Cavaliers Face Tough Decision at Power Forward

Ben Wallace and Anderson VarejaoAs the playoffs are drawing near for the Cleveland Cavaliers, an awful lot is going right for them. They currently stand at 60-13 and are the proud owners of the best record in the NBA with a 2 game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs have all but locked up the top seed in the East, and with a 34-1 home record, there’s a reason for plenty of optimism for the wine and gold.

One of the best things for the Cavaliers is that they are finally getting close to having their whole roster healthy and back in uniform. With Wally Szczerbiak’s return on Sunday against Dallas, the Cavs are missing only Ben Wallace, and Wallace is expected to be back soon enough. When Wallace does return, though, coach Mike Brown is going to have a difficult decision to make, whether to give Ben his old starting job at the 4 back, and to allow Anderson Varejao the chance to keep the job he has so admirably filled since Wallace went down with the broken leg.  

It won’t be an easy decision for several reasons. First, there’s the chemistry issue. All season long the Cavaliers have prided themselves on their team unity and chemistry, and so Mike Brown is certainly going to have to weigh that into his decision. LeBron James,  Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, and Ben Wallace constitute the group of leaders that Brown has gone to all year long to help him gauge the state of his team, and there’s a decent chance Brown will look for input from this group on the decision. How would Wallace, a team leader, handle the demotion? Would it create waves, or would Wallace handle it in stride? The last thing the Cavaliers need is something that would divide the locker room and have players taking sides. Anytime you have a veteran player losing his starting role due to injury, it’s going to be touchy.

Secondly, Mike Brown will have to weigh the team’s performance with both Wallace and Ilgauskas in the starting lineup. We saw earlier in the year that Anderson Varejao is not capable of being a starting center when he filled in for the injured Ilgauskas, but since taking over at power forward for Wallace, both Varejao and the Cavaliers have flourished. Not that they were struggling with Wallace, either, for that matter.

The starting lineup of Mo, Delonte, LeBron, Ben, and Z is 25-5 (.833) and they average 101.5 ppg while giving up just 90.33 ppg to opponents. When the starting lineup features Mo, Delonte, LeBron, Andy, and Z, the Cavs are 15-1 (.938) and score 98.69 ppg while allowing 90.13 ppg to their opponents. Either way, the Cavs can’t seem to go wrong.

So perhaps the chemistry will be the bigger issue. But if you’re considering chemistry on the team as a whole, you should also consider chemistry on an individual level as well. Particularly, the chemistry between LeBron James and Anderson Varejao is key. With Andy at the 4, the Cavaliers’ offense has been playing some of the best, most efficient offensive basketball of the season. Assists are up and turnovers are way down. The ball movement has been the best its been all year.

Varejao also frees up Zydrunas Ilgasukas and LeBron James to operate. For all the good things Ben Wallace does for this team, he still allows defenders to more or less ignore him, which frees up someone to clog the passing lanes and make life a little more tricky for the Cavs on offense. With Varejao on the floor, and with the precision he operates the pick and roll with LeBron, it forces defenders to take him seriously, which has allowed Ilgauskas to enjoy some wide open looks to knock down his trademark 17-foot jumper. It has also given LeBron a little more space to drive and distribute to the perimeter shooters.

Conversely, though, there is still a lot to say for the energy that Varejao gives to the Cavaliers when he comes off the bench, something that Wallace would be much less likely to give the Cavaliers. There’s no question that without Varejao, the Cavaliers’ bench unit has looked a good deal more pedestrian. Bringing Wallace off the bench probably wouldn’t do as much for this problem as simply returning AV to the bench would. Beyond that, the Cavaliers must consider also whether AV or Ben will work better with Joe Smith on the court. Whoever comes off the bench will be playing more minutes with Smith, and so chemistry there will be important as well.

The good news is, at the end of the day, it probably doesn’t make a huge difference who ends up starting. Whichever guy is coming off the bench, the total number of minutes for each will likely stay more or less the same. Varejao will still probably see the bulk of the minutes down the stretch in the 4th quarter either way. The Cavaliers will still probably win a lot of games either way. Perhaps Mike Brown will take the easy route, then, and just say that Varejao will keep starting as they bring Wallace back slowly from the injury. Then, if the Cavs keep winning, he can say Varejao will keep starting in the name of continuity. Or if bringing Wallace off the bench isn’t working, he can then make the move to change starters. The biggest issue will likely be chemistry, and as long as both Varejao and Wallace are able to not let this become an issue, this seems to be a win-win decision for Mike Brown, and a welcome “problem” for the team compared to some of the tougher issues this team has faced this year in regards to injuries and playing time.

  • Swig

    Great article.

    You hit it at the end. I <3 having these kinds of problems.

  • kevin

    For what it is worth, I like Wallace starting as he is the better defender. I like the idea of not letting the scoring forwards in the league get comfortable in the first quarter. Make life tough on them early and then let Andy’s energy off the bench surprise them.

    Can’t go wrong either way though IMO.

  • Chris M

    I’m not sure if this has been discussed previously, but AV’s contract situation may have to be considered during this as well. If the Cavs continue to start him after Wallace returns, this will be a huge bargaining chip for Fegan (sp?) after AV opts out in the off-season. Obviously he will contend that AV should get starter money which would be a great deal more than what he’s making right now. I’m wondering if that will have something to do with the decision that they make. Just some food for thought.

