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Art Garcia

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Who wouldn't want this guy on a team come playoff time?
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With suitors lining up, center Ilgauskas weighs his options


Posted Feb 26 2010 5:07PM

If you're the NBA's most eligible bachelor, who's knocking on your door? That's the question facing Zydrunas Ilgauskas going into mini-free agency as contenders from across the league line up with promises and prorated salaries.

The Cavaliers are the prohibitive favorites to land the former two-time All-Star, and rightfully so. Ilgauskas has spent his entire career, nearly 12 years, wearing Cleveland's ever-changing uniform. He could return to the Cavs -- who dealt him to Washington at the trade deadline -- as early as March 22 and still be eligible for the playoffs, after he agreed to a buyout with the Wizards on Thursday.

But Ilgauskas has drawn varying degrees of interest from a number of other playoff-caliber clubs, too, including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Antonio and Utah.

Ilgauskas can sign with any team other than the Cavs as soon as he clears waivers Monday and still be eligible for the playoffs.

The recruiting began in earnest Thursday.

"He's going to make up his mind at his pace," agent Herb Rudoy told NBA.com Friday. "He's in no rush. He could decide this weekend or sometime next week, but he feels no pressure to rush into a decision."

The Cavs could use Z right now, not next month, considering former teammate Shaquille O'Neal suffered a "significant" thumb sprain Thursday night. No timetable has been set on O'Neal's return, but he's out for Friday night's visit to Toronto.

Ilgauskas returning to Cleveland makes sense for a lot of reasons. His heart remains there, the organization stood by his side through foot injuries that nearly sidelined his career and the Cavs want him back. It adds up.

"He knows I would love for him to be back here," LeBron James told reporters Thursday before Cleveland's win at Boston. "I want him to be back here, especially while we're contending for a title. He's one of the main reasons why I want to win a title for this team."

Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson, summing up the league sentiment, admitted that Z signing with a team other than the Cavaliers is a "long shot." But that hasn't stopped other contenders from wearing out Rudoy's cellphone.

Rudoy has said he'll listen to pitches, and other factors are in play. The waiting period, money and perhaps a new challenge could steer Z down a new road.

That's at least the hope for interested teams that could use a playoff-tested, sweet-shooting 7-foot-3 center with career averages of nearly 14 points and eight rebounds. Ilgauskas has averaged 7.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 20.5 minutes this season backing up Shaq.

Z, alone, wouldn't necessarily be a difference-maker in Cleveland or elsewhere. But the 34-year-old Lithuanian certainly can help.

Finances could play a major part in Ilgauskas' decision. He forked over about $1.5 million in the Washington buyout. And while Z has the most emotionally invested in Cleveland, the Cavs can't make the biggest economic commitment.

Cleveland has the $1.99 million biannual exception, but because Ilgauskas has to wait to sign with the Cavs, the prorated amount for the rest of the season amounts to about $1.1 million. The Nuggets, Celtics, Spurs and Mavericks also have the biannual to use, and their prorated share -- because Z can sign immediately with them -- is more, approximately $1.4 million.

The Hawks, Jazz and Heat are in the position of having their full mid-level exception of $5.9 million to spend, which prorates to $4.1 million, starting Monday. That's a full $3 million more than Cleveland can spend and $2.7 above their other competitors.

Atlanta, Utah and Miami can use any portion of the mid-level. The Jazz and Heat are also in luxury-tax territory, so that could factor into their decision. The Hawks are not. Utah just traded Ronnie Brewer last week to lessen its tax burden, so signing Ilgauskas would signal a major shift in their financial philosophy.

Other Ilgauskas suitors over the salary cap and without the biannual have the prorated share of the $1.3 million veteran's minimum, or about $344,000 to offer, starting Monday.

The longer Z waits, the less money is an issue because the prorated portion of those competing against Cleveland shrinks with each passing day. Utah and Miami, though, still have much more to offer, if they so choose.

Ilgauskas isn't the only player who was waived or bought out since the trade deadline. Larry Hughes, Brian Cardinal, Kenny Thomas and Brian Cook are also out there. Hughes will get the most interest, with Charlotte emerging as an early favorite. Veterans such as Mike James (Washington) and Tony Battie (New Jersey) may also be cut loose by Monday.

Ilgauskas wouldn't be the first player traded to return to his original squad. Brent Barry (San Antonio), Gary Payton (Boston) and Antonio McDyess (Detroit) have done it before. There are examples of others who have gone on to a new team and made an impact, including Tim Thomas with the Suns in 2006 and Sam Cassell during the Celtics' title run two years later.

Maybe that challenge is rattling around in Z's shaven head. That's at least the hope out for those contenders outside of Ohio.

Interested Contenders

ATLANTA

Pros: The entire midlevel to spend ($4.1 million prorated). Could back up and play alongside center Al Horford, giving the Hawks more size to battle the league's beefier frontlines. Outside shot adds another dimension.

Cons: Of the four best teams in the East, Atlanta is regarded as fourth best.

BOSTON

Pros: Would create a formidable tandem with Kendrick Perkins at center, and eases the workload on Rasheed Wallace as the primary backup to Kevin Garnett. C's won a title just two years ago.

Cons: Playing for perhaps the Cavs' fiercest rival would make Z enemy No. 1 back in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND

Pros: Loyalty and connection to the only NBA organization he's ever played for. Best record in league and the city's first title in six decades in sight. A chance to finish what's he's started.

Cons: Least money to spend and crowded frontcourt with Shaq, Jamison, Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson, etc. Oh yeah, Cavs traded him.

DALLAS

Pros: Another big is needed behind Brendan Haywood with Erick Dampier likely out at least a month. Close ties to general manager and former Lithuanian assistant coach Donnie Nelson.

Cons: Not as much money to spend as other top suitors. Tough to play three centers once Dampier returns.

DENVER

Pros: Could use his length and skill in the anticipated showdown with the Lakers' parade of 7-footers. Much like Chauncey Billups, Ilgauskas would add the calming presence of a veteran to the room.

Cons: Nuggets' up-tempo attack not the perfect match for the halfcourt specialist.

MIAMI

Pros: Up to $4.1 million to spend outdistances most competitors. Z is a true center, allowing Jermaine O'Neal to play more power forward. South Beach and Dwyane Wade.

Cons: Heat are struggling to stay over .500. Title contention not likely this season with a roster with so many needs.

SAN ANTONIO

Pros: Immediately becomes best center on roster (if you don't count Tim Duncan) and Gregg Popovich is well-respected by Euros (and everyone else). Championship pedigree, including a 4-0 sweep of Cavs in 2007.

Cons: Spurs' sweep of Cavs in 2007. Going over the luxury tax not working out right now with Richard Jefferson. Would Spurs owner Peter Holt sign even a bigger check?

UTAH

Pros: Also have up to $4.1 million to spend. Forget Monday against the Hawks, do you really trust Kyrylo Fesenko as Mehmet Okur's backup? Z plays a similar style to Memo, so the transition should be easy.

Cons: As well as they've played the last two months, the Jazz might not be seen as a true title contender by the Z camp.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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