The forgotten man in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Shaquille O’Neal experiment was Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Thanks to him, however, it’s working.
O’Neal was pried away from the Phoenix Suns last summer for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a draft pick, and some cash. Immediately, the speculation began: Would Shaq fit in with LeBron James?
The answer appears to be a resounding “yes,” and Ilgauskas is a major reason why.
For 11 seasons, he had been a fixture in the middle for the Cavaliers. The franchise leader in games played and a two-time All-Star, Ilgauskas has averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds a game over the course of his career.
Everything changed with O’Neal’s arrival, however. Ilgauskas was relegated to reserve status to make way for the newest marquee name in Cleveland. He accepted it, and said publicly that if there was a center in the NBA who he’d gladly sit behind, it was Shaq.
In an equal show of respect, O’Neal referred to Ilgauskas as the “co-starter” at center. A tag team was born.
After a slow start, both O’Neal and Ilgauskas have settled into roles that have made Cleveland surprisingly effective on offense and much more physical on defense.
Their presence guarantees the Cavs can play big from the opening tip to the final buzzer. When you add Anderson Varejao to the mix, their sheer size can be intimidating.
O’Neal has stepped up on offense in the absence of guards Mo Williams and Delonte West, averaging 16 points over the Cavs’ last 10 games. During that stretch he’s recorded season highs in points (22, twice) and rebounds (13, after a 12-board performance the game before).
Further, he’s been the enforcer the Cavs have never had. Twice in a recent win over Miami, Dwayne Wade was stopped cold when he collided with O’Neal on drives to the basket.
When New York came to town a couple of nights later, Nate Robinson was rejected twice by Shaq—with a little contact for emphasis each time—in the same offensive sequence.
O’Neal’s impact in Cleveland was thoroughly documented in a recent column by John Schuhmann of NBA.com. Schuhmann wrote that Cavs’ opponents have scored just 37 percent of their points in the paint this year, lowest in the league, and illustrated how Shaq has been the difference.
For the year, O’Neal is averaging just under 12 points and seven rebounds a game, in 23 minutes of playing time. That’s not even two full quarters.
Just days shy of his 38th birthday, he's able to pace himself because Ilgauskas awaits on the Cavaliers’ bench. The big Lithuanian plays about 20 minutes and contributes 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds a night.
Together, the two are averaging 19.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game. It’s making a huge difference for the Cavaliers, who are consistently ranked among the league leaders in team scoring and defense.
When O’Neal is on the floor, Cleveland pounds the ball inside. When Ilgauskas comes in, they revert to the pick-and-pop, where he sets a high screen and then slides to the wing, leaving him open for his deadly mid-range jump shot.
''I think we work well together,'' Ilgauskas recently told the Akron Beacon Journal . ''We complement each other really well, so teams have to deal with different stuff as far as guarding the inside-outside game.”
Most important, they’re both still fresh, two-thirds of the way through the season. As the Beacon Journal article stated, Ilgauskas has gone from thinking about retirement after this year to anticipating at least one more season in the wine and gold.
Conventional wisdom says that once the playoffs arrive, Shaq’s minutes will increase, but that begs the question: Why? If the O’Neal-Ilgauskas pairing is working now, there will likely be no need to change things in the postseason—at least, not until a potential rematch with Dwight Howard and the Magic in the East, or the hoped-for duel with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and the Lakers in the Finals.
O’Neal has shown himself to be more than capable of giving both teams, and their respective big men, fits with his size, savvy, and physical style of play.
As the NBA trading deadline looms, Cleveland GM Danny Ferry appears less likely to make a deal with each passing day. The pieces are all fitting together nicely, as evidenced by the team’s current hot streak—and they still await the returns of Williams, West, and Leon Powe (another powerful presence in the paint).
Any team with LeBron James on the roster is bound to be a contender, but, with the veteran partnership of O’Neal and Ilgauskas hitting their stride in the middle, the Cavaliers are better suited for a championship run than at any time in their history.