The Curious Case of Anderson Varejao

November 15th, 2012 by Tom Pestak

After dominating the Nets last night, Anderson Varejao is once again on the trading block.  Well not exactly, but there has been and continues to be a sizable collection of Cavs fans that wish it were so.  All arguments go something like this: “Varejao isn’t getting any younger, he’s reckless and injury prone and is going to be a shell of his former self in 1-2 years when Kyrie/Dion/TT and company will be getting SERIOUS buckets (and please God some stops), @CavsDan will be emptying his wallet, and AC/Fred and crew will be back to calling playoff games.  The future UncleDrew Army has no room for a grizzly ol veteran like Varejao and therefore the Cavs should trade him now while he’s playing like a top 3 center in the NBA and get something back.” yes, endquote

There are many that oppose this line of thinking, and some that follow the logic but just can’t bear to see a Cavs team without the Wild Thing and would rather he finish his career where he started it – maybe even with a large wig enshrined in the rafters.  There’s a twitter poll up right now and the popular vote is almost as close as that nauseating election we somehow lived through.  I guess that makes me a SuperPac.  Time to move the needle.  Let’s start with some “ fact-checking” since that’s all the rage.  Or maybe a better phrase would be “exposing some myths”.

Myth1: Anderson Varejao is old.  This should really read “Anderson Varejao is quickly becoming too old to be an effective NBA basketball player.” I rate this claim as Mostly False. Yes, there are studies showing that around age 30 basketball players start to head off into the sunset.  And Andy just celebrated his 30th bday.  But there are many interesting bits of information about Anderson Varejao that suggest he will buck this trend.  Let’s start with the basics.  Age matters, but so does mileage.  So here’s your first trivia question.  Which of the following players has logged the least NBA minutes? Anderson Varejao, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, or Kevin Durant?  Well if I created the question, you should be able to figure out the answer.  So just let that sink in.  Here’s the proof:

That was about as cut and dry objective as it gets.  Easy stuff.  So let’s wade into some murky waters.  I’m no NBA scout – but even a dedicated fan can make basic observations about the game.  What diminishes with age that would hurt an NBA player’s production?  Quickness, leaping ability, stamina, and the body’s resiliency.  A relatively recent obsession for “outside the box” training and nutrition have somewhat improved upon the resiliency problem.  Stamina is managed with minutes, practice-waivers, and rest (Spurs have this perfected).  So the main diminishing traits brought on by Father Time are loss of quickness and no more dunk contests.  A lot of Cavs fans feel like they remember watching Shawn Kemp’s career die in front of them.  It’s true in some ways, he was a shell of his Seattle self, but a 30-year old Kemp was still a warm body.  Check out 31-year-old Kemp that the Trail Blazers inherited. But contrast that high-flying style, totally dependent on elite quickness and dominant athleticism, with Varejao’s game…

It’s mostly highly-skilled below-the-rim finishes around the hoop, an arsenal of off-balance hooks and up and under moves, and the occasional wide-open 15-foot jumper.  Almost all of his baskets are assisted or off offensive rebounds meaning he doesn’t need to blow by a defender to create space for a shot.  As a big man, he doesn’t grind away on the block in the low-post, it’s all backdoor cuts and constant movement.  On the defensive end he makes a living outworking the competition, and it helps that he has good defensive instincts, a 7-foot wingspan, and there is no one better in the league at defensive position for taking charges, contesting, or boxing out.  It’s pretty obvious that his success is rooted in skill (particularly his touch), will, size, and a very high bball IQ.  None of these are going anywhere.  There’s another player from another era with the same description, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s the first guy on this list!  That’s right, Dennis Rodman.  Comparing The Worm and the Wild Thing is pretty fascinating.  Here’s a nice little career-comparing chart.

Rodman turned 30 in 91-92.   That’s 3 whole years before he was the starting PF on the 2nd 3-peat Bulls.  Food for thought.  While we’re weighing the likelihood that Andy is moments away from slowing down and falling off the NBA’s age cliff, let’s take a look at a few Andy-specific trends.  Here’s a chart showing his FT% as a function of age.

He’s gradually improved almost every year.  This means a lot.  He’s worked on his game to eliminate a liability.  Not available in chart form is that he’s become a devastating pick and roll partner which is exactly what someone like Kyrie Irving needs.  What I found most interesting, however, was that as his usage has increased, so has his efficiency.  He spent many years living the backup role and it may have been easy to cast him as an “energy guy”.  He’s spent the last 2 years playing starters minutes against starters and the results have been nothing short of all-star worthy recognition.  Here’s a chart showing seasons sorted by usage and the accompanying player efficiency.

