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Art Garcia

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Despite all the hubub surrounding him, Zydrunas Ilgauskas never asked to be traded from the Cavs.
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Let Z be: This is between Ilgauskas and the Cavaliers


Posted Mar 5 2010 11:37AM

The outrage is understandable. And misguided. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is evidently headed back to the Cavaliers in a couple of weeks, reuniting with the only franchise he's ever known. For Big Z, it's the right move.

It also happens to be fair and just. Those who claim otherwise have their reasons, citing everything from messing with competitive balance to making a mockery of the trade rules. But where does Ilgauskas the man, not the commodity, factor into those arguments?

Big Z didn't ask to be traded. He signed two contract extensions with the Cavaliers because he wanted to be in Cleveland. The franchise must have wanted him, too, considering it doled out more than $120 million to Z over the last 12 years.

It's clear that Ilgauskas plans to retire wearing the wine, gold and whatever other colors the Cavs wear this week. Before the trade-deadline deal that sent the 34-year-old Lithuanian to Washington, no one on the Cleveland roster had been with the team as long as Ilgauskas.

Before LeBron, Z was Mr. Cavalier. Last week, after he bought his way out of Washington, he became Mr. Free Agent.

The Wizards didn't have any use for Ilgauskas, and Z didn't have any use for them. Their intentions are clear in the wake of a season gone Gilbert Arenas awry: Washington wants to free cap space and rebuild.

So if Ilgauskas wants to take money out of his own pocket -- in this case about $1.5 million -- to work out the buyout with the lottery-bound Wizards and become a free agent, what's the problem?

Ilgauskas, in becoming a free agent, knew that there would be sizable interest from a lot of places, starting from the city Z has called home since 1996. And now he's come out and said that's where he wants to be.

That's not a wink-wink agreement between Z and the Cavs. That's reality.

Ilgauskas is comfortable in and feels connected to Cleveland. He knows the team, the coaches, the best places to get pierogi. He has settled into the Avon Lake suburb year 'round with his wife and two kids. The franchise has stayed by his side through career-threatening injuries. He has history in Cleveland. It's his home.

"He has been overwhelmed and deeply touched by the outpouring of support and affection by the fans and by his teammates," Rudoy said via text. "He hopes to return to the Cavaliers and to the city of Cleveland."

Why should he sign somewhere else and live out of a suitcase, away from his family, for the last month or so of a season? Should there be a mandate that Z has to play for a new set of coaches, move into a new locker room and suit up for new team? He's a free agent.

Remember, everyone has had a shot at Ilgauskas. The Nuggets, Jazz, Hawks, Mavericks, Heat and Celtics all came after Z. Each of those clubs had more money to offer Ilgauskas, too. Atlanta, Miami and Utah have the prorated portion of the mid-level exception ($4.1 million) at their disposal. That's about $3 million more than Cleveland can offer, once formal negotiations begin.

"Zydrunas has decided to wait until March 22 and has asked me to enter into negotiations with the Cavs on that day," Rudoy said. "The NBA rules do not allow any contract discussions until that date. It is Zydrunas' desire to return to the Cavaliers if a suitable contract can be agreed upon."

Leaving money on the table might seem strange, but it's hardly unique. Ron Artest didn't sign for market value with the Lakers last summer. Artest took the mid-level exception with the champs despite Houston offering more money. It happens more than you might think.

Those that argue that the competitive balance of the NBA is comprised by Ilgauskas' possible return to Cleveland need to check some of the other scenarios. What if Ilgauskas had signed in Utah? Picking up a former two-time All-Star center without giving up anything other than cash impacts competition. Just ask the Nuggets, Mavs and other West contenders.

Criticism from the coaching community comes off as somewhat disingenuous. Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't have a problem when Gary Payton returned to Boston three days after being traded in 2005. Now it's an issue? Lakers coach Phil Jackson called the practice of a traded player coming back to his old team a "weird situation." So was the Pau Gasol trade.

The only reason Ilgauskas was dealt to Washington was to make the money work, but the Wizards would have happily made the trade without him. Getting Antawn Jamison off the books was the key for Washington. If the NBA's rules had allowed general manager Ernie Grunfeld to give Jamison away for literally nothing other than cap relief, you can bet the Washington Monument he would have.

For those up in arms over Ilgauskas' apparently imminent return to Cleveland, the condemnation comes off as selective enforcement. Suppose the Wizards waived Quinton Ross, acquired from the Mavericks in the seven-player trade that included Caron Butler and Josh Howard. If Ross, a Dallas native, wanted to return to his hometown the next day, no one would bat an eye.

The league-mandated 30-day moratorium before re-signing (it's 20 days in the offseason) gave other teams a chance to recruit Ilgauskas. It also cost him a good chunk of change. The NBA office sees no reason to change the waiting period, which has been in place for five years.

"Any time a player is traded, there can't be any side agreement between the teams," league spokesman Tim Frank said. "The last collective bargaining agreement put in the 30-day rule. It was designed to help protect against those types of agreements."

The league has found no evidence of a pre-existing deal between Cleveland and Washington. Still, Rivers and others have suggested instituting rules to further limit -- and maybe eliminate -- a player's opportunities to return to the team that traded him.

That could happen. NBA commissioner David Stern has said that everything is on the table during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. So, someday, maybe changes in this rule will be made.

It wouldn't be the first time that something that's not broken gets fixed.

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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