNews, I examine how Ilgauskas' injury will affect the Cavaliers (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The left ankle injury that Zydrunas Ilgauskas suffered versus Philadelphia on December 10 when he landed on former Cav Donyell Marshall’s foot was originally diagnosed as a sprain but further tests have revealed that he actually has a small fracture in the talus bone. The good news is that overall his foot—which had to be reconstructed with pins and screws earlier in his career—is solid structurally but the bad news is that he is expected to be out of action for three to four weeks. Assuming that the Cavs will be conservative in light of his previous injury history and that they most likely would bring him back in a home game, if there are not further complications then perhaps Ilgauskas will return versus Toronto on February 3. If that is the case, then he will miss 14 games (in addition to the four games that he has already sat out, three right after the injury happened plus Friday’s 117-92 win over Chicago). What impact will this have on the Cavaliers?

Don’t be misled by Cleveland’s 3-1 record without Ilgauskas this season; all three of those victories came against sub-.500 teams and, in any case, it is much more difficult to survive without a key rotation player for several weeks than it is to do so for a handful of games. Also, do not be fooled by the fact that the Cavs went 5-1 from December 19-30 while playing with a clearly hobbled Ilgauskas; not only were two of those wins versus Oklahoma City and Washington but even though Ilgauskas was obviously struggling he still played his regular minutes, which meant that there were no disruptions to the normal player rotation. Now, Anderson Varejao will move to the starting lineup and the Cavs will either have to increase the minutes played by Varejao and/or Ben Wallace or else rely more heavily on players who have been playing fewer than 10 mpg (J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson and Lorenzen Wright). It is also possible that in certain matchups Coach Mike Brown will go “small” and put LeBron James at power forward, though I use the term “small” advisedly since James is essentially the same size that Karl Malone was during his prime.

When a starting player for a good team goes down in the NBA the problem is not just with replacing him but also with replacing his replacement; Varejao can be an effective starting center in a pinch but who among the bench players will fill Varejao’s old role? Prior to Ilgauskas’ injury, the Cavs employed one of the best rotations of three “bigs” in the NBA; fans—and even some commentators—do not seem to fully appreciate just how effective Ilgauskas, Varejao and Wallace have been this season, particularly in terms of defense and rebounding. They each average between 25 and 26 mpg and they each average exactly 7.1 rpg. The individual numbers are not eye-popping only because of how evenly the minutes are distributed; each of the big men is averaging around 10 rpg per 36 minutes and that is why Cleveland ranks third in the NBA in rebounding differential.

Wallace (1.7 bpg) and Ilgauskas (1.3 bpg) are Cleveland’s primary shotblockers, while Varejao is a tenacious and versatile defender who draws charges and frustrates opponents with his physicality and high energy. With those three players shutting down the paint, the Cavs rank first in point differential, first in points allowed, second in defensive field goal percentage and fourth in blocked shots. Having three big guys who are so good at protecting the paint enables the perimeter defenders to aggressively go for steals because they know that the help defense behind them is so solid; the Cavs rank seventh in steals.

The long armed, 7-3 Ilgauskas is the only legit seven footer on the roster and the Cavs will miss that size and length at both ends of the court; in addition to his defensive contributions, Ilgauskas is a very good offensive rebounder and he is the team’s best low post scoring threat. Unlike Varejao and Wallace, Ilgauskas is also a deadly outside shooter who can spread the court after running a screen/roll action with LeBron James or Mo Williams.

Ilgauskas’ absence during the next month or so could have critical playoff implications because the Cavs are not only battling the Boston Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference but they also only have a slim lead over the Orlando Magic for the third seed. Last season, the Celtics demonstrated the value of home court advantage during their title run; the L.A. Lakers have openly spoken about wanting to have the best record in the league this season and that is also a goal that the Cavs should have in mind. Nine of Cleveland’s next 14 games are on the road—including visits to the Magic and the West-leading Lakers—so this promised to be a tough stretch for the Cavs even if they had been at full strength. The Cavs only lost five of their first 32 games but it is very possible that they will add five more losses to that total before Ilgauskas returns. One possible silver lining in this situation is that if the Cavs manage to stay ahead of Orlando and in contact with Boston then the extra minutes played by young Hickson could help prepare him to be a contributor down the stretch of the season and during the playoffs. On the other hand, an injury now to Varejao or Wallace would really be damaging to the Cavs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 PM


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At Monday, January 05, 2009 12:52:00 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Cavs fall to Wiz, with more losses on the horizon.

