Anderson Varejao made the claim in an interview last week that he is not injury-prone. He pointed out that he played several years for the Cavs without missing any time due to injury, and that the injuries he has incurred the past three seasons were fluke occurrences that were not indicative of a body breaking down from physical abuse. He is confident that he can be a full-time player for the entire 82-game schedule this year, and that he can do so without altering his kamikaze style of play.
More medical expertise than I possess would be needed to assess the validity of Varejao’s assertions. It is true, though, that he hasn’t torn an ACL, ruptured a disk, or sustained chronic damage to any part of his body that will inhibit him from playing. He doesn’t have Greg Oden’s knees or Stephen Curry’s ankles. On the surface, his claim makes sense.
There is one obvious difference in the last three years for Varejao, however. In his first five years in the league, he was a reserve, playing around 25 minutes a game. In the last three years, he has been a starter, averaging as many as 35 minutes a game. More significantly, the longest sustained period anyone in the NBA plays is at the beginning of the game and the beginning of the second half. As a reserve, Varejao could come off the bench, run his ass off for 4-5 minutes, and go back to the bench. Now, he frequently finds himself on the floor for stretches of 8-10 minutes, still playing the same frenetic style. In fact, as the hub of the interior defense and a more frequent ball handler and shooter on offense, Varejao has virtually no chance to pace himself while on the floor. So the question needs to be asked: How likely is it that fatigue has played a role in the recent spate of injuries?
There’s an old saying that was made famous by Vince Lombardi:
Fatigue makes cowards of us all.
Anyone who has played a sport to the point where they are totally gassed can identify with that. It is not that being tired makes you actually experience the emotion of fear, but it does make you stop and think whether the extraordinary effort required to get back on defense or dive for a loose ball is worth it when your lungs are burning and your legs feel like rubber. It also makes you more likely to reach for rebounds and loose balls rather than get your feet in optimal position, which can lead to injury. That hesitation, especially in someone like Varejao whose first instinct is to sacrifice his body, is how people end up landing awkwardly or twisting themselves into positions that cause injuries.
Is that what happened to Andy? To be honest, I don’t know. But I do feel strongly that nobody on the Cavs’ roster is more important for the upcoming season than he is. For one thing, unless you feel that Andrew Bynum will suit up for 70 or more games, it is hard to envision a scenario where the Cavs dramatically improve their defense without Varejao staying healthy all season; and unless they improve their defense, the Cavs will not make the playoffs.
For another, Andy is coming to the end of his current contract, and he represents the best opportunity the Cavs have to add another piece to their young core via trade. The Cavs received many attractive offers for Varejao last year, which became moot when he was injured. If circumstances work out this year where Varejao is deemed expendable (say, Bynum recovers fully or Tyler Zeller suddenly becomes a beast), the Cavs would net a much greater return if he avoids injury in the meantime.
So the Cavs have a choice to make: They can play Varejao huge minutes and see what happens (after all, he is their best big man, and the more he plays, the better their chances to win the game) or they can set an artificial limit on his playing time, regardless of how it affects the team. Baseball teams do this all the time with young pitchers, taking them out of the game when they reach a certain pitch count. Even if the bullpen blows the game, the manager is seldom criticized for doing this. The San Antonio Spurs have also tightly managed the minutes of their veteran stars for years, and Tim Duncan is still an All-Star caliber payer in his late 30s. In my opinion, the Cavs should set up their rotation so as to limit Varejao to 28-30 minutes a night. Fortunately, they have the depth to do that this year. The Cavs have 96 minutes of playing time per game to distribute among the centers and power forwards on the roster. If Bynum is healthy, they should be able to give the bulk of the playing time to Bynum, Varejao, and Tristan Thompson without anyone exceeding thirty minutes a night, which will also help Bynum’s knees. Even if Bynum is not able to play much, if you figure 30-35 minutes for Thompson and 28-30 for Varejao that would leave between 31 and 38 minutes to be divided between Tyler Zeller Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark, and whoever else they have at the end of the bench. Mike Brown should be able to find enough opportunities for those guys that they can get the minutes they need without hurting the team.
Andy Varejao will be 31-years old before the end of this season. His value to the team is evident from the way the past three seasons have cratered as soon as he was injured. That by itself is enough for the Cavs to take proactive measures to keep him healthy for the entire season. His recent injury history is another, and his playing style is yet another. The extra 10 minutes a game that he could play will not win the Cavs as many games as the added risk of injury would cost them.