May 24, 2016


No offense, Z, but this wasn’t best Cavs team

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a lovely man, probably the most liked person in the Cavaliers organization, is also the best interview because he’s thoughtful, he’s smart and he’s honest. Ilgauskas speaks from the heart.
One morning last week, the day before the Cavs’ season ended in a fourth straight loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Ilgauskas reflected on their desperate situation with some puzzlement.
“This is the best Cavs team in history,” Ilgauskas said, experiencing a combination of satisfaction and disappointment.
How could the best Cavs team in history get swept by the Spurs?
The question has no answer because this is not the best Cavs team ever. Far from it.
This was the best season because it was so unexpected. The Cavs took off on a magic carpet ride, but there was an undercurrent of reality. The Cavs were 5-1 underdogs in the final series, but you heard no cry of outrage. It was clear from the beginning the Cavs were overmatched.
Because Ilgauskas has been with the Cavs longer than anybody, he was asked about drawing from these experiences to inspire and enlighten his teammates. Ilgauskas said he was in no position to enlighten anybody.
“What can I tell them? I lost 60 games one year,” he said.
Ilgauskas has been here 11 years but has played barely more than seven seasons. He missed two entire seasons and most of two others with foot injuries that required several surgeries. He spent four of his first five seasons in and out of hospitals.
Frankly, until recently his Cleveland experience has been dismal, which may explain why he thinks this Cavs team is the best in 37 years.
“The 1976 team was better,” I opined.
“The ’92 team was better,” another reporter claimed.
“The ’89 team was the best,” said a third.
All three of those teams had bad luck, starting with the Miracle of Richfield team in 1976, a team with unique charm because it made the playoffs for the first time after only six seasons in the league.
The Cavs won their first-round series against Washington in seven pulsating games that year but starting center Jim Chones, the team’s leading scorer, broke a bone in his foot on the eve of the next series against Boston. Consequently, backup center Nate Thurmond, two months shy of his 35th birthday, had to go one-on-one against Boston’s spirited young center Dave Cowens for 35 minutes a game. Cowens, seven years younger, wore down Thurmond and the Celtics eliminated the Cavs in six games.
Ilgauskas doesn’t remember the frenzy of that spring because he was 10 months old.
The Celtics then won the NBA championship over Phoenix. In these parts, it is an article of faith that the Cavs would have won the NBA championship if Chones had not been hurt. With Chones, the Cavs had no weaknesses.
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were gone from the game, so the combination of Chones and Thurmond at center was as good as any center spot in the league. They rotated four guards who could pass and shoot — Jim Cleamons, Austin Carr, Dick Snyder and Foots Walker. They had a defensive forward in Jim Brewer who commanded the boards. Alternating at shooting forward were Bingo Smith and Campy Russell.
The Cavs then lost their next six first-round playoff series, none more painful than in 1989 when Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo with no time left gave Chicago a 101-100 victory in the deciding game of a five-game series. “The Shot” lives in infamy with “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” That was the Cavs team of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Ron Harper, Hot Rod Williams and Ehlo. It was a good team, but probably not as deep as the ’76 edition.
Ilgauskas was 14 years old.
Five times Chicago eliminated the Cavs in the playoffs, the bad luck of sharing the Eastern Conference with Jordan. It happened again in 1992 when the Cavs hurdled New Jersey and Boston in the first two rounds but got caught in the Jordan buzz saw again in the Eastern finals. Daugherty, Price, Nance, Williams and Ehlo could beat almost anybody except the Chicago Bulls.
Ilgauskas was 17 years old.
He is now 32 years old and the Cavs’ path to the championship is blocked by another dynasty led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
Just our luck.
The only alternative is to get better, but because of salary cap restrictions, the chances of improving the Cavs this offseason seem remote. Their priority is to re-sign restricted free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic.
“LeBron (James) will have to get better,” said coach Mike Brown.
It always comes back to LeBron.
Dan Coughlin is a columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for TV-8. Contact him at 329-7135 or