It’s not surprising. Exhausting? Sure. But not surprising. Any time you’re a young, rebuilding team and you have a top level player in his prime, it’s only natural that there will be speculation about trading him. To many, Anderson Varejao is nothing more than an asset. That’s an unfortunate way of looking at one of the most valuable players in the NBA.
Look, I get it. We all know top free agents don’t sign in Cleveland. The Cavaliers can’t keep drafting in the top 5. Eventually they have to start getting better. And when that happens, the draft will become much more difficult to add difference making talent to the team. That will leave trades as the primary way of improving the roster. So the thought is, why not trade Anderson Varejao while he’s still in his prime. He’ll never get more on the market than he will today.
That’s true. All of it. Good, sound reasons for trading Varejao. The problem is, there’s absolutely no return on investment in trading Varejao now. The Cavaliers will never, ever replace Varejao’s value to the team because players like Varejao are extraordinarily rare.
Lets start there, by talking about Varejao’s value to the Cavaliers. Anderson turned 30 years old in late September. This is his 9th season in the NBA. He’s not exactly a young player by any means, but he’s also not exactly Rasheed Wallace at this point.
Basketball-reference.com does a comparison metric where they evaluate a player’s win shares from best to worst for however many complete seasons he has, and then finds comparable players. The most comparable player to Varejao through 8 seasons is Metta World Peace. Metta is 33 years old, in his 14th year in the NBA, and is starting for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team competing for contention in the Western Conference. Is it too much to think Varejao could be filling that role in Cleveland in a couple years?
Remember, Varejao didn’t play his first season until he was 22 years old. In a time when many players enter the league at 19-20 years old, they accumulate more years of wear and tear on their bodies. With 8 seasons (only 3 of which saw him play 55 or more games) under his belt, Varejao conceivably could have a decent amount of mileage left in his tank.
Of course, some would argue the fact that he’s only played 55 or more games 3 times in his career is another red flag and another reason to trade him. That could be true, but predicting future injuries is pretty tough. Many of Varejao’s injuries have been fluke injuries. It’s not like he has the same recurring injury every season. If that were the case, I would worry about it more.
Another factor for keeping Varejao is his obvious on-court chemistry with Kyrie Irving. In limited time together, these two have already developed an innate sense of understanding on how each other plays and where they will be on the court. Austin Carr has begun referring to them as the best pick and roll combo in the game. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but the point is, these two have “it” on the court.
This speaks not only to Irving’s talent and ability to quickly adapt to teammates, but it also speaks to Varejao’s unique skills. He is an incredibly gifted passer from any spot on the court, whether it be the high post or in the paint. He also has some of the best hands for a big man we’ve ever seen in Cleveland. He rarely bobbles or fumbles passes. And when he catches the ball, he knows immediately what he’s going to do with the ball. There’s no gathering himself, no hesitation. Just instant decisiveness. And the decision he makes is usually the right one.
And then there’s his ability to finish around the rim. We’ve grown accustomed to the various ways he can score. It seems like no matter what position he catches the ball, he’s going to finish. Sometimes it’s a circus behind the head layup, sometimes it’s a catch and a quick dribble or two, sometimes it’s an awkward looking spin move. It doesn’t matter. He usually makes it. People who don’t watch him play every game often roll their eyes when he makes them as if it’s just dumb luck. We know better. For all his awkward style and flopping hair, and persistent pestering of opponents, Anderson Varejao is a tremendously skilled basketball player.
I haven’t even mentioned the things Varejao is most well known for, his defense and rebounding. I won’t expand too much on this, because everyone is aware of his tenacity on the boards and the way he refuses to ever give up on a ball. Varejao is currently 6th in offensive rebounding pct, 1st in defensive rebounding pct, and 1st overall in total rebound pct. He tries to hold the opponents to 1 shot per possession, and he is constantly giving the Cavaliers 2nd chance opportunities.
So just from a pure on-court play standpoint, there’s no reason to trade Anderson Varejao. It will make the Cavaliers demonstrably worse. And for what? The 1 rumor you hear the most is Oklahoma City, who holds Toronto’s 1st round pick. A pick that is top 3 protected, and then 15-30 protected. The Raptors are off to a slow start, but with a roster of Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, and Jonas Valanciunas, they could make the playoffs in the East. If the Raptors keep making the playoffs, the Cavaliers could be stuck without that pick until 2018.
