Anderson Varejao enters the 2015-16 season coming off a torn achilles. This injury has effectively ended the careers of many players before him, and unfortunately for the Cavaliers, he didn't have a particularly strong 2014-15 campaign (26 games) before he was injured.
Varejao is entering his 12th (!!!!) season wearing the Wine and Gold, and remains a fan favorite. Hell, I love him. He was a rare bastion of hope during the post-Decision era, highlighted by his still-insane 2012-13 season in which he was averaging 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in the first 25 games of the year before a blood clot ended his season.
Missing time has unfortunately marred Anderson Varejao's career thus far, and last season, all the missed time seemed to have caught up with him.
Anderson Varejao was, well, a bit of a tire fire for the Cavaliers last season on the defensive end. As Justin Rowan has noted repeatedly (seriously, just search @Cavsanada and 65% on Twitter,) Varejao allowed opponents to shoot 64.2% within six feet of the rim. This is horrible. For a frame of reference, LeBron James shot 65.7% on shots within eight feet of the rim in 2014-15.
Anderson Varejao, in practice, basically turned the average NBA player into LeBron James when they tried to finish at the rim. I'm joking, but barely.
These were the numbers Varejao allowed when he happened to be near the defender. In his athletic prime, he was one of the best pick and roll defenders in the league. He was mobile, savvy, and worked very hard. He was capable of hedging hard on the ball handler before deftly recovering to the roll man to shut the action down.
In 2014-15, he had the same mindset but with significantly worse results. He was still asked to hedge on the pick and roll, but instead found himself lunging out at a ball handler who could turn the corner on him. To make matters worse, he didn't have the speed to recover back to the rolling big, causing the Cavs to effectively have to defend 5-on-3 for the rest of the possession.
There are a few mitigating factors here. First off, the Cavaliers roster that Varejao played on was distinctly different than the one the team finished the year with. Cleveland was giving heavy minutes to lineups featuring Dion Waiters and Joe Harris at the shooting guard, Kyrie Irving at the point guard, and a banged up LeBron at the small forward. Basically, the first line of the defense was pretty miserable for the Cavaliers.
The addition of Iman Shumpert and JR Smith added a healthy boost of wing defense that was missing earlier in the year. The Cavs also changed the way they defended pick and rolls with Timofey Mozgov at the five, preferring to ICE them instead of hedging hard. A more conservative scheme seems to suit Varejao better at this point in his career, and even if he struggles to protect the rim, actually being in position will go a long way for the Cavs defense.
Once Tristan Thompson's contract dispute is finally settles (and man, I hope it's soon,) Varejao will slot in as the likely fourth big man in the rotation. Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he doesn't really fit defensively with either Kevin Love or Timofey Mozgov. Paired with Love, the Cavaliers will have plenty of spacing and passing on offense, but probably not enough to offset the complete lack of rim protection. With Mozgov, Varejao slots in as the nominal power forward, and he really doesn't have the mobility to play even spot minutes at that position anymore.
Ideally, Varejao should play almost all of his minutes with either Tristan Thompson or LeBron James. Thompson, while not an ideal rim protector, can at least chase the more mobile of the two opposing bigs around the perimeter. The same theory applies to James, though he obviously isn't a big fan of playing the power forward, his mobility can help Varejao out on that end.
The Cavaliers probably shouldn't expect Varejao to ever be a plus defender again at this point in his career, but if they take the proper steps to hide him, there's hope he could improve from "destroyer of team defense" to "kind of not good."
Something else worth noting is that Varejao's rebound rate dropped to its lowest since the 2008-2009 season, landing at 15.3 percent last season, with a precipitous drop on the defensive end of the rebounding battle, dropping from 28.2 to 20.1. Much of this can likely be explained away due to playing alongside a defensive rebound hog in Love, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on. Varejao loses value if he drops off as an elite rebounder.
On the offensive end of things, Andy looked much better in 2014-15. He's still a super passer and cutter off the ball, and his crafty offensive game has held up well. His assist rate landed at 9.1 percent, which opens up a lot of avenues for a team with another great passer in Kevin Love. He shot 67% at the rim and a very respectable 43% from 10-16 feet, which helps space the floor and keep defenses honest.
I would challenge Andy to be a bit less itchy with his trigger finger on those jumpers. 46 percent of his 200 field goal attempts in the 2014-15 season were from five or more feet from the basket.
His jumper has evolved to the point where it is a legitimate weapon, but too often Varejao would take the shot the defense gave him early in the shot clock. 31.6 percent of his field goal attempts came with 15 seconds or more on the shot clock last season. With weapons like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James, Varejao's mid-range jumper should be used as a release valve, not a primary option out of a pick and pop.
You can definitely forgive higher usage on bench-heavy units, but a mid-range jumper should almost never be the goal of an offensive set, even if they're open and can be hit at a reasonable rate. On balance, if his defense doesn't run him off the floor, Anderson Varejao can certainly help this Cavaliers team on the offensive glass where he remains potent and as a floor spacer, cutter and passer.
Look, Anderson Varejao may simply be at the point in his career that he can't be counted on to help an NBA team. As Jacob Rosen noted on Twitter, Varejao has averaged 34 games per season since the 2010-11 campaign, with Emeka Okafor and Lamar Odom both playing more minutes from 2010 to the present. He's coming off an injury that has doomed many players his age, and he didn't have a lot of leeway athletically in the first place.
That said, and maybe I'm just a little too optimistic here, I think that as a fourth big, Varejao still has a place in the league. He's comfortably the longest tenured Cavalier, beloved in the organization, and a good role model for how to be a pro. He's a quality teammate, a crafty finisher, a solid spacer in the mid-range game, and a hell of a passer when compared to most big men. If he has anything left athletically and is used properly on the defensive end, he could potentially give the Cavaliers productive minutes when called upon in the right situations.
Hopefully, for their sake, they don't need him for much more.