Executive: Anderson Varejao ‘The Top Target’ If Available
By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
Published: December 1, 2012 - 11:03 PM | Updated: December 2, 2012 - 12:42 PM
From now until the Feb. 21 trade deadline, there will be a key decision looming over the Cavaliers, probably the most important one this franchise has faced since selecting Kyrie Irving with the top pick a couple of years ago.
The decision whether to trade or keep Anderson Varejao not only will alter the Cavs’ future, but it also could easily shift the balance of power across the NBA this season.
“They could be the key this year,” one league executive said of the Cavs, referring to the trade deadline. “If he’s available, it goes without saying a lot of teams will want in. He would be the top target.”
Now in his ninth season, Varejao is easily off to the best start of his career. He entered Saturday with a string of seven consecutive double-doubles, finishing each with at least 10 points, 15 rebounds and five offensive rebounds. The NBA hasn’t witnessed a run of production like this since Moses Malone.
Charles Barkley called Varejao the best forward in the NBA behind LeBron James, which of course is intriguing because Varejao has only blossomed since James’ departure. But more on that in a minute.
With all that production, with Varejao posting the type of numbers this league hasn’t seen in 30 years, how could the Cavaliers possibly trade him now? Because it still might be the right thing to do.
Before understanding why the Cavs would consider trading Varejao, it’s important to understand how he got here, how the Wild Thing with the floppy hair and previously limited offensive skills has flourished into one of the league’s premiere post players.
For all the anguish James’ departure caused within the Cavaliers, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to Varejao’s career. Out from under James’ hulking shadow, coupled with a new coach and a new system that spotlights him, Varejao’s career took off once James left and Byron Scott arrived.
Neither Scott nor Varejao knew it would turn out like this, although perhaps we all should’ve seen it coming. In New Orleans, Scott revived Tyson Chandler’s floundering career by asking him to do many of the same things Varejao is doing today.
Varejao’s career here never stalled, but it never really took off, either.
In six years playing alongside James, Varejao averaged a modest 7.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 0.9 assists. In the three years without him, he’s averaging 10.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists.
This season has been the pinnacle. He entered Saturday night averaging 14.9 points and 15.1 rebounds — more than double the numbers he averaged in six years with James.
“I think he’s probably more offensive-minded now,” Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “They play through him a lot more, so he has a lot more opportunities.
“He’s still ugly. He still wears that ugly headband,” Hollins joked. “I think he just has the opportunity to have the ball in his hands. He’s not just running to the glass and rebounding. He’s putting the ball on the floor, he’s taking outside shots and he’s still doing what he does best. That’s offensive rebounding.”
James has been impressed with the way Varejao has developed in his absence. He said last week Varejao is so effective because he gets to rebounds other players think he can’t reach.
“He’s not trying to get in contact with other big men,” said Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat, whose battles against Varejao date back to the 2007 Eastern Conference finals when Gortat played for the Orlando Magic. “He’s not trying to push or muscle guys. He’s trying to go around them. He’s got great timing — perfect timing for rebounds.”
Neither Scott nor Varejao saw this perfect match coming. Scott tried instituting his Princeton offense during his first season here, but quickly scrapped it. He did, however, learn to appreciate Varejao’s passing skills rather quickly. The rest of it, including the development of a smooth 17-foot jumper, has flourished the last couple years.
With James around, Varejao’s job was simply to run around and irritate opponents, dive for loose balls and crash the glass. He still does that, but his job description has grown rather rapidly.
“Our team is a lot different than what it was before,” Varejao said. “Before we had LeBron and everything was through him. Now I’ve got the ball in my hands, which makes me feel more comfortable. Plus, [Scott] gives me the green light and tells me to do whatever I want to do, which helps.”
Irving’s Pepsi Max character, Uncle Drew, coined the phrase, “I get buckets.” But even before that, the Cavs’ nickname for Varejao was “Buckets.”
“I didn’t know why they called him that, because he was hurt last year when I got here,” Cavs veteran Luke Walton said. “Now I see why. If he gets 20 and 15 every night, I’ll call him whatever he wants.”
Since the Cavs began this rebuilding project, the lingering question was when they would trade Varejao. General Manager Chris Grant has insisted for two years he wasn’t trading Varejao for a few reasons, particularly because of his team-friendly contract and the fact the Cavs had no one on the roster who could replace him.
Once the team drafted Tyler Zeller over the summer, the question of who would replace Varejao was answered. The Cavs believe Zeller, in time, can produce numbers similar to what Varejao is putting up now. Zeller already has the athleticism and range, he just doesn’t quite have that same knack for rebounding yet.
With Zeller in the fold, sources say the Cavs came to grips with the idea that now might be the time to trade Varejao. He still has two years left on his deal, totaling about $19 million. The belief was if he got off to a strong start and stayed healthy — always a key for him — his value may never be higher.
Only now it might be too high.
It will be difficult for the Cavs to get fair market value for Varejao, particularly since any draft pick they acquire would be low since it would come from a contender. The Oklahoma City Thunder hold the rights to the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick next summer (top three protected), which should be an appealing pick given the Raptors’ struggles, but the Thunder aren’t pursuing Varejao. He would be deadly playing alongside Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but no one polled thought the Thunder would meet the Cavs’ demands — which just might include Ibaka.
If the Cavs deal Varejao, they want young talent with high upside in return. They’d be willing to dip into their plethora of upcoming draft picks to sweeten the deal, but it would have to be an elite-level talent.
As Irving creeps closer to superstardom and Dion Waiters flashes tremendous potential, the pieces are beginning to fall into place. The Cavs could be playoff contenders as early as next season, and suddenly Varejao’s value to the Cavs would be incredibly high again.
The team believes Varejao’s hustle and knack for offensive rebounds can result in as many as six extra offensive possessions — pure gold in any playoff game.
He turned 30 prior to the start of the season, but when the Cavs look around the league, most of the top centers and power forwards aren’t that much younger.
Memphis’ Marc Gasol is 27, and his teammate, Zach Randolph, is 31. Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge is 27, Utah’s Al Jefferson is 27 and the Knicks’ Tyson Chandler is 30. The Cavs don’t see much of an age difference between a 30-year-old Varejao and some of the other top big men. The Cavs even believe Varejao can still be effective past his current contract, which runs through 2015.
When the season began, the Anderson Varejao era seemed to be closing. But every rebound and every basket make it a little tougher to say goodbye.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.
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