Anderson Varejao’s career has changed at such an incredible rate in the past 10 months, and the following question now seems to be a very valid one for the 27-year-old Brazilian. In fact, he currently leads the Eastern Conference’s best team in rebounding while also leading the NBA in the controversial statistic of plus/minus. The former 2004 second-round draft pick by the Orlando Magic has seen his minutes per game go up in each of the past five seasons and is having a phenomenal start to his 2009-2010 season.
Just under one year ago however, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were starting to wonder what his true value and worth were to this franchise for the future. Look back at this article by Rick from last March, and you will start to see where some of the controversy arrived. Should the team consider giving a long-term contract to a role player whose best value arises when he comes off the bench and creates a hectic atmosphere for opposing offenses? The answer in the end was an astounding yes, as Varejao received an extraordinary $50 million deal over the course of the next six seasons.
When the deal was announced, criticism was rampant as the team essentially locked up their available cap space for the next two years with this known quantity of a reserve. Many people argued that since he had never averaged more than nine points per game in an entire season, there was no way he could be worth upwards of $8 million a year. The haters raged on and on about how the signing was one of the first blemishes of the Danny Ferry era where it seemed he bid against himself for a player with limited long-term potential.
But how do you all think of that deal now? How could Andy not be worth every single penny of massive contract thus far? As of right now, he could possibly be one of the most underrated players in the entire NBA because of all of the things he does that are not recorded in the traditional box score. With the season about halfway completed, I am now here to submit to you loyal WFNY readers that in all actuality, Anderson Varejao is Cleveland’s indispensable second-best player. Here are my three main reasons why this is true:
The evidence here is alarming. Anderson holds the best mark in the entire association in terms of plus/minus by a fairly convincing margin, including an astonishing .304 plus rating per minute. What this means is that when he is on the court, the Cavs win by an average of 0.3 points per minute when he is on the court. When you average that out along with his 30.2 minutes per game, Varejao puts up about an average in the +/- category of 9.02 per night. That is just unreal in terms of productivity when you consider the argument that brought plus/minus to the forefront of NBA statistics.
Before the season started, Henry Abbott over at TrueHoop analyzed the numbers behind the two sides to try and understand why Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant’s +/- was so low. The back-and-forth nature of the attacks on both sides tried to either show that his a) the statistics were trying to tell us something or that b)the numbers simply overlooked his contribution to the team. This year however, you have to credit coach Mike Brown for his usage of Anderson off the bench as a key to winning ball games. As he told ESPN’s Chris Sheridan, “I play Hickson with Shaq because I want to play Andy the whole game, but I can’t play him the whole game. So I decided to start J.J. because in the first eight minutes of the game, we’re not going to win or lose it…. It’s just at the start of the game it makes more sense for me and for the team to have someone else, and not play Andy 38-39 minutes a game. But his value to us with whoever’s on the floor is off the charts.”
Cleveland basketball sage Brian Windhorst had an awesome article the other day about how Anderson changed his game from “horizontal” to “vertical.” The examples that Windhorst use state that when he first entered the league, he was known as a one-skill asset to the Cavaliers. His contributions relied upon drawing charges from opponents and he was the best in the business at this, leading the NBA by a hefty margin back in 2006-2007. This style of play however, led to an incredible rate of fouls, turnovers and overall mistakes by the young Brazilian. His foul play was so well-documented that 82games.com even had an entire article about how much higher his value would be if he avoided such extreme foul trouble. Winhorst noted that these poor signs led Varejao to change his style of defense where instead of flying down on the floor, he is standing straight and tall in order to avoid the foul.
Flash forward to January 2010 where Anderson is posting a career-best 1.34 turnovers per 48 minutes as well as 0.63 combined blocks and steals per personal foul. He ranks fourth in the NBA in that first statistics among the 208 players that have registered at least 600 minutes of action this season. Compare that radical improvement with his numbers from his first four seasons in the league where he averaged 1.76 turnovers and 6.33 fouls per 48 minutes. Back then, it was an extreme risk every time he touched the court because he was so mistake-prone despite his abilities as a defensive nuisance. In contrast, this season is clearly his finest in terms of limiting his mistakes and focusing solely on his skill sets.
One of the main reason’s Rick article is a keeper is because of the sentimental value it holds for me as it was only the second time my name ever appeared on this wonderful site. In my few comments, I argued there that his agent certainly could make the argument that his production is up there with the top players in the NBA. That is certainly true yet again here in 09-10 when you look at the detailed rate statistics: Varejao is one of only 18 players in the league who average 30+ minutes per game to average 13.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per 48 minutes of play. That puts him once again in such elite company as Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer while Varejao actually has the third-lowest-per-48-minute usage rating of all the players in this category.
As noted on the FS Ohio broadcast Monday night against Golden State, Varejao has recorded at least four rebounds in all 38 of his contests this season. Taking a deeper look at his advanced game log courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, Andy’s defensive rating (estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) has only exceeded 110 on six occasions all season. Additionally, his offensive rating has only slipped under 90 six times as well, proving that he is as consistent as they come from the power forward position. Another feature of his game is that this season, he is taking 80.3% of his shots from within 10 feet, the highest percentage of his past four years according to HoopData.com. Clearly, since he is not known as a prolific outside shooter, he has adjusted his game to going towards the basket instead of relying upon his inconsistent jumper.
The heavy statistics can start to tell a bit of the story concerning Varejao’s contributions to these Cleveland Cavaliers. After all of these numbers and figures, it is very hard to ignore the argument he is the second-best player on the team that holds the second-best percentage record in the NBA. Certainly, Mo Williams has his edge as a secondary offensive option to LBJ and Shaq was brought into town to stop the Howard’s/Gasol’s/Bynum’s of the world, but Andy is the one constant force alongside LeBron in Cleveland. Over the past four seasons, the team is only 20-18 when he doesn’t play but a much better 171-77 (.690) when he does. He improved his game drastically after receiving his massive new contract, a rarity for most professional athletes who don’t have to work as hard for their next big payday. As Cleveland fans, we can now only hope that Anderson “Wild Thing” Varejao will be here long into the future alongside that certain #23.
(The photo above is via David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)