Ilgauskas, whose promising career has been slowed by numerous foot injuries, was activated on Monday from the injured list and the 7-foot-3 center is expected to play in tonight's game against the Detroit Pistons.
Ilgauskas has played in just 29 games since 1998 because of injuries and has undergone five surgeries on his feet. The most recent procedure on his left foot was done in February, and after the operation Ilgauskas said it would be his last.
"It's been a long road," Ilgauskas said following Monday's practice. "I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be. It feels as good as it can get with seven screws in it."
Although Ilgauskas, known to his teammates and Cleveland fans simply as "Z", has been practicing with the team since the opening of training camp, the Cavs had been saying he wouldn't return until mid-December.
However, center Michael Doleac sustained a broken left ankle last week and could be sidelined for six weeks. Doleac's injury, coupled with a back problem that has kept forward Tyrone Hill out all season may have prompted the Cavs to bring Ilgauskas back early.
But Cavs general manager Jim Paxson said the other injuries did not factor into Ilgauskas' return.
Paxson said Ilgauskas' minutes would be watched closely, especially when the Cavs are playing on consecutive nights.
"We learned over the last few years about the stresses on his body and want to make sure we're not asking him to do too much," Paxson said.
When he's been healthy, Ilgauskas has been one of the Eastern Conference's best centers. And with him on the floor, the Cavs have been a different team.
Cleveland opened last season by going 15-7 before Ilgauskas got hurt during a Dec. 22 game against the Miami Heat. Without Ilgauskas, the Cavs won just 15 games the rest of the season and coach Randy Wittman was fired.
"We're not looking at him as the savior," Paxson said. "That just because "Z" is back we're going to win every game. This is going to be an ongoing evaluation of him, maybe for the rest of his career."
First-year coach John Lucas has been eager to get Ilgauskas in the lineup after watching him dominate during practice.
After five seasons, the Cavs can appreciate being teased by Ilgauskas' talent.
"John's experience with 'Z' playing is two months," Paxson said. "(Owner) Gordon's (Gund) is five years and mine is three years. John is anxious to get him back as we all are."
In February, Ilgauskas, who signed a six-year, $70 million contract in 1999, had seven screws inserted into his left foot and underwent extensive bone grafting in which doctors reshaped his foot to distribute stress points more evenly.
In 24 games last season, Ilgauskas averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He sat out the entire 1999-00 season after having surgery on his left foot.
Ilgauskas, who is Lithuanian, played just five games in 1998-99 when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot.
As a rookie in 1997-98, Ilgauskas averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds in 82 games. He made the NBA's All-Rookie team and was named MVP of the rookie game during the league's All-Star weekend in New York.
The Cavs drafted him in the first round (20th overall) in the 1996 draft.