Cleveland’s LeBron James set off a media firestorm Monday when he questioned Mike Brown’s decision not to play center Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Saturday’s game against Dallas.
Ilgauskas reportedly was devastated by the move, which came as a surprise in an easy 111-95 win for the Cavaliers. For one thing, he remains a solid NBA center, although age has slowed him and his skills have diminished since his prime.
But what was startling about Brown’s decision was that Ilgauskas was poised that night to break the Cavs’ franchise record for games played. He had tied current GM Danny Ferry for the top spot in Cavaliers history on Friday night in Charlotte, when he suited up for the 723rd time as a Cavalier.
Ilgauskas hasn’t spoken to the media since the benching, but James was clearly mystified by his coach’s actions. Saying he didn’t know who was responsible for the decision, and claiming that he wasn’t trying to stir anything up, he went on to do exactly that by expressing his disappointment in what happened and his support for Ilgauskas.
“I stand behind Z and I feel like Z not playing wasn't the right thing,” James told the media after the Cavaliers’ practice. “As a friend of his, I was very upset, and I know he was also.”
James said he thought Ilgauskas should have started against the Mavericks, to allow him to accept the cheers of Cleveland fans and his teammates for such a significant accomplishment.
Instead, Ilgauskas was treated by Brown to a seat on the bench for all 48 minutes. According to a report on the Cleveland Plain Dealers’ web site Monday afternoon, it may have been the first time in the center’s career that he did not play due to a coach’s decision.
It’s been a roller-coaster year for Ilgauskas, who accepted the loss of his starting job to Shaquille O’Neal with class and professionalism. However, he hasn’t looked comfortable coming off the bench and is averaging a shade better than seven points and six rebounds in 24 minutes a game.
For Brown to keep Ilgauskas off the floor on what should have been a personally historic night was a slap in the face to the 13-year veteran, who is one of the most popular players to ever don a Cavaliers uniform. He is also one of only two active players to have played 13 seasons for the same team, the other being the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.
Ilgauskas overcame numerous setbacks early in his career. After a strong rookie season in 1998-99, in which he averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, he sat out nearly two full seasons with foot injuries. He returned for 24 games in 2000-01 before being sidelined again by foot problems.
Finally healthy in 2002-03, Ilgauskas averaged 17.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a game and was selected as an All-Star. With the arrival of James the next season, the duo would form the nucleus of the Cleveland lineup for the following six seasons, reaching the NBA Finals in 2007.
Ilgauskas has averaged 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds during his career. He’s respected league-wide for his outside shooting ability and offensive rebounding prowess, and has twice played in the NBA All-Star game.
So there he was on Saturday, poised to break the team record that he had said, in the previous day's Lorain Morning Journal, meant the most to him—and Brown benched him.
It made no sense, and it’s no surprise that James spoke out. He’s been close to Ilgauskas since joining the Cavaliers in 2003, and has said on more than one occasion that it would mean as much to him to win a championship for his longtime teammate as it would for himself.
This sort of controversy is the last thing the Cavaliers need right now. Still trying to find their rhythm since O’Neal’s arrival, the team is already distracted by Delonte West’s emotional and legal struggles.
James spoke openly of the Cavaliers’ recent effectiveness when they won five of six games while O’Neal was out with a shoulder injury. Likewise, LeBron did not try to hide his frustration over the team’s inability to click after Shaq returned to the lineup against Charlotte on Friday.
The pressure is on the Cavaliers to win a championship this season. James will be a free agent in 2010, and rumors continue to swirl around what he’ll do when that time comes.
His concern over how the team is playing with Shaq in the lineup, coupled with how Ilgauskas was treated last weekend, is not a good sign in the current environment.
Mike Brown (and possibly Danny Ferry himself, since it was his record that was about to be broken) have some explaining to do about why Ilgauskas was left on the outside looking in, on what should have been a night of celebration for him, and one of recognition for his noteworthy career as a Cavalier.