Sitting at 4-7 after Saturday’s win against the Washington Wizards, the Cleveland Cavaliers have many concerns after getting off to a much slower start than many expected. Among the problems the team has experienced are injuries during training camp, lack of practice time the last few weeks, a schedule that has been heavy in road games and back-to-backs. All of these factors have caused the second-youngest team in the league to struggle as it tries to integrate eight new players and adjust to the offensive and defensive systems of new/old coach Mike Brown. While many of these issues can be fixed with practice and time playing together, there is another issue that has begun to concern Cavalier fans, the play of Anderson Varejao.
After posting career highs in points and rebounds per game before he was injured last season, Varejao has shown significant regression. His averages of 9.1 points per 36 minutes is his lowest since the 2007-2008 season and his 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes are a career low. Centers and power forwards guarded by Varejao currently sport PERs of 18.6 and 29.9 respectively. So what has caused the play of the long-time Cavalier to slip so drastically? Chances are it is a combination of the following factors.
Wear and Tear: At 31 years old, Varejao is in his tenth season in the NBA. The combination of age, games played both with the Cavaliers and the Brazilian National Team and the injuries he has suffered make a decline almost inevitable at this point. The wear and tear also contribute to the next concern.
Rust: The fact of the matter is that Varejao had played only 81 games combined in the previous three seasons. As we have seen with Derrick Rose, Jeff Green and Andrew Bynum it takes players quite a bit of time to find their rhythm. While he did not miss all of last season, Varejao has missed so much basketball over the last three years that it’s amazing he’s still as effective as he is right now. Another reason Varejao may be having trouble finding his rhythm is the next concern.
Rotation Spot: While Varejao has said that he does not care about whether or not he starts, his constant moves between the starting line-up and the bench due to the availability of Bynum have done nothing to help him regain his rhythm. Varejao’s minutes and the players he is sharing the court with changes drastically game to game. It’s hard for any player to find a rhythm in this situation, let alone a player who is coming back from a layoff due to injury.
Tristan Thompson: Last season Thompson got off to a slow start before picking his game up when Varejao was injured. This season Thompson has picked up his game where he left off, but this time Varejao is the one who is struggling. Much of this has to do with the similarity in their games. Both Varejao and Thompson are high-energy big men who bring plus defense and rebounding along with an offense based on open jump shots and cutting to the rim. Because of this both players tend to want to occupy the same spaces on the court, making it difficult for both men to have a high level of success offensively. The biggest change is that last year Thompson deferred to Varejao, while this year Varejao is the one taking the back seat. While it makes sense both now for the future that the Cavaliers would involve the 22 year old Thompson on offense more than the 31 year old Varejao, both men are probably better off spending the majority of their time playing with Bynum, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller rather than each other.
And while Anderson Varejao’s level of play has declined somewhat this season, his energy level and professionalism have not. This is most evident as his assist, steal, free throw and blocking numbers are all above his career per game averages. It’s also on display for anyone who follows the Cavaliers and sees how he puts his team first. While he may never again put up the borderline All-Star numbers of the last two seasons, Varejao remains the kind of solid role player he was during Mike Brown’s first tenure as coach. Given some time to shake the rust off and find some rhythm, as well as improved health due to splitting time at center with Bynum, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Varejao can make a big contribution towards the Cavaliers’ push to a playoff berth this season.