On July 8, 2009 I got out of an afternoon class and headed to an Ohio State bar with a friend. The television behind the bar was tuned to ESPN, and ESPN delivered news: Anderson Varejao had signed an extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers for $50 million over 6 years. The news didn't thrill me. $50 million for a hustle guy who was limited offensively? As much as I loved the guy, I just couldn't see it being worth the investment. I was wrong. Now in his 9th season in the NBA, all with Cleveland, he has become one of the best centers in basketball, and a virtual lock for the All Star game.
Quite simply, Anderson Varejao is not who we thought he was. Really nice touch around the basket? Excellent knowledge of spacing in the half-court, and an ability to make 18-footers consistenty? The best rebounder in the league? We got a taste of the new and improved Anderson Varejao last season, but the lockout and an injury cut the fun short. And even when he played, he simply wasn't this good. How good has he been? The numbers don't do him justice but ... actually, you know what, the numbers absolutely do him justice. In 17 games, Varejao is averaging 15.2 points per game. Not bad for a center without a single post move. Think about that for a second: when was the last time you saw the Cavaliers feed Andy in the post? Anderson doesn't care though, he will score efficiently all the same. Think about this, through his first 17 games:
- Varejao has missed 96 shots this season. He has 105 offensive rebounds. This is absurd.
- Varejao is averaging 6.2 offensive rebounds per game. Brook Lopez averages 6.8 rebounds per game.
- Despite being a career 62% free throw shooter, he is averaging 78% this season.
- He is averaging 15.4 rebounds per game.
He is essentially putting up some ridiculous numbers that only Moses Malone was ever able to do. A Player Efficiency Rating over 23 with 15 points and 15 rebounds a game? Sure, that sounds good.
The notion of Anderson Varejao as an all star would have been comical to almost any Cavs fan in 2009, even his biggest supporters. But that is exactly what he has been so far this year. He is no longer only a glue and hustle guy, though he remains both of those things. There is another way to make clear just how good Andy has been: people around the league are starting to notice, and the Cavaliers aren't exactly playing on national television. Charles Barkley said he is the best forward in the Eastern Conference, right behind some guy who plays in Miami. Below are some excerpts from smart basketball people talking about Andy:
Warren Shaw, writing for Dime Magazine, in a piece titled "Anderson Varejao Deserves to Make the NBA All Star Game":
Quite frankly he is a pain in the ass to opponents with his unorthodox and aggressive play but a joy as a teammate. His motor, sheer tenacity and team-first mentality is refreshing amidst the stench of the many self-entitled players in the league who do a lot less than he does. Cavaliers coach Byron Scott says he’s the best center in the league right now. He may be right.
John Hollinger, in an insider-only article over at ESPN, gushes:
... when it comes to doing stuff that wins games, you want an Anderson Varejao. A mobile big who plays elite pick-and-roll defense, a tough, active inside player, and an absolute vacuum cleaner on the boards, he's always been regarded as one of the league's elite role players.
And lo and behold, this season he's scoring, too. Varejao's little push shot from 15 feet has become a very effective weapon, and he's made just enough other little flips and drives to be a solid weapon for the Cavs, such as the running floater he hit in the final minute Friday against Atlanta, a game they would win at the buzzer a trip later. Overall he's 22-of-56 outside the charge circle, which isn't exactly Dirk Nowitzki territory, but is good enough to provide another dimension to what had been a just-layups offensive repertoire.
From Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney at Sports Illustrated:
Good chemistry in the NBA seems to involve a series of secret ingredients, good timing and a lot of luck, but Varejao’s work ethic, team-first approach and professionalism seem to offer the type of tone-setting veteran leadership that coaches and executives stress in team construction. What’s more: He’s popular with the local fan base for all the right reasons.
The love will continue to come in for Andy if he can stay healthy. He is a testament to the good results that can come from hard work. Getting beyond the bad record and the daily debates about whether we should keep him or trade him, we can all appreciate the product he brings to the table. With how bad the Cavaliers offense has been for much of the season, I shudder to think how many points we would (not) score if his points and offensive rebounding evaporated. The $50 million dollar contract I was upset about is probably now the best non-rookie deal in the league. It is nice to see him get appreciated outside of Northeast Ohio.