Anderson Varejao is good at basketball

March 16th, 2010 by John Krolik

Before we begin, something that has nothing to do with any of the following: I have become completely obsessed with using the basketball-reference game finder on weird box score lines to try and narrow them down to 10 or fewer occurances. Here’s one from last night. It’s weird, I know.

Anderson Varejao may very well be the second-best player on the best team in basketball. However, there still isn’t a firm consensus that Anderson Varejao is actually good at basketball. I find this strange.

Even people who really like Anderson Varejao don’t usually talk about Varejao being good at basketball. Instead, it’s “Anderson Varejao is a great energy player.” “He provides such a spark off the bench.” “He really gets under the skin of opposing players.” And so on and so forth. Yes, Anderson Varejao provides a lot of energy and hustle. He also has a knack for ticking opposing players off. But these are not his primary talents.  To make it perfectly clear: Anderson Varejao is a good basketball player who also provides a lot of energy and pisses people off.

Varejao’s energy to grab loose balls and rebounds is fantastic, and it can set the tone for the team, get the Cavs extra possessions, and it makes the Cavs that much tougher to play against. But the majority of Varejao’s value comes from the fact that he’s a very athletic big man whose set of skills fits in perfectly with the Cavs’ system on both ends of the floor.

On defense, Varejao is about a lot more than flopping. It’s been said already, but check out the numbers on charges taken — Varejao doesn’t draw charges nearly as often as he used to, and he averages less than one half charge drawn per game. And even when Varejao was drawing a ton of charges, it wasn’t really about the flopping. Varejao has extremely quick feet for a big man, and is as good as any power forward in the league at showing out on the perimeter and rotating back to the paint to cut off penetration. Yeah, Andy used to sell the contact when it occurred, but he wouldn’t have gotten the calls if his feet weren’t set, which they almost always were. Andy’s doing the same thing this season, but he’s jumping straight up and contesting rather than trying to get the whistle.

You know how they say that every quarterback is a system quarterback? In the NBA, every defender is a system defender. One-on-one defense is valuable, but understanding how to rotate, know where the help is, communicate, and funnel your man to where your teammates will be waiting is just as important, if not more so.

That’s why defensive numbers are so hard to calculate from team to team — every defense works a little bit differently, and defenders can look completely changed in a different system. In Seattle, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis couldn’t guard anybody because they were too weak and didn’t body anybody up. In Boston and Orlando, Allen and Lewis are valuable defenders because their quickness allows them to close out on shooters and force their man to go into the last two defensive players of the year. Last season, Kevin Durant got burned trying to keep up with his man on the perimeter. This year, he’s had a full season of Thabo dealing with the toughest perimeter assignment, which allows Durant to use his length and roam. Last season, the arrival of Delonte West helped LeBron out in the exact same way. In Washington, Larry Hughes made the all-defensive first team gambling for steals and playing the passing lanes. In Mike Brown’s conservative system, Hughes was never all that effective defensively. On the flip side, Brown has turned Z and Shaq into effective interior defenders. You get the picture.

Mike Brown’s defensive system is built around a show-and-recover scheme that puts an (often very) big man in the paint to guard the rim, has the power forward show hard on the perimeter and force perimeter players into taking deep twos, and features very little switching. Thanks to Varejao’s length and quickness, he’s been wonderful at getting opposing players to go where they don’t want to with the ball. Varejao isn’t a great one-on-one defender in the post, but he holds his own against almost everybody, and not many big men post up anymore anyways.

Offensively, Varejao is exactly what the Cavaliers need. Varejao can’t really post up, drive, or shoot from outside, even though he’s improved in all three areas. As Bret LaGree mentioned recently, Varejao’s lone effective one-on-one move is his pump fake, which gets defenders consistently off their feet somehow. (My theory is that it just doesn’t look possible that Varejao knows how to pump-fake with that awkward and slow of a release, and no defender can resist the easy block. It’s not that defenders are afraid of Varejao making the jumper, they just all want that block too much.)

