During the Cleveland Cavaliers' run to the NBA Finals, Anderson Varejap was easily found. During every game, behind Kendrick Perkins' cheering, Varejao's famous mop was in sight. And just about every time the Cavs had a huddle, Varejao was right there, shoulder to shoulder with his teammates. Only he was in a suit and tie and not a jersey with ‘Cleveland', or ‘Cavs' spelled out across the front.
This was Varejao's life from Dec. 23 on. In game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on that date, Varejao ruptured his Achilles and was ruled out the season. The image of Varejao from that game - he's on the ground, sprawled out on the ground with a hand over his eyes in obvious pain - is striking. This injury marked the fourth time that Varejao's season ended with him playing less than half of all possible games. This only added to concerns that he can't ever stay healthy. And he's now 32 years old and will turn 33 before the start of next season.
The tricky part is that Varejao had signed a three-year extension that pays him roughly $10 million a season through his 36th birthday. The last year of the deal isn't guaranteed, but the Cavs are still on the hook for two years of Varejao, whether he can be a productive player post-Achilles injury or not.
And it's hard to properly gauge whether or not Varejao can return to some sort of form next season until he's played 20 or 30 games. An Achilles rupture is as serious as it sounds - it's ended the careers players with less-checkered injury pasts than Varejao - and it's an injury than can change the trajectory of player's a career if a player is able to return, as it saps lateral quickness and agility - two things essential for Varejao bouncy, energetic play.
It's that bouncy play that has made Varejao so beloved and valued in his career. It's why LeBron James loves him as a teammate. The problem is that his style of play requires him to put his body in the way of guards flying into the lane and bigs crashing the boards for rebounds. And when you do that against men as big or bigger than you 82 games a year, injuries are bound to happen. Over time, those injuries add up and take away from what you are as a player.
Varejao is proof of this. Pre-injury, Varejao already looked as if he was on the decline. He didn't look to have quite the same pep and bounce in his step as he went for rebounds or looked to take a charge. That makes sense - again, Varejao has dealt with injuries his entire career and is on the wrong side of 30 - but it was still concerning. His averages - mostly above or on par with the rest of his career - don't fully explain his season.
The water gets cloudier when you look at how the Cavs' bigs developed without Varejao. Timofey Mozgov - a player the Cavs might not have even acquired if not for Varejao's injury - gave Cleveland the rim protection it needed and solidified the defense in a way Varejao never could. Tristan Thompson fully blossomed into an offense rebounding monster during this time as well and solidified himself as a player that deserves heavy minutes at the four and five spots.
This doesn't even speak to how Kevin Love finally began to look comfortable late in the season prior to his serious ending shoulder injury. With these three players, the Cavs have three players worthy of handling the majority of the available frontcourt minutes. LeBron James and his abilities as a small ball four factor into this discussion as well. Is playing Varejao worth taking away minutes from any of these players, particularly Love or Thompson?
Still, if healthy, there should be a spot for Varejao with the Cavs. As the Finals showed, the Cavs do in fact need more than seven healthy bodies in order to have a good shot at winning a title. Varejao, even if he's play 15-18 minutes a game, gives the Cavs three more than playable rotational bigs that all do different things, but all compliment what the Cavs' big three do well.
There's a clear fit on this Cavs team - assuming the roster doesn't change drastically this summer - for Varejao's skills as a two-way rebounder, defender and shooter in the mid-range. The price tag might be a little high for playing so few minutes a game, but Varejao is the lone hold over from the first LeBron era and there's probably something to be said for rewarding loyalty. On top of that, Varejao is a player who wants to get back on the court, as he had to be talked out of trying to return this season by the Cavs' medical staff.
If he's healthy. Cliché and all, Varejao's health moving forward is a big if. No one, not even him, knows exactly how effective he'll be next season and beyond. His overall decline in play this season, coupled with his season-ending injury, casts a long, dark and expensive shadow over his future.