There’s really nothing to suggest that he’s about to start trending downward.  If anything, his role has increased, he has a devastating PnR partner feeding him the ball in good position, and he’s making a living off of putting some fancy english on below-the-rim finishes.  As of yesterday, he was 5th in the entire NBA in estimated wins added – he’s not even pumping the brakes.  Now’s a good time to remind everyone that mostly-offensive stats like PER really do not capture all of Varejao’s value at the defensive end.

Myth2: Anderson Varejao is reckless and injury prone. I rate this as partially true, but the “Trade Andy” proponents act like he is some kind of injury outlier.  Every team has injuries, and every player will go through various debilitating injuries throughout his career.  In the case of Varejao, he does have a well-documented injury history.  But the last one was a total fluke.  Nothing about his style of play made someone go Tonya Harding bodyguard on his wrist during a routine rebound.  Guys that are “injury prone” are guys with degenerative bodies.  Think of Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, or even Z before Cleveland doctors fixed him – guys that have constant, nagging issues.  (you might even put Boobie Gibson and all his high-ankle sprains into that group) Varejao’s injuries range from broken wrist to dislocated shoulder to broken cheekbone.  Maybe his style has something to do with it (flying into the stands and diving on the floor) but in some of these cases clearly there is some bad luck involved.  If he was dealing with a nagging knee or back injury every 6 months it’d be different story.  Clearly, these injuries haven’t affected his play at all.  When he’s out he’s out, when he’s in he’s getting better every day, playing more minutes and at a higher usage rate with the only side effect being a spike in PER as it were.  This is not to say he won’t continue to suffer injuries, but what you really want to gauge is how they are affecting his play when he IS playing.  And anyway, if he gets bed-ridden with poison ivy this year or next for a few weeks at the end of the season because of his “style” it’s just good tanking at that point, right?  (Don’t think for one second I haven’t had to deal with that lazy excuse for why paying the Lakers to take Ramon Sessions was “good value”) [Don’t respond to that in the comments – it’s been covered and we all love future MVP Tyler Zeller, myself included]

Myth3: He’s more valuable as a trade asset than a future asset. PANTS ON FIRE FALSE! Andy is never going to net anything close to equal value in a trade and it’s because of perception, his role on the Cavs, his contract, and his potential suitors.  Let’s just establish a basic common sense principle.  If you own something that is ridiculously UNDERRATED you don’t want to SELL that.  Andy is ridiculously underrated.  In addition, the void he fills on the Cavs is immense.  Marcin Gortat is a lot more valuable on the Suns that he was on the Magic.  Can you even imagine the Cavaliers right now not only without their best player but splitting 96 minutes between Zeller/TT/Samuels?  I’d be orders of magnitude worse than watching the backup PG torch-passing from Ramon Sessions to Donald Sloan.  Here’s another way of thinking about it: if the Cavs adding Chris Paul to their current roster it would add less value than the difference between trading and keeping Varejao.  The Cavs have no one even close to being able to replicate Andy’s skills/role on the team.  Also, there is no real match between teams that need him and teams that can give the Cavs an attractive package.  The Cavs SHOULD want a high round draft pick (top 15) and a legitimate NBA starter AT LEAST.  Not only would zero GMs offer that if they COULD, but there are no good teams with the pick and no bad teams that would give up the young starter.  Then there’s the issue of his contract.  It’s almost a joke when you look at how little Andy makes for an established NBA Center.  Roy Hibbert just landed a max contract.  Varejao makes less than HALF that.  Finally, it seems his reputation is forever stuck in “irritating flopper that lived off LeBron” (which is a total farce and shame) and NBA Coaches/GMs are as subject to irrational narratives as fans.  This would further inhibit anything remotely approaching fair value.

To prove my point, consider two NBA players born just 4 days apart.  Both have had at least 3 seasons where they missed more than 30 games.  Their career player efficiency ratings differ by ½ of 1 point.  Their career Offensive and Defensive Ratings are: [115,102] and [115,101].  Their Win Share per 48min are .153 and .151.  Their career usage ratings are 14.0 and 13.9. (Is this getting crazy?!)  They’ve both played between 1600 and 1700 playoff minutes with Playoff PERs of 13.4 and 13.5.  They’ve both played center with an elite PnR point guard and coincidentally Byron Scott as head coach. (now you got it)  Both players have current contracts that extend until 2015.  One player has a max deal and would never EVER EVER be traded just because his “value is high”, or because he has a history of injuries, or because he was born during the first term of the Reagan presidency.  That player is Tyson Chandler – NBA Champion X-FACTOR and absolutely critical to the New York Knicks playoff aspirations.  And the other guy is (surprise) Anderson Varejao – the most criminally under-appreciated player in the National Basketball Association and a guy many Cavs fans wish management would dangle for little more than a 1st round draft pick!  Grab an extinguisher and put your pants out!

Also, if we could get Peyton Hillis on the cover of Madden we can certainly get Varejao into the All-Star Game. Follow the Leader