As the Cleveland Cavaliers season slowly approaches, it’s time to look at how the Wine & Gold currently stack up at every position. This breakdown looks at the center position.
Starter: Anderson Varejao
Key Reserve(s): Andrew Bynum
Other Players under contract: Tyler Zeller, Henry Sims
Unlike many NBA teams today, the Cavaliers are set to carry four centers on their 15-man roster. At first glance, this is a nice collection of top tier talent and young depth, an intriguing group with Andrew Bynum as the wildcard of the entire roster. Any production from the oft-injured Bynum would be a plus. When healthy, Anderson Varejao is one of the better five-men in the league, providing energy, hustle and a workmanlike presence. Tyler Zeller and Henry Sims are unproven second-year commodities.
The strength lies with Varejao, the crafty fan favorite and nine-year veteran. The longest tenured player on the roster by a long shot, “Andy” finally won the starting job three seasons ago. In the games Varejao has played he’s been fantastic, averaging a double-double in each of the past two seasons. He is coming off a career-best 14.1 point, 14.4 rebound 2012-2013 performance albeit in 25 games. He is a fine pick and roll player combining nibble feet and soft hands to find slivers of space and finish at the hoop. He’ll fight for every loose ball and won’t be intimated by anyone on the interior.
Bynum was arguably the best offensive center two seasons ago with the Los Angeles Lakers, scoring 18.7 points on 56 percent shooting to go with 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Standing at a true seven feet tall while carrying 285 pounds, he is a load in the low post showcasing a variety of soft hooks and a powerful drop step. But he will be eased into a reserve role this season if he can remain healthy.
Zeller and Sims are reinforcements off the bench who together give the team depth if when Varejao and Bynum can’t play. Zeller, the 17th pick in the 2012 draft, is an athletic big who can run the floor and hit an open jump shot. Sims snuck onto the roster after a solid preseason in which he showed he could defend the post, rebound and hit a 15-footer. He led the team in the preseason shooting at a 58.8 percent clip from the field, putting up six points and five boards in 18 minutes. He’ll start the season as Varejao’s backup with Bynum’s status still up in the air and Zeller recovering from an appendectomy.
The clear weakness here is health. At 31 years old, Varejao isn’t getting any younger. Incredibly, the Brazilian has missed 149 of a possible 230 games over the past three years with a number of injuries, including a life-threatening blood clot issue in his lungs last January. Bynum hasn’t played since May of 2012 after sitting out the entire 2012-2013 season with the Philadelphia 76ers because of swelling in his knees. The enigmatic Bynum had arthroscopic surgery on both knees in March and while he has practiced with the team, he has yet to be cleared for games. Zeller struggled with the physicality of the NBA as a rookie and was not efficient on either end of the floor. Sims had just one productive college season at Georgetown and is an unknown having played in just two career NBA games. Defensively, Bynum is the only rim protector of the four; Varejao has averaged just 0.7 blocks per game for his career.
The health of Varejao and Bynum may be the key to the Cavs’ playoff hopes. If both miss time, Mike Brown will assuredly be tempted to slot the under-sized Tristan Thompson into the five spot (he had a 20.6 PER at center compared to 16.6 at power forward). Bynum has a degenerative knee condition and is unreliable at this point but Cleveland must keep Varejao fresh. It’s vital that Bynum, Zeller or Sims give the team solid minutes off the bench, otherwise the Cavs will be forced to play a small lineup when Varejao is off the floor. Thompson is too small and Zeller is too soft to hold up against giants like Roy Hibbert, Andre Drummond and Brook Lopez. But if Varejao and Bynum can defy their injury-riddled pasts, this group could catapult the Cavs into the 6th or possibly even the fifth spot in the East.