Big ZBig Z Logging Big Minutes….But Is This A Problem For The Future?

People who have been following the NBA closely this season know that there’s a giant secret in the Association this year. Quietly, and under the radar, Cavaliers’ center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is quietly having one of, if not the, best seasons of his career. So far, Big Z is averaging 16.0 ppg and 12.1 rpg (4.9 off rpg), while shooting 50% from the field. His preseason PER projection of 18.02 has been surpassed so far by over 2 points (20.17). Even his defense, never considered a particularly strong part of his game (although his height alone allows him to influence shots on the defensive side of the ball), has been above average so far this year. Despite all this, his strong start to the season has gone largely overlooked by the national media pundits and analysts.

Just how impressive has Zydrunas been this season? Rick Noland writes in the Medina County Gazette,

“The good news is, Ilgauskas’ numbers are way up in every other statistical category as well. He is averaging 16.0 points on .500 shooting from the field and .839 at the line while pulling down 12.1 rebounds a night.

The latter number may be the most impressive of all given that Ilgauskas has never averaged more than 8.8 rebounds in a season. The Lithuanian posted that average in each of his first two NBA campaigns, but topped 8.1 just once in his next seven seasons.”

Furthermore, as Chris Beaven wrote in the Canton Rep,

With the Cavs short-handed up front, Ilgauskas is handling tough defensive assignments in the post and consistently putting up big numbers. He has seven double-doubles in 10 games, equaling his best 10-game stretch since 1997-98.”

All of these factors are a big reason why this team has been able to weather through the toughest part of their schedule this year to come out on the other side in decent shape, at 5-5 on the season (well, that and the unreal MVP season LBJ is putting together so far, but we’ll talk more about that some other time). But for all the local accolades and the sudden attention, a major underlying question remains, and it’s a major question. The answer to this question will go a long way in determining if the Cavaliers are a serious contender to defend their Eastern Conference title or not. The question is, can Big Z’s 32 year old body (including his 65 year old feet) hold up if he keeps logging the huge number of minutes that he has been putting in this year?

The fact of the matter is, that perhaps Anderson Varejao’s absence has had the largest affect on the team in terms of Z’s minutes played so far. In the ’06 and ’07 seasons, respectively, Z had averaged 29.3 mpg and 27.4 mpg. This season, his minutes have absolutely ballooned to 33.8 minutes per game. If he maintains these minutes all year, it will be the most he has played in his entire career (not taking into consideration the ’98-’99 season in which Z only played 5 games before getting hurt for the rest of the year). If the specter of Varejao’s holdout has hung over the franchise this season like an impending storm cloud, the gathering puddles of rain are symbolic of the lack of front court depth on the Cavs. As the size of the puddles increase, so too do Big Z’s accumulated minutes.

For his part, Zydrunas isn’t too worried about it:

“I take very good care of myself. I’m not 20 anymore. I’m 32. Coach gives me rest when he thinks I need it. I’ve been playing more than (32). He’d like to keep me as low as he can. It’s hard to go full speed for 40-45 minutes…Any player is lying to you if he says he doesn’t like playing more.”

All this being said, coach Mike Brown has been cognizant of the rise in Z’s minutes, although said cognizance has yielded precious little reaction or results. According to Brown,

“I’m not doing well there. I feel like I did with LeBron (James the last few years) when I said I wanted to keep him at 40 and he was at 43. Now I’m doing the same thing with ‘Z.’ Hopefully, (general manager) Danny (Ferry) isn’t smart enough to put a clause in my contract about LeBron’s and Z’s minutes.”

Forget about clauses, how about common sense? Common sense dictates that a 32 year old, 7′ 3″ human being with 2 gimpy feet and a history of injuries (although, to be fair, he has kept healthy the last few years, albeit while playing primarily reduced minutes per game) can maintain such a high level of play for an 82 game season plus playoffs when logging the massive number of minutes he has so far this season.

Of course only time will tell what exactly will happen with Ilgauskas this season, but this is definitely something for all of us to keep an attentive eye on. It may not be an understatement to say that the success of this team rides in large part on the health of Z’s aging and fragile body.