Anderson Varejao has never played a full 82-game season in his nine years with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Combine his last three seasons, and he has only appeared in 81 total games. The Cavaliers' frontcourt depth has suffered because of his absence, especially last season when Tristan Thompson and rookie Tyler Zeller were thrust into heavy minute loads they weren't ready to handle.
Varejao stabilizes Cleveland's frontcourt with his elite offensive rebounding, his defensive effort and his pick-and-roll ability with Kyrie Irving. Cleveland's many missed shots fell into Varejao's hands often. The Cavaliers were 29th in the league in field goal percentage, shooting just 43 percent from the field. This left plenty of offensive rebounds to be had, an area where Varejao excels. He grabbed 17 percent of available offensive rebounds when on the court, according to Basketball-Reference. He would have led the league by a wide margin -- 1.4 percent over Reggie Evans, to be exact -- if he played enough minutes to qualify. If Varejao played 36 minutes per game, he would have averaged 5.5 offensive rebounds.
Here, Alonzo Gee shoots a corner three. Varejao reads that he's taking the shot and tracks the ball as he rotates to the low post. Meyers Leonard tries to box Varejao out:
Varejao jumps, reaches over Meyers Leonard, and tips the ball toward his left hand. He then lunges out of bounds and miraculously tips the ball to Zeller:
The Cavaliers reset their offense and Varejao runs to the three-point line to set a screen for Dion Waiters. Waiters sprints around the screen and dunks before the defense can rotate:
Video of the play:
He's a physical player when fighting for offensive rebounds and that frustrates opposing big men. Here's Greg Monroe shoving Varejao with two hands after Varejao attempts to body him up:
Varejao is also better than both Zeller and Thompson at tip-ins after grabbing an offensive rebound. He made 15 of his 33 putback attempts over the 25 games he played last season. Thompson played in all 82 games for the Cavaliers last season and made only two more putbacks than Varejao. Zeller played in 55 games and had fewer putback makes than Varejao. Overall, Varejao had a team-high 3.9 second-chance points per game, according to NBA.com.
Here's a three-minute compilation of Varejao either scoring right after grabbing an offensive rebound or passing out and notching an assist after cleaning the glass:
Varejao is key in cleaning up the Cavaliers' messy shooting, but he's also an important piece in the offense running smoother. He was the most effective pick-and-roll partner with Kyrie Irving, averaging 1.02 points per possession as a roll man, according to MySynergySports.
Defenses know Irving likes to take shots out of the pick-and-roll, which forces both defenders to nullify his space. Twenty-nine percent of Irving's offensive possessions were as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, second to the 30.9 percent he used on isolation attempts. This makes having an effective player to pass to after drawing the defense important to the Cavaliers.
Here, Varejao sets a high screen for Irving. Brook Lopez helps Deron Williams over the top as they contain Irving, but this creates a clear lane for Varejao to the basket.
Irving waits for Varejao to get to the rim before passing, keeping Lopez from recovering. Kris Humphries rotates and contests the shot, but Varejao scores anyway:
Video of the play:
The Cavaliers' struggles weren't just on offense, though. They were also No. 27 in defensive rating, allowing 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Varejao allowed just .71 points per possession overall, according to MySynergySports, one of the top rates in the league. His movement on defense covering ball handlers in the pick-and-roll and rotating back to his man make him invaluable to the Cavalier's team defense.
Below, Al Horford rolls to the key after setting a screen for Jeff Teague. Varejao steps out to the perimeter to cut Teague off , giving Jeremy Pargo time to recover:
Varejao then rotates back to Horford and clogs the passing lane before Teague can make the pass. Horford responds by setting another screen, and Varejao stops Teague's penetration again. Horford pops to the perimeter instead of rolling to the rim, however, and Teague passes around Pargo:
But Varejao rotates in front of Horford's driving lane, forcing Horford to put the ball on the floor. Varejao shuffles with Horford to the rim and forces him to miss.
Varejao grabbing the defensive rebound is the cherry on top of the sequence:
Video of the play:
If only Varejao could stay on the court. He has missed significant time in each of the past three seasons, but has proven his value in the short spans he has been healthy. Cleveland has a $9.8 million team option on Varejao for the 2014-2015 season and, if he can stay upright, it should be an easy decision for the franchise to make.