One of the unknown quantities in a potential Cleveland Cavalier lineup for the upcoming season is where veteran center/forward Anderson Varejao will fit in. That’s because he’s likely penciled in as the team’s starting center, given the fact that David Blatt’s squad currently has only soon-to-be 35-year-old Brendan Haywood in that role–due to the free agent departure of Spencer Hawes and trade of Tyler Zeller.
It’s possible that Haywood may never end up putting on a Cavalier uniform, much like when he was drafted by the team in 2001, then dealt to Washington. This time, he’s been rumored to be part of a potential three-team deal involving Kevin Love, but even if that fails to pan out, Varejao needs help in the middle.
Still, the problem is that having two big men on the wrong side of 30 in that role is a dicey proposition for a team trying to build an NBA champion. Conceivably, Love could spell those two from time to time, but the Cavaliers would likely be focused on keeping their pricey new addition at power forward as much as possible.
The main issue with the Varejao/Haywood tandem is not necessarily age, but the simple fact that Varejao’s all-out, physical play tends to sideline him much too often. Here’s a rundown of his extended trips away from the team:
2004-05: Missed 39 games, 33 of them for ankle injuries
2005-06: Missed 33 games due to shoulder injuries
2007-08: Missed 13 games, again with ankle injuries
2010-11: Missed 51 games, 47 of them again for ankle injuries
2011-12: Missed 41 games due to a broken wrist
2012-13: Missed 56 games due to a knee injury/blood clot
2013-14: Missed 16 games due to knee, back and shoulder issues
Quick analysis of the numbers above shows that in seven of his 10 seasons, he’s missed 10 or more games, and in four of those, he’s missed close to half or more of the season. In the three seasons not listed, the Cavaliers averaged 59 wins per season, indicative of the value of having both Varejao and James in the lineup on a consistent basis.
Perhaps the best indication of what Varejao can do on the court for the Cavaliers when healthy is that at the time he went down with a knee injury in late 2012, he was leading the NBA in rebounding, grabbing 14.4 caroms per game. The added scoring presence of James and Love would allow him to crash the boards with his usual enthusiasm, but temper it with a dose of maturity.
Regarding that latter aspect, the Brazilian, who many fans outside of the Cleveland area recognize for his wild mane, has come to the realization that he has to stay healthy for the Cavaliers to thrive. In an article last January in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Varejao said that he no longer takes his health for granted, saying, “Before the last three seasons, I never thought about that.”
Varejao’s best seasons have come with him serving in the role of sixth man, while his most injury-plagued campaigns were the three in which he started every game under then-head coach Byron Scott. Last year, former head coach Mike Brown started him in only 29 of his 65 games, which sharply reduced his absence from the lineup, but still kept him on the bench for nearly 20 percent of the year.
The idea of starting Haywood might seem odd, given Varejao’s presence, but in Haywood’s 794 games in the NBA, he’s started nearly 70 percent of his games. Just two years ago, he started all of the Dallas Mavericks’ 54 games during the lockout-shortened season.
Varejao has no ego when it comes to starting, so there should be no reason to walk on eggshells about offering such a scenario. There’s also no reason to go against history, especially given that the veteran isn’t getting any younger.
Simply put, there’s no way the Cavaliers win an NBA title without Varejao being a constant presence in the lineup. If that means having him get the bulk of his minutes by technically being a reserve, then David Blatt should do just that. Tempting fate just isn’t worth it.