INDEPENDENCE — Zydrunas Ilgauskas could be at practice today at Cleveland Clinic Courts and on the team plane later in the afternoon when the Cavaliers depart for a game in New Orleans on Wednesday.
Ilgauskas, traded from Cleveland to Washington on Feb. 17 in the three-team deal that brought Antawn Jamison and Sebastian Telfair to the Cavaliers, was close to agreeing to terms with the team Monday night.
There wasn’t much for agent Herb Rudoy and Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry to negotiate, as the team will likely give Ilgauskas most or all of the $1.99 million biannual exception.
The biannual is for two years, but the second year can be a team or player option, with that option likely to go in Ilgauskas’ favor.
That would allow the 7-foot-3 center to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, but he could still re-sign again with the Cavaliers at that time, probably for a larger chunk of the mid-level exception.
There’s also the possibility Ilgauskas could retire at the end of the season, an option that might become more likely if the Cavaliers win the first NBA championship in franchise history.
Ilgauskas could have signed with any other team immediately after being bought out of his expiring contract by the Wizards and clearing waivers, but he instructed Rudoy to open negotiations with the Cavaliers at the earliest moment.
Players must wait 30 days before re-signing with their former team after being traded, making Monday the first day Ilgauskas and the Cavaliers could talk contract.
“He’s a big friend of mine, one of the best friends I have,” Cavaliers small forward LeBron James said Sunday following a win over the Detroit Pistons. “I’m excited. He’s had a lot of rest. I’m looking forward to it.”
When Ilgauskas’ signing becomes official, the Cavaliers will have to create a roster spot, with rookie guard Danny Green or second-year big man Darnell Jackson the most likely player to be waived.
Cleveland could also part with Telfair, but his $2.5 million contract for this season would mean eating substantially more money than releasing Green or Jackson.
Even with starting center Shaquille O’Neal out with a thumb injury, Ilgauskas will likely come off the bench for the Cavaliers, as he did in 47 of the 53 games he appeared in prior to being traded.
J.J. Hickson is playing well as the team’s starting center — Cleveland (56-15) has won seven straight games and 13 of its last 14 — and it’s doubtful coach Mike Brown will change his starting lineup.
Given that the 7-1, 325-pound O’Neal will assume the starting spot when he returns, it makes even more sense to use Ilgauskas off the bench now, as that will also be his role in the playoffs.
The 34-year-old Ilgauskas, the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, rebounds and blocks in addition to being one of the team’s most popular and respected players, averaged 7.5 points on .452 shooting and 5.3 rebounds in 20½ minutes a night prior to the trade.
Brown will have to make some difficult decisions with Ilgauskas back — and even more when O’Neal returns — but having so many talented big men is a pleasant problem to have.
It’s hard to consistently use more than four players at the power forward and center spots, and three usually get the majority of the minutes. When everyone is healthy, those three will almost certainly be O’Neal, Jamison and Anderson Varejao.
Ilgauskas, Hickson and Leon Powe, who had a season-high 16 points on Sunday, have all shown they deserve time, but at least two will be doing a lot of sitting if, as expected, the Cavaliers are playing late in the postseason.
Until O’Neal returns, which probably won’t be until the playoffs, divvying up playing time will be a bit less of a problem, but Cleveland players don’t seem overly worried about who plays how many minutes.
“We’re a team,” Powe said. “We’re a family.”
- Who: Cleveland at New Orleans
- When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
- Where: New Orleans Arena
- TV/radio: FS Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.