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Reconsidering the Cavs' Decision On Varejao

Editor's Note: Please help me welcome the newest Author to CelticsBlog, Steve Weinman.  Steve was formerly the lead author of the blog The NBA Source over on MVN.  He will be blogging regularly for our NBA section, so please check it out as we might not have room on this front page for all the stuff that will be going up there.  Steve seems like a perfect fit because he's already been covering the NBA and he happens to be a big Celtics fan!  Welcome aboard Steve. 

Odd as it may sound, one can’t help wondering if all parties would have been best served if the Cleveland Cavaliers had declined to match the offer sheet Anderson Varejao signed this week with the Charlotte Bobcats.

As far as the major parties involved are concerned, the preceding statement is obvious enough for two of the three of them.  Varejao has claimed he wants out of Cleveland irrelevant of wages at this point, and the Bobcats have a very talented young nucleus with whom Varejao would have ample time to develop as well as an expanded role.

As of now, however, the size-strapped ‘Cats have lost seven straight after a 6-4 start and are in danger of seeing the season dovetail out of control very quickly if they aren’t careful.  Varejao would add a more experienced presence to this young team as well as some bulk on the interior, both of which are needed now more than ever in Charlotte.  For just the cost of the annual mid-level exception, the ‘Cats could bring in immediate help for Emeka Okafor and have another relatively young player (AV is just 25) to build around.

So yes, in my debut in this space, I have already proven something: I can state the obvious with the best of them.

But what also seems obvious enough on the surface is that for all the same reasons that Varejao is a sensible signing for the Bobcats, he is an equally sensible signing in Cleveland.  Though he only started six times and averaged 23.8 minutes per game largely off the bench last season, Varejao had very solid adjusted statistics, averaging 11.3 points and 11.3 boards per 40 minutes. He has kept those numbers roughly constant as his minutes have risen over the last three seasons, adding further support to the widely studied theory that additional minutes do not decrease a player’s productivity. At just 25 years old, Varejao has a long way to go in the league, and though there may not have been immediate plans to increase his minutes, his role on the team could certainly grow in the years to come.  Getting Varejao at a reduced rate from the Cavs’ original contract offer would be a financial plus, while simply letting him walk away with no compensation would be an embarrassment for Danny Ferry and the front office after a summer of heated contract battle.  Reasonable enough on all fronts.

But somehow, despite all of that, it is hard to shake the feeling that, for a myriad of reasons, the Cavs might not be just as well off without Varejao at this point.


Undoubtedly, the entire issue with his contract needs to be resolved one way or the other, as it has hung over the team as a distraction for too long.  But in addition to the money issues, Varejao made it clear in late November that he was no longer interested in playing in Cleveland thanks to what he perceived to be poor treatment from Danny Ferry and the Cavs’ front office.  That said, despite Varejao’s assurances that there are no problems with him and his teammates, what baggage he brings with him when he returns to the team is anyone’s guess.  In some regards, it bears considering whether or not the Cavs would have been better off simply cutting their losses with Varejao, conceding that they lost the negotiating battle (undoubtedly another unwanted blemish for Ferry) but walking away knowing that they would be permanently exorcising a longstanding distraction and guaranteeing that they would not hurt the chemistry within the team as currently constructed.

Of course, that line of reasoning doesn’t necessarily carry enough weight on its own to overtake the upside of bringing Varejao back.  But that may be augmented by the results when one strays from the hard numbers and into the realm of theory to wonder just how much of an impact Varejao has in the most important regard of all: outcomes for his basketball team.

Currently, the Cavaliers sit at 9-11, three games worse than their 12-8 mark after the first 20 games of last season.  LeBron James, arguably the league’s single most important player, played in all of those first 20 games last season.  He has missed the last four games for the Cavaliers thus far this year and left early in a fifth, all of which were losses.  With LeBron, the Cavs likely beat the Raptors, Nets and Wizards, and they certainly give the Celtics (who they have beaten once already) a game.  That alone would put them right back on the pace from last year.

Of similar significance is the fact that, regardless of the presence of Varejao, the Cavs weren’t necessarily expected to improve this season.  Though perspectives about this team certainly varied widely coming into this season, there was clearly a prominent school of thought espousing the belief that the Cavs were a decent team with one incredible player and a mediocre-to-decent supporting cast that was fortunate to gain favorable matchups and cruise through a weak Eastern Conference to the Finals last season.  Though this doesn’t quite give enough credit both to the out-of-this-world work done by Bron and the competency of his mates at times throughout the playoffs, the overriding sentiment is reasonable enough.

Further, coming into the season, the prevailing belief was that the Eastern Conference was vastly improved from top to bottom.  The Celtics and Magic made the big waves in the off-season, but there were improvements all around.  The Knicks brought in Zach Randolph and were expected to be more competitive, and, with an excellent draft, the Hawks were at least thought to no longer be a guaranteed win on the schedule for opponents.  The Bulls were going to take a big step forward, and though the Pistons would ultimately regress, they were still likely to be a conference power.  The young Raptors still had room to grow, the Bobcats were only going to get better, and the Bucks and Pacers were both expected to return to more competitive levels thanks to coaching changes or health improvements.  The Heat still had Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, no matter the extent of their other issues. Meanwhile, the Cavs made no improvements to the roster in the off-season.  As such, while the talent level might have been the same, they were likely to take a step back in terms of total success.

Indubitably, not all of those projections appear to have come true at this point, but the conference has indeed improved overall.  There is much more parity to be found, and there are much less of what could once be considered "gimme" games on the schedule.  All of this serves only to make the Cavs’ 9-11 record sans Bron for the last four games appear all the more viable evidence with which to make the case that the Cavaliers are right about where they should be right now.

Given the way the schedule has unfolded, it is fair to wonder whether or not Varejao would have made a tangible difference with regard to that record.  While it is certainly difficult to conjecture, it would seem that he doesn’t make the Cavs better than Dallas, Utah, Denver, or Orlando, four of the clearly superior teams the Cavs have lost to with Bron healthy.  Sure, given that a couple of the losses were very close games, it is quite possible that Varejao’s presence could have helped cause a swing in the outcome, but that isn’t assured by any means.  What appears far more likely is that, all things considered, this team has been about as successful as could have been expected under the circumstances, with or without Varejao’s presence.  Yes, his per 40 numbers are impressive, but ultimately, this is a guy who is adding 6.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game (plus his renowned intangibles) until he gets more minutes, which he isn’t necessarily sure to do in the first place.

This isn’t to say with any measure of certainty that the Cavaliers should have let Varejao walk.  In fact, for the myriad of reasons described at the outset in this space, they probably made the right move by not doing so.

But given the concerns about just how much he really means to this unit and the fact that sometimes it simply is time to move on, perhaps it was an option meriting more consideration than initially met the eye.

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