  • Harv 21

    With the team totally humming now in pre-playoff mode, a perfect solution would be for Ben to initiate the decision and tell the coach he is cool off the bench. Rock, only disagree that Ben wouldn’t provide energy off the bench. Bringing in an intimidator in early when the opposing point guard has been blowing past Mo and going unchallenged in the lane is just a different type of energy, it would be a good defensive reality check for the opposition. Andy has never looked so happy, on the floor and on the bench. Don’t assume dreams of money has nothing to do with that. He’s now starting and productive on a great team, and the Cavs didn’t want to pay him starter money last year. Ben has his annual $14M already, maybe he won’t mind letting Andy get set up for his payday.

  • Harv 21

    Chis, our comments overlapped. We’re thinking alike.

  • Tom

    I agree with Kevin. Start Ben so that opposing bigs don’t find an early offensive rhythm, finish with Andy so you have more of an offensive threat down the stretch.

  • Tom

    I dont think the Andy contract situation plays into it at all. The only contract that really matters is #23, and winning now makes him happy.

  • Steve

    Don’t forget, this is a contract year for Andy.
    He’ll make more $ this summer if he’s the starter.
    He may not handle the demotion any better than Wallace.

  • Josh

    I think that come playoff time Wallace matches up better against Howard and KG.

    although Andy always seems to get under someone’s skin!!

    Speaking of playoffs, am i the only one pulling hard for washington to make the 8th seed??? i just want to run them out of the playoffs one more time!!

  • Gabriel

    great article. the only thing i would add is that if ben were coming off the bench, he might have fresh legs and therefore be more productive than when he starts.

  • Boomhauer

    However, if Ben comes off the bench, his legs might get cold from sitting, so it might be better to have in the starting lineup when he’s warm.

  • S-Dub

    If you think Fegan cares if Andy is starting or not then your wrong. This guy wanted $10 mill a year before the start of last season and Andy wasn’t near what he is now offensively.

  • Harv 21

    @S-Dub: So you’re saying Fegan’s pitch won’t be that as a starter he’s worth even more?

  • S-Dub

    Harv: I mean I doubt it. I think whether he was a starter or not officially doesn’t matter with the way Andy has played. He’s going to claim that with an old Ben Wallace Andy was basically starting and putting up the greatest offensive numbers he has ever put up and will ask for somewhere around $13 mill to start.

    I do think that the market will show him that NO team is going to pay that type of money to Andy, especially in these uncertain times, and will he will take the Cavs offer of 4 years and $9 mill per.

  • RockKing

    I think if Andy starts, Fegan will definitely use it as bargaining language, but S-Dub is right that at the end of the day, it’s irrelevant. Fegan and Andy are going to go after the money they think he deserves, whether he’s a starter or not.

  • Harv 21

    @ Rock and S-Dub: agree with you both. The best result from last year’s stand-off is that Andy has made significant strides as a player this year, so now theCavs should push hard to sign him as soon as Fegan/Andy/Andy’s brother face the market realities. What he consistently does wins games, and there is just not an equivalent player out there, imo.

  • RockKing

    It will definitely be fascinating to see what the Cavs do. They have his Bird Rights, so maybe it makes sense Fegan and Andy have been saying they want to stay in Cleveland. In theory, they can get more money/years here than anywhere else. In reality, though, I still think Andy will get a bigger offer than the Cavs are willing to make from somewhere else, and I think Andy will be playing for someone else next year.

  • BB

    Hopefully my math is correct but I think the only teams that will have to offer more than the MLE are Atlanta (10 mil), Detroit (17 mil), Memphis (19 mil), Minnesota, (7 mil), Oklahoma (15 mil), Toronto (7 mil). You can cross off Atlanta (since they’ll need to resign Bibby), Toronto and Minnesota (don’t have quite have enough $). That leaves Detroit, Memphis and Oklahoma. Out of that group, there is no guarantee that any of these teams will want to blow their cap space either due to the economy or the 2010 sweepstakes.
    On the other side, Boozer, Okur and Harrington have early termination options, Villanueva and Lee are restricted free agents, and Chandler is on the trade block. It looks to me that there is a lot more supply than demand. If I’m a GM and I’m willing to make a splash in the free agent market, I’m not sure that Andy would be my first choice.

  • Mark

    Here’s some questions regarding Andy, maybe someone has some answers.

    What is Andy’s worth in free agency? 8-10mil? 10-12mil? 12+mil? Will teams this offseason be willing to put out that money with the current financial state of some teams and 2010 free agency looming? Not sure how the CBA works but could the Cavs have the option of backloading his contract? For example could they offer him 8mil for the next 2 years to keep some flexability for 2010 and then jump it up to 12mil for last 3or4 years of contract?

  • Dan

    The situation is about Andy is more then money. If Andy continues to start, it might go a lot more to Andy re-signing with the team then if he comes off the bench. If I am Andy, the team is 15-1 since I became starter and you are benching me? That might not make him to happy and less likely to re-sign knowning he might not start next season.

    If they keep starting him, it shows good faith from the coaching staff & Front Office and increase the odds of him staying. This is all assuming money is even from other teams offering Andy a contract.

    I believe he wants to start and if the Cavs show him they will let him start, it would go a long way for him to come back.

  • swiggidy

    I also hope Andy realizes what a sweet gig he has going on here. He’s not going to be the 5th option on other teams and it’s not proven he can score in the paint when posting up. Having LeBron/Williams/West feeding him the ball is inflating his point totals.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the way that he’s playing and I hope they work something out (because he fits so well here). If he signs for a big contract elsewhere he’s going to be on a middle of the road or worse team.

  • bridgecrosser

    I see Andy getting $55 over 5. Cavs better nut up.