Varejao’s job is to get easy baskets with cuts when the defense gets caught watching LeBron James, and he’s very good at it. Varejao knows exactly where and when to make his cut, has great hands, and is incredible at finishing from odd angles around the basket. Varejao rarely throws down, but he also never stops or slows down to gather himself and allow the defense to recover, which is a tremendously valuable skill. He also jumps quickly, and is great at using the rim as a defender for his below-the-rim finishes.

Against the Celtics on Sunday, Varejao caught KG watching LeBron, slipped behind him, caught the pass directly under the basket on his left foot, jumped off that same foot without ever putting his right foot down, and snuck in the reverse at full speed. There aren’t many other players in the league who can make those type of finishes, and Varejao has built his game around them. As someone who’s seen Antawn Jamison’s unorthodox finishes around the basket a few times a season for a long while and been watching him very closely recently, believe me when I say this: around the basket, Anderson Varejao is better at being Antawn Jamison than Antawn Jamison is.

Varejao knows how to find space around the basket, and when it’s thrown to him, he’ll catch it and usually finish. When LeBron James is running the show, that’s all you really need to do.

As much as I love Andy, Cavs fans are sometimes off in trying to quantify his value as well. Andy does come off the bench, and is a very good player. However, I don’t think he’s going to win 6th man of the year, and I’m even okay with it. First off, I don’t really grasp the prestigel of the 6th man of the year award to begin with — outside of the 150 starters in the NBA, you were the best there was! Second, if the 6th man of the year award does mean something outside of the best player who starts the game on the bench, it means something very different from what Andy does well. In recent years, the 6th man of the year award has gone to guys who spark their team’s offense off the bench, and whose game is better suited to being the alpha dog with the 2nd unit than a 3rd or 4th option with the starting lineup.

Since almost all of Andy’s value comes from how well he fits with the Cavs’ best players, particularly LeBron, giving him the 6th man of the year award would represent a fairly radical paradigm shift. Mike Brown likes how things flow with Hickson in the starting lineup and Andy off the bench, and his reasoning does make sense, but in terms of style of play, Andy is a starter who happens to sit during tip-off. I know the party line is that Andy brings “energy,” but he was plenty effective as a starter over the second half of last season. The truth is that the opening minutes of a game feature the most ball movement of any point in the game and less one-on-one play, and JJ Hickson is exponentially worse on both ends of the floor when one-on-one play starts going on.

If there’s any definition to the 6th man of the year award past the 151st-best player in the league, Varejao doesn’t really fit it. It’s all semantics, but I understand if Crawford gets the award for having the best season of his career while fitting the archetype of the bench gunner, especially with the impact he’s had on the Hawks.

Second, Varejao is a great defender, but there is no way he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. First off, the Cavs are actually worse defensively this season than they have been in years past, and are currently only the 7th-best defensive team in the league. There’s no real reason for Andy to start getting DPOY votes now after never coming very close to an all-defense team before.

More importantly, Dwight Howard is the Defensive Player of the Year, and there is no second place. The Magic have the best defense in the league, they give up the fewest points in the paint per game, they give up the lowest FG% at the rim of any team in the league, and they give up the 6th-fewest fouls. That’s defensive dominance. And just like I don’t get the “X should be in the MVP discussion” thing, I don’t get the “put Andy in the DPOY discussion” meme. I mean, I’ll put him in the discussion right now:

“Boy, that Anderson Varejao is a great defender.”

“Absolutely. Quick feet, recovers, really the backbone of Mike Brown’s D.”

“Should he be Defensive Player of the Year?”

“No. Dwight Howard should be, and it’s not close.”

Well, that was fun. I hope Andy can snag a forward spot on an All-Defensive Team this season, but he’s not the Defensive Player of the Year, he’s not close, and he’s not going to be. That doesn’t mean he’s not a really good defender, but the thing about superlatives is that there’s only one best defender.

So there’s Anderson Varejao. He’s more than an energy player. He provides a lot more than hustle. He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s a fantastic defender. He can barely shoot, pass, or dribble, but he’s almost as valuable offensively as he is defensively. He probably won’t win 6th Man of the Year, and he might not even deserve it. He’s an under-the-radar scrapper making at least $7 million a year through the 2013/14 season. He might not be effective on any team other than this one. Add all of that up, and what do you have? A good basketball player. At the end of the day, it’s just that simple to evaluate one of the league’s most polarizing players.