Sorry, Kyrie, but Anderson Varejao is the third most important player on the 2014-2015 Cavs. I came to this conclusion as I watched Andy outplay his starting teammates, Tiago Splitter and Nene, in a losing effort versus Spain, Monday. In a game in which Pau Gasol looked as good as he has in six years, Varejao played very well, and reminded us that his presence is vital if Cleveland is to contend for a championship this season.
In a 19 point loss, Andy was probably the lone bright spot for Brazil. The Gasol Brothers dominated this contest with Pau going for 26 points on 11/15 shooting, including 3/5 from behind the arc, while Marc controlled the game defensively, and was +27 for the contest. Andy was a ho-hum -1 in 23 minutes of action, but that was pretty solid, considering starting big men, Splitter and Nene were -19 and -21. It will forever remain a mystery why coach Ruben Magnano didn’t go to Andy off the bench earlier, when Splitter and Nene were getting smoked. Andy finished with 10 on 5/8 shooting, and four rebounds but did all the little things that don’t show up in the stat sheet, just like we expect from him. Whether it was setting massive screens to get shooters open, hitting cutters with back-door bounce passes, or coming from out of no-where to break up lob passes, the Andy we know and love was on full display. And he was playing his third game in three days.
According to announcer Fran Fraschilla, Andy claims to feel the healthiest he has in years. They’ll need him to be if Pau Gasol looks as good in the regular season as he has in Spain. Obviously, LeBron is No. 1 on the Cavs pecking order, and with what they gave up to get him, Kevin Love is No. 2, but after those two Anderson might be the player most important to their title hopes. Trevor Magnotti of Fear the Sword broke down Andy’s defensive importance a couple weeks ago. Andy is an unorthodox defender who moves well laterally and guards the post well, and while he overplays the pick and roll a bit and needs to break some bad habits with his defensive footwork, he’s an invaluable and unorthodox defender.
Varejao does a great job at defending spot-up opportunities, and that’s what makes him a truly special defensive player. Varejao ranked as the 23rd-best spot-up defender in the league per Synergy, and he faced 112 plays in this category, giving up 36.9 percent shooting. That’s outstanding….
Conventionally, we think of the modern defensive center as one that protects the rim, defends the PNR, and covers for mistakes by letting the mistakes come to them and bailing their teammates out by blocking shots at the rim. Varejao accomplishes the same goal through a different means. Varejao doesn’t let the mistakes come to him; he attacks the mistakes by flying around the floor like a crazed piranha that’s smelled blood in the water. And that might be more useful to the Cavs’ overall team defense than someone who can just block shots.
As good as Andy is defensively, his utility offensively will be equally invaluable. Andy is so good as a roll man in the pick and roll, that he must be respected. When paired with Love, LeBron, Kyrie, and Waiters, there will be ton of room to operate with three other shooters on the perimeter or with one of them cutting off the ball. Plus, Andy’s elbow jumper was at 49% last year from 10 feet to the three-point line — among the best in the league! It will be a solid bail-out option for the Cavs. Most importantly, though, when sharing the floor with 2-4 other high usage players, Andy doesn’t have to score to be effective. He can set screens, pass, move without the ball, get offensive rebounds, and like Kevin Love, make great outlet passes.
If Pau Gasol is healed from his spate of injuries over the last few years, then Chicago probably has the best big-man lineup in the NBA, and by all accounts he is. Gasol, Noah, and Gibson are all-star quality players. You may doubt this about Gibson, but RAPM ranks him as the 8th best player in the league at defensive RAPM, 25th in Wins, and 20th in overall RAPM. That actually ranks him ahead of Noah who had a RAPM of 1.21 last year. While Gasol posted a RAPM of -.68 last year, if he can regain his 2012 RAPM of 1.18, then Chicago’s big man trio could post 30 wins by themselves. Add Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler to the mix, and Chicago’s going to be a tough out even without the additions of Mirotic and McDermott.
And this doesn’t even account for the other Cavs playoff rival centers: the Polish Hammer, Roy Hibbert, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, and Al Jefferson.
Cleveland, on the other hand is perilously thin up front. After Andy, Cleveland’s second best center is Kevin Love, the starting power forward. Unless Tristan Thompson makes a significant improvement (fingers crossed), Cleveland can ill afford to lose Varejao. Andy posted a 3.46 RAPM last season (15th in the NBA) while Thompson posted a -2.04. That’s a 5.5 point swing per 100 possessions. Yes, LeBron can move to the four, and Marion can come in, but his -1.77 RAPM leaves me skeptical. And don’t expect anything from Brendan Haywood, who posted a -1.44 RAPM two years ago, when he last played. (I’d be surprised if Haywood made it to 100 minutes this year.) Cleveland’s next big man options are rookie Dwight Powell, and rookie Alex Kirk. Considering both seemed over-matched in summer league, I’m not putting a lot of stock in those options.
So now you’re acutely aware of how valuable Andy is, both in RAPM and in his unique and indispensable fit. He’s the Cavs third most important player. “But the Cavs just gave Kyrie Irving a max contract!” you say? ‘Tis true, but salary doesn’t always equate to importance. Kyrie has to earn those stripes. Irving was a woeful defender in his first three years in the NBA, but as Ben Werth wrote Monday, Kyrie’s been a different player for team USA: “He moves laterally with both better technique and about 200% more effort.” It’s great to see, but Irving still sticks to screens. It’s an improvement over his previous “flypaper” reputation, but he’s still at the “masking tape” stage.
Irving spent his first few seasons scoring prodigiously and giving up as many buckets as he got. (Yes his dRAPM was -2.45, but choose your defensive metric for Irving, they’re all bad). Oh, and the Cavs have three other players that can play point guard right now: Dellavedova, Waiters, and LeBron, and they’re all better defenders. With LeBron and Love’s scoring: Uncle Drew’s buckets aren’t as needed as Andy’s size, defense, intangibles, and ability to play center. Same goes for Waiters, but thankfully, this debate is purely academic: the kind of ridiculous hair splitting that fans of good sports teams get to do.
Arguing over who’s more important — Andy, Kyrie, or Dion — when the argument is no longer over who’s the best player on the Cavs is a wonderful luxury to have. That being said, the Cavs still need one more big man, if just to keep the minutes down for their third most important player.