Hustle and Loyalty

Zydrunas Ilgauskas is widely expected to be bought out from the Wizards and then resign with the Cavaliers a month after that. Many point to his loyalty to the Cavaliers organization, and the loyalty that is supposedly reciprocated, as an obvious reason that he will be back in Cleveland before Easter.

However, this deal illuminates an issue that continually runs rampant throughout all professional sports: a team’s unflinching willingness to cut loose any player for even measly financial reasons. And when players attempt to renegotiate a deal that is no longer apropos to their performance, they are portrayed as greedy and selfish with no realistic sense of what that amount of money represents.

And while these deals are in fact enormous, not realistic to even the most financially comfortable of us, the fact is that these players have a short financial lifespan (10, 15 years if they are extremely lucky/talented) and a lot of those contracts go directly to Uncle Sam in the form of taxes.

And the organization will undoubtedly use the defense that the player has a signed contract, something many average citizens know full well and can defend. And they are right, a contract must be honored or there is no meaning to the word anymore. However, if you or I entered into a contract that rewarded us for sales when we were just average salespeople, but then we hit our stride and became top salespeople, wouldn’t we deserve a rather handsome raise? Wouldn’t we be upset that we weren’t being accurately rewarded for our performance?

But some players remain loyal, like Z, to a franchise through thick and thin. Ilgauskas has only been with the Cavaliers since he entered the league as a thin and pale kid from Lithuania with hair as awkward as his jog down the court. He had early foot troubles that seemed to be potentially career ending, a near career death sentence for a big man.

But he fought through it, slowly working his way back into All-Star form (at least as far as Eastern Conference centers go). Then LeBron came and truly resurrected the franchise, making Z’s job much easier than he was used to. He was now able to almost exclusively hit the mid-range jumpshot that he had refined since he came to Cleveland.

Throughout the years he had become a fan favorite of Cleveland, often the lone bright spot on an otherwise bleak team. He was the second most popular Cavalier behind LeBron (Varejao is a candidate, as is Delonte, definitely not Darius Miles). He was a major factor on the team that made it to the Finals (Z, LeBron, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, and Drew Gooden?) and as well as last year when they were heavy favorites to come out of the East.

Despite all of this, Cleveland shipped him off to Washington in exchange for Antawn Jamison and a chance to stretch the floor at the power forward position. Now, nobody is under the illusion that this deal was made without the obvious intention of Cleveland resigning Ilgauskas after a month. However, they were willing to risk that Z, upon becoming a free agent, would sign with a different team who are desperate for a big man with his unique skills (Dallas and Atlanta are widely speculated about).

He is the counterargument to every situation where the majority favors the team over the player in a contract dispute.

Most Cavalier fans, despite their relative joy of having acquired a two-time All-Star in Jamison, were overwhelmed with sadness over the prospects of losing Ilgauskas. It may actually be one of those wink-wink deals were it is always understood that the following actions would take place, or maybe it is a shot in the dark by the Cavaliers.

And not everyone is happy about the move, both Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson voicing their displeasure over the rules that would enable such a transaction to occur (Rivers admitted to his own hypocrisy when he remembered that the Celtics had performed the same such move with Gary Payton, which is respectable in some weird way). And granted, the move does seem unfair in some respects.

How can a team part with a player with no consequence? They will essentially have given up only a first round pick and cap space in order to acquire a two time All-Star. This seems like an unfair competitive advantage. At least LA gave up a player to acquire Gasol, and who knows, maybe that first round pick turns into a perennial All-Star.

But, when the fat lady warms up her pipes, Z will probably be back with Cleveland, leaving coach Mike Brown with a plethora of big men and continuously shrinking minutes to share with one another. It just doesn’t seem fair, unless of course Cleveland wins a championship and Z is able to finally celebrate.

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