I've been thinking long and hard about Anderson Varejao's contract in the wake of his injury. It would be disingenuous to call it the cannon ball that will sink the Cavs' future. So far, they have no bad contracts, and everyone in the universe expects the salary cap to soar in the future like a pre-2014-15 LeBron James dunk that leaves you breathless. Still, the Cavs are going to need all the cap room savings they can get going forward, so it's worth examining what may become the Cavs' first bad contract.
To put it bluntly, Varejao's contract extension was bad even if he stayed relatively healthy for the rest of his career. In the last six seasons, the average yearly salary of his contracts was about $8 million, which was already higher than his previous five seasons by far.
Official numbers on Anderson Varejao 3-year extension: $9.6M next year, $10.3M ($9.3 guaranteed) in 16-17 & 10M (nonguarateed) in 17-18.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) October 31, 2014
I originally wrote this article before the Cavs' recent trades for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. I am glad I held off on publishing it because Varejao's contract takes a weirder turn given these recent trades. First of all, those trades blew up the Cavs' future cap. They were toeing the line already, but by taking on these additional salaries, they've pretty much guaranteed they will have a team salary above $90 million, assuming LeBron James and Kevin Love return and the Cavs extend Tristan Thompson.
The $9,638,554 the Cavs owe Varejao next season could have been dearly needed for cap relief. That's a lot of money to pay for a player who may never be the same again. And, as I am going to explain a few paragraphs from now, already wasn't the same when healthy this year.
What makes all of this worse is the Cavs just traded two first round picks for Mozgov, who is younger than Varejao and figures to fit the role of defensive center better than Varejao ever did. Thompson also fits next to the Cavs' big three better than Varejao did. The Cavs have two big men who are younger than him. Two big men whom they've invested in or will invest in quite a lot. It's troubling that he will be paid so much money to be the third best center option -- and that's if he even plays again.
His peak years are behind him. He's 32 years old, and arguably peaked as a player from his 2008-09 season to his 2012-13 season. Of those five seasons, he played 31 or fewer games three times. Even being generous enough to extend his peak to the 2013-14 season, he still had season ending injuries in half of his peak years.
He lost a step defensively the last few years, but he made up for that loss by developing a genuinely skilled offensive game. Unfortunately, the Cavs needed Varejao for his diminishing defensive skills -- not his offense. While his offensive improvement is helpful, the team would have much rather had a younger, less skilled version of Varejao who was better on defense than the older, skilled version who wasn't as good on that end.
So the Cavs gave him a contract extension worth more than he's ever made in his career when he's already past his peak as an overall player and well past his peak as a defensive player. Why?
We will never know why. We can surely ask David Griffin why he chose to give Varejao, but I would hazard to guess we wouldn't get a genuine answer. It's a question to which I wish I had the answer. Instead, I am left with speculation, and I've narrowed the answer down to a few choices.
The Cavs thought Varejao was worth his contract.
Here, worth is determined by what Varejao would get in the open market. In this possibility, they thought he was worth $30 million over the next three years if healthy and a little under $10 million for next season and nothing at all after 16-17. Basically, the argument would be that an oft-injured center going into his age 33 season would get a contract worth more than he's ever made in an open market. That's the line of thinking here.
They gave him this contract all while aggressively pursuing Mozgov in the trade market, who makes $4.65 million this season and $4.95 next season -- or roughly half of what Varejao makes. I know they probably had big dreams of a four man rotation with Love, Varejao, Thompson and Mozgov, which would have been grand. But I still can't fathom how they would think Varejao was worth his big contract at his elderly age while pursuing a replacement big who makes half Varejao's salary.
As of right now, Varejao is set to be the 59th highest paid player next season. That's really 58th when you considered that Brendan Haywood is ahead of him and is definitely getting waived since his salary next year is not guaranteed. He'll get pushed down on that list as several big name free agents get paid more than him, but for a guy who was the fifth best player on the Cavs when healthy and not exactly the best fit for what this team needs, that's a pretty expensive contract even given the going rate for big men.
The Cavs gave Varejao a "We Take Care of Our Guys" contract.
The team has two big free agents coming up in 2015 -- Kevin Love and LeBron James. They could have given Varejao his contract hoping to show their two big free agents that they're all one big family who takes care of one another. Everyone loves AV, right? LeBron especially? Well no worries, when you are in the family, the family takes care of you. It's a tactic to appeal to free agents -- even if they'll probably call it an altruistic legacy contract when they're talking to Love about staying with the Cavs next offseason.
The thing is, I don't know if there's merit in giving out this kind of contract. I don't know if that means anything to free agents. It didn't work for the Lakers when they gave Kobe Bryant a legacy contract. Hopefully that Kobe contract was altruistic because it will ruin that franchise for years.
It seems like any small gains in showing free agents you have your guys' backs would be more than compensated by not giving out bad contracts. I don't know this for sure. Despite popular belief, I am not an NBA player. But if I were an NBA player, I'd value playing on a good team over knowing they may pay me a little more than I'm worth when I'm 33.
It's true that Varejao's contract is not disastrous even given this injury, but 2015-16 is guaranteed. The cap may go up a little in 2015-16, but it's projected to truly skyrocket the year after that. Given that we don't even know if Varejao will ever be a productive player again, paying him more than $9 million while trying to convince two of the most sought after players to stay isn't ideal.
Then again, the Cavs will be so wildly over the cap next season, in some ways it almost doesn't matter. Insanely over the cap is insanely over the cap. What's another $9 million? Or so I'm trying to convince myself to keep from crying.
If Love and James stay, I guess I have no complaints. I'll never know for sure that Varejao's contract had any impact on them staying, but I also won't know for sure that it didn't. But if one or both leave in the offseason, it's going to dig at me that Griffin didn't have that Varejao money to fill the holes in the roster.
Whatever the thinking was behind Varejao's contract, it better work.