Who knows what will happen with the Raptors. That’s not the point. It’s just one example, but it goes to the overall point of just how unpredictable draft picks can be. The odds of the Cavaliers ever getting even remotely close to equal value for Varejao are so miniscule. It’s possible things could happen just right and the Cavaliers could hit a home run on a 4-14 draft pick. But why trade Varejao just to take that chance?
And that’s perhaps my biggest issue with the Varejao trade talk. This notion that the Cavaliers have some kind of obligation to trade him. That they must take a shot and just take whatever they can get for him. But why? Whether we want to admit it or not, the clock is ticking on the Kyrie Irving era. Trading Varejao would be an enormous step backwards for this team. Without Andy, the Cavaliers might be one of the 3 worst teams in the NBA.
We all hope Kyrie is patient and understands the rebuilding process. Part of why the Cavaliers panicked and put themselves into salary cap hell in the LeBron era was because LeBron was impatient with the rebuilding process. The Cavaliers want to avoid those mistakes this time around. But just how patient should we demand Kyrie be? How many steps backwards can this team take before they start moving forward? At some point the Cavaliers have to flip the switch and stop “rebuilding” and start “building”.
We all want to use the Thunder model. Well, in Kevin Durant’s 4th year the Thunder were in the Western Conference Finals. Derrick Rose had the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals in his 3rd season. LeBron James had the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals in his 3rd year. If Kyrie Irving is a superstar on that kind of level1, how many seasons must he wait while the Cavaliers dismantle the roster around him?
This is Kyrie’s 2nd season. Lets say we want the Cavaliers to be a solid playoff team by year 4 (it could very well be year 3, but lets play it safe). That would put Anderson Varejao at age 32, still arguably in end part of his prime, but even if not, he won’t be far removed from it. You mean to tell me a 32 year old Anderson Varejao can’t help this team in the playoffs? Please.
If you watched the Miami Heat win the title last season2 you might have noticed a 33 year old Shane Battier making huge plays in the finals and playing a integral role in the team’s success. Battier averaged 11.6 ppg in the Finals and shot 15 of 26 from three point range. He was an enormous factor. Almost every NBA Champion has that kind of veteran glue guy. The guys who provide leadership and inspiration outside of the superstars.
The Cavaliers will need that guy eventually, and why not make it be Anderson Varejao? GMs can’t think about this from this sort of emotional plea, but I’m going to make this argument for him anyway. Anderson Varejao has built up a legacy in Cleveland. He is beloved, and with good reason. When everyone else in the NBA was scared to sign in Cleveland without assurances from LeBron, Varejao still signed a long term deal in Cleveland. He signed with Cleveland, not with LeBron.
And when everything collapsed around him, Varejao has never complained, never sulked, never demanded a trade3, and never given up on the court. He has continued to be the same guy, and he has even grown and gotten better with age. Why not root for this guy to end his career in Cleveland?
Fans talk about loyalty all the time. They get angry, justifiably so, when talking about LeBron’s betrayal. So it bothers me a little bit to see fans openly rooting for and hoping for Anderson Varejao to be traded. If he wants to stay in Cleveland, the Cavaliers might as well return the loyalty and let him stick around and see this thing out. Again, this is the fan side of me speaking. Chris Grant must take emotions out of it. But seeing fans hoping to trade Varejao makes no sense to me.
I wrote about this very topic last season, and my feelings haven’t changed. You’re not going to get great value in trading Varejao because the only teams who will trade much to get him are playoff teams. And playoff teams don’t yield quality lottery picks. Almost all picks are at least top 3 protected now4 and a lot of them are even top 10 protected.
So let me take off my fan hat and put my basketball analyst hat back on. Would I rather have 5 more years of Anderson Varejao or the #10 pick in next year’s draft? I’ll take Varejao. I think the Cavaliers are on the right track. I think we’ll be seeing the playoffs again next season. The Cavaliers will add a lottery pick this year, and they will have a mountain of cap space to use however they want to start filling in the holes. In the next 5 seasons, I think we’ll see quality basketball in Cleveland again. And Anderson Varejao absolutely can, and should, be a part of it.
As long as Anderson Varejao is happy here and wants to remain a Cavalier, I think he should be here. Someday, I hope to see a #17 jersey hanging from the rafters in the Q. And maybe a Varejao wig pinned to it just for good measure.
Image Source: Steve Babineau/NBAE/GettyImages