In our “What’s Next” series, a Right Down Euclid writer will look at each individual member of the Cleveland Cavaliers by analyzing what their future looks like and/or what’s the next step in their development. In this piece, RDE editor looks at Anderson Varejao, whose time in Cleveland may be coming to an end this summer.
Anderson Varejao is the longest tenured Cleveland Cavalier. He’s the most popular player on the team and probably the most popular Cavalier since Zydrunas Ilguaskas. Should David Griffin and the Cleveland front office decided this summer to decline Varejao’s $9.7 million dollar option this summer, there would undoubtedly be some backlash from Cavs fans. Players with a game and a hair-do like Anderson Varejao don’t grow on trees.
But Varejao is 31. He hasn’t ever played a full 82 game season in 10 NBA seasons. The 65 games he played this past season were his most since the 2009-10 season, when he played 76. In the three years in-between, Varejao played an average 27 games.
This isn’t to suggest that Varejao doesn’t have any value, because he does. When he’s on the floor, he’s a tenacious defender, a solid rebounder and has turned into a mid-range sniper the past two seasons, especially this last season. But he’s missed so much time in his NBA career (he’s played in only 534 of 804 possible games) that we don’t really know exactly what Varejao is at this point in his career.
With the Cavaliers, he’s played out of position the past two years and for parts of others. Although he’s 6’10”, 230 pounds and has played a lot of minutes at center in his career, Varejao is a power forward. He’s not a center and he can’t physically handle banging with 275-pound goliaths for 30-plus minutes a night. He can do it for short stretches, but if you’re asking Varejao to defend the Dwight Howard’s and Marc Gasol’s of the world every night, you’re not maximizing his abilities.
At this stage in his career, Varejao should be doing what originally garnered him love from Cavs fans: Being an energy big for 20-25 minutes a night. For those 20-25 minutes, Varejao can come in play active defense, take charges and help initiate the offense out of the high post. Only now he actually has some offensive ability to lean on. He’s still the “Wild Thing”, just with a mid-range game.
The development of Varejao’s mid-range game is truly remarkable. In his first few seasons, a large portion of Varejao’s points came off offensive rebounds or the occasional lay-in. But now, he’s a threat in the mid-range and when you position him there, he’s a built-in safety valve for your offense when a defense stops a pick and roll or any sort of play fails to develop. This past season, with the latter scenario happening fairly frequently, Varejao has above league average in every mid-range area. He owns the elbow.
This skill is crucial for Varejao as he ages. Without the ability to hit the jump shot, he would be post player with no real offensive ability to speak of with history of injuries. That’s a player who would have trouble staying in the league the moment he starts to show any signs of slowing down.
But with that jump shot, Varejao has a longer shelf life. It’s entirely plausible that he can continue to play into his late thirties. And there are a lot of teams (namely contenders) who could use a player like Varejao.
A team like the Cavaliers is not in the position to maximize what Varejao does well and what he is at this point in his career. Varejao, even with his improved jumper, should never be your most consistent post scoring threat. And until the Cavs acquired Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline, Varejao was just that. For a team to maximize what Varejao does best, you have him come off the bench and be a safety valve for the offense and do a little bit of everything else . The Cavaliers of last season were not in the position to do that.
And they likely won’t be next year either. Unless the Cavaliers find a long-term solution at center, Varejao is likely going to be asked to play a lot of minutes at the five spot. He might even start again. With Tyler Zeller the only other center signed for next season, it’s possible the Cavaliers role into next season the same way they did last season. Just without the Andrew Bynum experiment that, at least for time, put Varejao in the best possible position to succeed.
At $9.7 million, Varejao isn’t cheap but it’s a decent price for him. With both the free agent market and draft stock looking relatively thin in the frontcourt, bringing back Varejao might be better then the alternative. It’s possible that the Cavs re-sign Hawes, but reports have indicated that Hawes would like to return home to the West Coast for next season.
The Cavs’ need for a center, his salary and Varejao’s popularity makes it likely that he returns to Cleveland next season. But it might be time for the two to part ways. Players leaving the only team they’ve ever played for happens in sports. Athletes, as they age and pass their peak, often sign deals for less money in search of a championship ring or two. It’s part of the pro athlete career cycle in the same way the draft is. Ilgauskas left for the Miami Heat after all and he was beyond well-received when his No. 11 jersey was retired in March.
Varejao’s No. 17 might not ever be retired, but he’s beloved in Cleveland in a very similar way Ilgauskas was. And just like his former teammate, it might be time for Varejao and the Cavs to part ways. Maybe the No. 1 pick changes this, but even then the Cavaliers are going to a few years away from really contending. At this point in his career, Varejao is a much better fit and of more use on a contender than he is on a team that is seemingly perpetually rebuilding with Varejao in middle.
 Which was this past season.
 My ideal fit for Varejao if he isn’t a Cavalier next season? The Los Angeles Clippers.