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Greatest of Z's

The stellar play of oft-injured center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will be a key part of the Cavs' success--if they can keep him

This season's Feel-Good Award goes to Magic forward Grant Hill, who recovered from a series of ankle surgeries to play in his first All-Star Game since 2001. But sharing the Eastern Conference locker room with Hill on Sunday was an equally resilient All-Star whose comeback may have an even happier ending. Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, after battling career-threatening injuries, can play a vital role in LeBron James's quest for a championship--if Cleveland is able to re-sign him.

Ilgauskas, 29, has undergone five foot operations, the last coming four years ago, when three screws were inserted in his left foot and his left heel was realigned. After playing only 29 games from '98-99 to '00-01, Ilgauskas has not been out of the lineup because of injury for 275 straight games, making him one of the league's most durable big men. At the All-Star break he was averaging a career-high 17.4 points in 33.7 minutes while helping the Cavs to the third-best record in the East.

With Ilgauskas's durability has come a new appreciation of his value, as well as concerns that he will leave as a free agent this summer. "We'd like to keep him in Cleveland," says G.M. Jim Paxson. If the 7'3" Ilgauskas were to accept a deal that starts at roughly $11 million--along the lines of the three-year, $34.8 million extension signed by Trail Blazers center Theo Ratliff last summer--Paxson could come up with $10 million in salary-cap space to sign a free-agent shooting guard (see Michael Redd). But Ilgauskas's agent, Herb Rudoy, doesn't sound as if he's willing to accept a cut in Z's $14.6 million salary. "He's going to have a very, very, very big contract," says Rudoy, who has yet to begin negotiations with Paxson.

Several issues will color those talks. Rudoy doesn't know what kind of offer to expect from the Cavs' new ownership group, which is expected to take control early next month. More problematic is the fact that Ilgauskas says he can't get insurance for his feet--a frightening prospect for any owner considering such a huge investment. Rudoy is willing to agree to some kind of protection for the team Ilgauskas signs with, but he won't lower his price or accept a deal of fewer than five years. "[Cleveland's] doctors said he is healthy," Rudoy says. "If the team wants him, they're going to have to step up."

The Cavs could try to contend without Ilgauskas--the Bulls won six titles without a dominant big man--but James has made it clear that he would prefer to play alongside a traditional center. Ilgauskas is especially attractive because he is an excellent passer whose assists average (1.4 per game) could double if Cleveland adds an outside shooter. He is also ninth in the NBA in blocks (1.96 per game) and sixth in offensive boards (3.4). "This year I'm probably playing the best basketball of my career, but at the same time I haven't seen as many double teams because teams have to focus on [James]," says Ilgauskas. His value was confirmed when the East's coaches voted him to his second All-Star team in three years, bypassing perimeter stars Jason Kidd and Steve Francis.

Rudoy believes he will get offers from several contenders interested in a sign-and-trade as well as from teams under the cap. "I can't imagine Cleveland doesn't understand his value," Rudoy says, "but then I don't know these new owners, and I don't know what they're thinking."




  Ilgauskas racked up 12 points in 17 minutes to help the East to a 125-115 All-Star victory.