The Cleveland Cavaliers front office is eager to welcome back Mike Brown as head coach. After having a few years to step away and really consider his earlier tenure with the team, it's fairly obvious that he was responsible for a fairly significant portion of the franchise's success. Yes, of course LeBron James had a lot to do with it as well. But those top-ranked defenses? Mike Brown was mostly responsible for those. After three years of rebuilding and putting together a young core of players, the organization is hoping that Brown can restore that defensive identity that brought them so much success not too long ago. The challenging part is that Brown will be equipped with an entirely different roster -- other than Anderson Varejao, that is.
It's kind of hard to believe how quickly the front office transformed this roster. With the departure of Daniel Gibson all but official, Varejao stands as the final piece of those championship caliber teams. Andy is the only one to have been coached by Brown in Cleveland and it stands to reason that he'll play a major role in reestablishing this franchise's identity. In his final season under Brown, Varejao enjoyed his last healthy season. Over the course of the 2009-10 season, Varejao played in 76 regular season and 11 postseason games. He averaged just 28.5 minutes per game and didn't manage to average double digit points or rebounds. But I'm sure Mike Brown will be the first to tell you that Varejao's impact often doesn't show up in the box scores. It was Andy's relentless hustle, willingness to sacrifice his body, and contagious energy that made him such an important part of those 60-win teams. Varejao's mastery of pick and roll defense and ability to blow up an opposing team's internal passing lanes was rewarded by being named to the 2009-10 NBA All-Defensive 2nd team.
It's no secret that the Cavs were a defensive mess under head coach Byron Scott. While youth and a general lack of roster continuity were likely major factors, Scott's system never really seemed to click in Cleveland. The team never built a defensive identity and we saw little improvement over the course of three seasons. Dan Gilbert made it clear through various tweets and public statements that he wants a defensive-minded team with a defensive-minded head coach. Enter Mike Brown. Brown will fact several of the same hurdles that Scott faced with an extremely young core of key players and at least five new rotation players in Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack, Sergey Karasev, and Earl Clark. But you can bet that nobody will question the effectiveness of Brown's defensive system or his commitment to being an above-average team on that side of that ball. We have seen Brown's teams be successful defensively every season that he has been a head coached. In fact, he's never had a team lower than 14th in defensive efficiency. Even getting this team to be average defensively would be a welcome improvement over the past few seasons.
Anderson Varejao has had a rough few years.
In each of the past three seasons, he's suffered season ending injuries well before the All Star break. This past year, he had a freak leg injury that led to a blood clot and was potentially life-threatening. The average person would probably just be thankful to be alive and be tired of constantly rehabbing from injuries. But Andy has an enthusiasm for basketball that far exceeds the average person's enthusiasm for, well, anything (and, of course, his terrible injury luck hasn't prevented him from being a totally awesome person). I have no doubt that he'll be bringing 100% effort and his usual endless energy when he returns to the court for the Cavaliers this season. Other than LeBron James, it'd be hard to pick a better player to link the two Mike Brown eras in Cleveland. We know that Varejao will completely buy in to Brown's philosophy and the coaching stuff will be able to point to him as a prime example of what it means to totally commit to greatness on defense. Varejao is a unusual player with a thoroughly unique skill set. He doesn't possess elite athleticism or size. But his soft hands, incredible reflexes, and quick feet make him incredibly useful in the proper system. I think it's fair to say that Byron Scott's system wasn't the ideal one for Varejao defensively. While it's reasonable to think that all those injuries have taken a toll on Varejao's physical abilities, it's also reasonable to assume that Mike Brown will put Andy in the absolute best positions to succeed. We've seen it before and just 4 years ago, Andy was considered one of the 10 best defenders in the NBA.
As excited as you should be about a Mike Brown and Anderson Varejao reunion, we also have to remember that Brown isn't getting the 2009 version of Varejao. He's not getting a player that is nearly useless offensively outside of the paint. He's not getting a player that has to flop all over the place to be effective. If we blame Byron Scott for not getting the most out of Andy defensively, he deserve ample praise for Andy's offensive evolution. In the 81 games that Varejao played under Scott, he posted per game averages of 11.2 points and 11.7 rebounds. His career per game averages prior to Scott's arrival were just 7.0 points and 6.7 rebounds. In the 25 games that Varejao played in 2012-13 before suffering yet another injury, he seemed poised to challenge for a spot in the All Star game. Andy led the league in rebounding with 14.4 boards to go along with his 14.1 points per game. Last year, Andy enjoyed a stretch of 12 games in which he grabbed at least 13 rebounds every single game. Over that 12 game stretch, he averaged 16.8 (!!) boards per game with nearly 7 of those boards coming on the offensive glass. Because he only played 25 games, it's easy to forget just how phenomenal Varejao was last season.
Of course some of Varejao's huge jump in production can be attributed to an increase in playing time. Prior to the 2010-11 season, Varejao averaged just 24.1 minutes per game for his career. Under Byron Scott that number jumped to 33.1 minutes per game. But his enormous improvement is evident in his per-36 minutes numbers as well as the pure rate numbers. In 2009-10 Varejao's total rebound percentage was 15.9%. In 2012-13 it jumped to 23.2%. His individual offensive and defensive rebounding numbers experienced similar surges. Offensively, Varejao has taken great strides as well. Maybe it's all that time off due to injury, but Andy made the effort to become a more complete and more skilled offensive threat. In his final season with Mike Brown, Varejao shot from 16-23 feet just 0.7 times per game and made only 37% of those shots. In 2012-13, that number jumped to 2.7 times per game and Varejao converted those shots at 41% clip (via Hoopdata.com). His assist numbers steadily grew from 1.4 assists per 36 minutes in 2009-10 to 1.6 in 2010-11 to 2.0 in 2011-12 before exploding to 3.4 assists in 2012-13. He's become an exceptional passing big man with the ability to work out of the high post and knock down jumpers in the pick and pop. In three short years, Varejao transformed himself from a limited role player with floppy hair to an incredibly valuable all-around big man (still has the floppy hair though, don't worry).
All of the new faces coming to Cleveland provide plenty of reasons to be excited about the team's future.
They're most likely the reason that ESPN.com predicts the Cavs to make the playoffs for the first time in 4 seasons. But while we're dreaming about Bennett dunks in the open court or the dominating potential of a Kyrie-Bynum duo, try not to overlook Mike Brown and Anderson Varejao. If this franchise is going to transform their identity and reach the postseason this year, I suspect those two familiar faces making a return to the Cavs will have a huge impact. And if everything goes as planned, they might be the perfect pair to link two successful eras of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball.