Last week Bradford Doolittle ran projections on every player in the league to find out who the top 10 players were at each position. For fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers this was yet another reason to be optimistic, as members of the team ranked in the top five at every position except center.While those rankings were objectively constructed and likely fairly accurate, the center position has been an area of concern for both Cavalier fans as well as the media that covers the team. While most Cavalier fans love Anderson Varejao, they are (correctly) concerned about him playing too many minutes, (somewhat correctly) concerned about his lack of shot blocking and (incorrectly) worried that he is not the player he used to be. Today we take a look at the Cavaliers’ man in the middle and show just how good he really is.
Is he a center?
You’ll often hear those in the media, particularly on the radio, say that Anderson Varejao is a power forward forced to play center. While that may have been true a few years ago, it is simply not the case today. Last season Varejao had a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 16.1 as a power forward, but 18.9 while playing center. Meanwhile opposing power forwards had a combine PER of 18.4, while centers were at 17.4 this season. So Varejao is most effective on both sides of the floor while playing center.
So how effective is he?
According to 82games.com, Anderson Varejao had a tremendous impact on the Cavaliers’ fortunes. Last season the Cavaliers outscored opponents 108.3-106.2, or just over two points, for every 100 possessions Varejao was on the floor. While that might not seem impressive, they were outscored by 7.6 points (111.2-103.6) for every 100 possessions he wasn’t in the game. This swing of 9.6 points per 100 possessions is enormous, and a larger differential than any other player on this season’s team with the exception of Kevin Love. He also excels in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, which is designed to measure a player’s overall effectiveness independent of his teammates. Last season Varejao’s RPM of 4.06 ranked 26th in the entire NBA (fourth among centers), ahead of fellow centers Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Bosh among others. Similar to his ratings above, much of his effectiveness was on the defensive end, where he ranked 23rd in the league with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus score of 3.59. Still, he ranked fifth among all centers in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, making him one of the most well-rounded big men in the game. Varejao also ranked 51st t in the league (seventh among centers) in Wins Above Replacement last season with a score of 6.88. This would rank 10th among centers if it was his projection for this year.
So what makes him so good?
For a more detailed look at Varejao’s defense I highly recommend this piece by Trevor Magnotti over at Fear the Sword. Suffice to say Anderson Varejao’s energy and quickness have helped him do a great job covering perimeter players, he has had to switch on in pick-and-roll situations over the years. His activity is also a constant source of frustration for fellow big men, and while he allowed a high field goal percentage at the rim and is not a shot blocker, he also allowed an extremely low amount of field goal attempts at the rim (5.3 per game compared to 10.3 for DeAndre Jordan and 8.8 for Dwight Howard). So he simply does not allow opponents to shoot in the first place as a way to make up for his lack of shot blocking (Tristan Thompson is strong here too, allowing just 5.2 FGA at the rim per game).
Another obvious strength is his rebounding. Last season Anderson Varejao averaged 18.0 rebounds per 100 possessions and 12.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. His rebound rate of 19.6 was eighth among centers and ninth in the entire NBA. Varejao was 10th in the league (seventh among centers) in defensive rebounding rate, which shows his effectiveness in ending the other team’s possessions, a skill he shares with teammates Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
An overlooked part of Anderson Varejao’s game is his passing. Last season was the second in a row in which the big man averaged over two assists per game, a solid number for a big man. His assist ratio of 19.2 ranked third among centers behind Joakim Noah and the seldom-used Zaza Pachulia and ahead of Marc Gasol, widely acknowledged as one of the best passing big men in the game. A lineup of Varejao, Love, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and LeBron James features five above-average to excellent passers who should be a thing of beauty to watch on offense.
Arguably the most improved part of Varejao’s game over the years has been his scoring ability. During the early part of his career Varejao was absolutely horrific with the ball in his hands. He had no ability to put the ball on the floor and no range whatsoever. Now, besides his cuts to the basket, layups, putbacks and the occasional dunk, Anderson Varejao has developed a versatile scoring game. He is tremendous from midrange, both at the top of the key and to the left of the basket, providing additional spacing for the team. When an opposing big man did close out on him, Varejao used his quickness and a now solid handle to drive past him and finish at the rim. While not an offensive focal point, Varejao must be respected and his man cannot leave him. Considering his teammates this season, that may not be possible.
But what about the injuries?
Despite him playing 65 games last season, one cannot discount Anderson Varejao’s injury history. In the three seasons prior to the last one, he played only 81 of a possible 246 games. That being said, last season seemed to show that having a solid backup who limited him to about 27 minutes a game did wonders for his health. While the Andrew Bynum experiment was a disaster, it kept Varejao healthy, as his minutes were limited at the time. The same was true when Spencer Hawes joined the team. Considering most of his games missed were during February, after Bynum had been traded away and before Hawes joined the team, having a viable backup that head coach David Blatt is comfortable with (Mike Brown seemed to hate Tyler Zeller’s defense, although he was solid for the most part) will be essential to keeping Varejao healthy. Considering that Thompson and Love can both play minutes at center, Brendan Haywood has been a solid player when healthy, and the Cavaliers still have the non-guaranteed contracts of John Lucas III, Erik Murphy and Malcolm Thomas as trade chips, this concern is likely somewhat overblown.
While Anderson Varejao has rarely put up big numbers in his career, he has been a highly effective role player throughout his career. Now, playing alongside Kevin Love, who he compliments extremely well, as well as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, with whom he has always had great chemistry, the Cavaliers center will likely still be one of the biggest pieces on a team that should contend for an NBA championship.