The Cavaliers' front line has been left bereft of depth in the absence of Anderson Varejao. While Tristan Thompson has started to flourish in Varejao's absence, Tyler Zeller has been much more of a mixed bag during his time in the starting lineup. While his offensive game has become more consistent as he has moved a little closer to the hoop, he's still not rebounding particularly well on the defensive end for a seven footer (his defensive rebounding rate is a very Hollinsian 16.3%) and his defense has been anywhere from below-average to horrendous depending on the night. His minutes should probably be more limited than they have been with Varejao out (of course we all remember the Byron Scott quote about looking down the bench and not having anyone else to put in for him).
To make matters worse, the Cavs bench bigs haven't been any better. Luke Walton, Kevin Jones, and Jon Leuer have performed about as well as can be expected from that group, which is to say they're about an average D-League-level front court that is forced to play NBA minutes. With Varejao expected to be out for up to two months, it's probably a pretty good idea to look into picking up another big man.
There are three ways to pick up a big man in the middle of the season: trades, free agency, and by scouring the Developmental League. Let's take a look at each of those ideas, and then look into some of the potential options.
Obviously, trades are the best way to pick an effective big man right now, but also probably the most difficult. What pieces do the Cavs have that they're actually willing to get rid of? Varejao is injured so he's not going to be dealt. Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Zeller and Thompson are most likely untouchable.
Walton's mid-level expiring deal is a pretty attractive piece to teams looking for cap space, but then again that would mean that team would still have to employ Luke Walton. C.J. Miles and his for-now-smooth jumper might look pretty attractive to a team like the Nuggets that are looking for more floor-spacing. Then again, Miles' deal is pretty sweet at $2.25 million this year and a team option at $2.25 million next year so it's probably worth keeping him around until Dion Waiters figures out how to be an effective and more efficient shooting guard. Daniel Gibson combines having an expiring deal along with an ability to space the floor, but with his concussion it is unknown when he will return. I can't see anyone else on this team having value to another team. Omri Casspi has asked for a trade, but then again Casspi is thoroughly useless. Trades may be the best way of picking up an effective big man, but I can't see it happening anytime soon.
2. Free Agency
There are very few free agents available right now that would be worth the Cavs time. Kenyon Martin is most likely signing with the Knicks, although I can't see him wanting to come to Cleveland anyway. Chris Andersen is working out for the Heat this week. The person I'd be most interested in as a free agent is probably Kyrylo Fesenko, of former Jazz and Pacers fame.
Fesenko was cut by the Bulls earlier this year. During his time with the Jazz, he was decent on a per-minute basis, scoring about 10 points per 36 minutes and averaging about nine rebounds and two blocks. His biggest problem is foul trouble as he's averaged 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes. Along with that, he's a pretty active, athletic (if uncoordinated) big on the defensive end. He's never played more than 450 minutes in a single season, so you'd be playing based off of his per-minute averages. I imagine the amount of fouls he'd give out would probably frustrate fans, but I think that they could do worse than Fesenko in order to take away minutes from Zeller at center. He's not ideal, but he's at least a better answer than what the Cavs have now.
Outside of Fesenko, it wouldn't surprise me to see Samardo Samuels brought back for some big help. The main reason they cut him to begin with is because all non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed on January 10th. Now that teams are allowed to sign players to 10-day contracts, it would make sense to bring Samuels back on one, just like the Heat did with Josh Harrellson yesterday.
3. The D-League
The third, and most likely, option is the NBA D-League. The Cavs' affiliate, the Canton Charge, actually has three possible call-ups that could be used.
The first candidate would be Michael Eric. Eric was with the Cavs during training camp and was one of the final cuts. He has looked about as expected with the Charge. He's still pretty much clueless offensively. Where he shows promise is on defense. The Temple product has a massive body that takes up space, plus he's extremely athletic for his size. He's averaging about 2 blocks in the 20 minutes per game he's getting. Overall, he's probably still too raw to have earned a call up, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Cavs did call him up due to the familiarity they have with him.
Second is JaJuan Johnson, the former Big Ten player of the year out of Purdue and former Boston Celtic. Recently acquired from Fort Wayne Mad Ants in exchange for Luke Harangody, Johnson's a skinny, jump-shooting big who is solid offensively but struggles defensively due to his lack of strength. He's a power forward and does a lot of what Leuer and Jones do, so I can't see the Cavs going this route, even though I think he's probably better than both of them. If they decide to cut Leuer eventually (which isn't out of the realm of possibility), I do think they will try to sign Johnson because of their similar skill set.
Finally, there is Arinze Onuaku. Onuaku, out of Syracuse, has been the Charge's best player this season. The official D-League website has him 5th on their experts' list (as recently as two weeks ago he was 1st), and he's done a lot of what he did well at Syracuse. He's averaging a double-double in 24.3 minutes per game, scoring 14.3 points and averaging 11.5 rebounds. In fact, Onuaku has the highest PER and highest rebounding rate in the entire D-League. Actually that doesn't cover it. According to the D-League website, coming into the new year Onuaku had a PER that was 28% (!!!) higher than anyone else's in the entire D-League. I've always really liked Onuaku and have thought he would have been drafted if not for his serious knee issues that hampered him at Syracuse. This is the guy the Cavaliers should pick up. Alas, Onuaku right now is sidelined with a knee contusion and isn't participating in the D-League Showcase that is happening this week. If he can get healthy soon, I hope the Cavs go right into their own backyard and grab him in order to attempt to plug the leaky drain pipe that is the Cavaliers' front court.
Outside of the Charge, the Cavs could look to the rest of the D-League and this week particularly would be an awesome week to check out. The D-League Showcase is happening right now and the Cavs have representatives there to see what's happening. According to DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony, Jerome Jordan is the best non-affiliated prospect that he's seen there. Jordan would be a very good fit for the Cavs as he's a legit seven footer who is athletic at least. So maybe there are some other diamonds in the rough out there that the Cavs can pick up. Of course, I already mentioned Harangody when discussing Johnson earlier, but a Harangody signing also wouldn't surprise me because of familiarity. Also, the D-League website has him at 10th on their rankings list so he has been performing in the D-League so far.
Right now, my top choice is Onuaku if he can get healthy. He'd provide a big body than can rebound down low, something that is essential now more than ever due to Varejao's injury. If Onuaku can stay healthy, I do believe that he is a legitimate NBA backup big man, which is what the Cavs need more than ever. On a 10-day contract, I'm okay with taking that chance once Onuaku gets healthy enough to play.
Overall, none of these options will really help the Cavaliers win more games, but they might be able to at least help limit Zeller's minutes in the short run, which I think would be beneficial for his overall development in the future. Hopefully Coach Scott would at least be able to look down the bench and be able to say to himself that he has no problem putting one of these guys in to give Zeller a little break battling the big men of the NBA.