Right - again!

I apologize for being so Kobe-centric, but I have to take this time to point out that if it this was the Lakers and it was Gasol that was injured, and the Lakers lost, it would be some kind of indictment on Kobe.

But this loss is not a reflection of Lebron's deficiencies, who is a great player, it's a reflection of the nature of basketball and how much difference one player can make, even if he is not the "best" player on the team.

People just don't understand that even the best players need support to win. I'm talking about those people especially who think that Michael Jordan did it all himself, and that he could win with any set of players (ever heard of Scottie Pippen? Only one of the best defenders all-time) MJ is the greatest player ever, and still he has been raised to such high standards that he's believed to be a deity. And time and time again Kobe has been measured up to MJ the God and not MJ the man.

End of Rant.

At Monday, January 05, 2009 1:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Although I did not mention Kobe/Gasol in this post or in my article, I definitely had the same thought that you just articulated, namely that if Gasol got hurt and the Lakers started losing that Kobe would receive a lot of criticism.

It is worth noting not just that the Cavs lost to a sub-.500 team for the first time this season but also that the Cavs were killed on the boards (52-35), which is a direct reflection of the impact of Big Z's absence.

Last season, I said that the Lakers actually had "three" seasons: one with Bynum, one with Gasol and one in which they did not have either big man. Kobe helped the Lakers put together enough wins without either big man to still end up with the best record in the West. The Cavs face a daunting task trying to keep up with the Celtics but the Celtics have floundered a bit lately; it will be interesting to see what kind of record LeBron leads the Cavs to over the next month or so. It has been suggested in some quarters that Kobe has a better supporting cast than LeBron but I think that the value of LeBron's supporting cast--particularly the rotation of three bigs in which Z plays an integral role--has not been adequately appreciated. If the Cavs are truly a one man team, then Z's absence should not matter that much but the truth is that the Cavs are not a one man team--no team that only has five or six losses by early January is a one man team.

At Monday, January 05, 2009 6:47:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

The thing with the Cavs is that their big men rotation works because it covers many aspects of the game and each player gives a different look to the team. The problem is that it means nobody can cover for somebody else if he goes down. Ilgauskas is the only seven footer on the team, and the only big man with a shot.

Varejao and Wallace will do their thing, but none of them can contribute in certain areas that only Ilgauskas covers. Same thing happened during Varejao's holdout.

Hickson has apparently gotten the nod so far, and he had a good game vs the Bulls. But he is not a seven footer and neither has he a reliable midrange jumpshot, so Ilgauska's contribution will remain unaddressed. Also, Hickson is a work in progress and cannot be expected to become a reliable contributor at a moment's notice.

Maybe in the long run it will help: if Hickson improves with extended playing time, maybe he becomes a viable fourth big man come playoff time. But right now, the problem is that the Cavs frontcourt rotation was a finely tuned machine and one of the vital cogs has been wrenched loose. That's the problem with the Cavs: as long as they all play and contribute, they have a roster that plays all the keys in the piano. But if a player gets hurt or underperforms, there is nobody to pick up the slack because each player has a very definite set of skills.

At Monday, January 05, 2009 3:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In general, I agree with you, but I would add that Z is particularly hard to replace--and for the reasons that you mentioned (which I also noted in my article): Z is a legit 7 footer who can post up and shoot with range. To some extent, Varejao could fill in for Wallace or vice versa if one of them got hurt but when Varejao replaces Z the Cavs lose post up scoring and outside shooting.

Hickson has potential but he is raw and, as we both have noted, he is not a 7 footer like Z.


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