Stars aside, it's quite possible that Anderson Varejao is the single biggest X-factor in the NBA season.
That's why the Cavaliers locked up their longtime center with a three-year extension worth a reported $30 million on Friday. The deal will kick in for the 2015-16 season and run through 2017-18 with a team option on the final year. This season, Varejao will make $9.7 million in the final year of a six-year, $48 million contract signed in 2009.
The 6-foot-10 Brazilian big man has established a reputation as a hard-working, do-everything player over the course of his 11-year career. Last season, Varejao averaged 8.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 65 appearances last season. Although a variety of injuries and ailments -- some quite serious -- have severely limited the 32-year-old's minutes in each of the last four seasons, he remains a productive rebounder, capable finisher and quality defender when healthy. A franchise icon who has played his entire career in Cleveland, Varejao is well on his way to having his jersey retired by the Cavaliers.
“Anderson represents how this franchise wants to approach the game of basketball, both on the court and off,” Cavaliers GM David Griffin said in a prepared statement. “He has been a key part of our foundation for years and we are very happy that he will continue to be part of our Cavs family as we work towards our goals at the highest level. Andy is, and has been, a tireless worker, an incredible teammate and a great competitor that plays with a rare combination of energy and intensity that makes him truly special.”
Cleveland's title window opened as soon as it completed the formation of its "Big Three" of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but those championship contention hopes rely completely on the Cavaliers' ability to play passable defense. That's where Varejao comes in. Once the stars gel, the tertiary shooters find their comfort spots, and coach David Blatt's rotations get fully set, there seems little doubt that Cleveland will have the East's most potent offense. However, a one-sided approach will not stand up to scrutiny against the Spurs, or the Clippers, or the Warriors, or the Thunder (if healthy) in the Finals. And, without a reliable interior presence, Cleveland would find itself at a real positional disadvantage against the Bulls and even the Wizards in the postseason. As it stands, Varejao is that presence: he is Cleveland's longest and most experienced option in the middle, and his health ensures that Blatt doesn't need to over-rely on small ball lineups.
Just as the 2013 arrival of Chris Andersen stiffened up Miami's interior prior to a title push, Varejao's ability to log big minutes in the playoffs while banging with the likes of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Nene, and Marcin Gortat is a cornerstone for Cleveland's 2015 championship hopes. His presence allows Love to roam on offensively, unapologetically crash the glass, and avoid extended mismatches with longer, beefier players in the basket area. Varejao also ensures that James doesn't spent all of his time sliding up to guard power forwards and he helps cover up for Cleveland's lacking backcourt defenders.
For a healthy player with Varejao's proven rebounding and defensive abilities, this contract -- which is only guaranteed for $19 million over two years, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer -- would be an absolute steal. That's especially true because the contract's second year will take place under the NBA's new economic playing field, which is expected to explode thanks to an influx of television dollars. The NBA's current $63 million salary cap is expected to reach somewhere between $80 and $90 million in 2016-17, the second year of Varejao's deal. Proportionally, a $10 million salary under an $85 million salary cap is equivalent to just $7.4 million in the current cap system. In other words, Varejao is taking a fairly sizeable pay cut proportionally even though his actual salary is basically flat-lining.
Of course, Varejao hasn't been a healthy player in recent years, meaning that Cleveland faced two real risks in making this deal. The first is that Varejao played to his full capabilities, remained healthy, and proved to be a very valuable piece for a contending team. Such a performance easily could have escalated his per-year salary to $13 or $14 million and, perhaps more damaging, if could have led to longer-term offers with a larger amount of guaranteed money. The second, larger, risk is that Varejao succumbs to injuries again; over the last few years, he's missed time due to a torn tendon in his ankle, a broken wrist, a life-threatening blood clot, and back issues. Prior to 2013-14, Varejao hadn't logged at least 1,000 minutes over the course of a season since 2009-10.
The background context is key to understanding the Cavaliers' thinking on deciding to extend Varejao early. Remember, Cleveland held on to Varejao during four bleak years following James' departure in 2010 despite ongoing trade rumors because his skillset is so crucial to winning; re-signing him rewards both Varejao's patience during the losing and the organization's trust that its fortunes wouldn't stay down forever. The short-term, affordable contract more or less splits the difference when it comes to the aforementioned risks: Cleveland avoided paying a premium for Varejao if he enjoyed a big-time bounceback campaign and it avoided getting saddled with a burdensome contract if bad luck struck again.
For this deal to pay off, Cleveland doesn't need Varejao to produce career numbers this season or play all 82 games. The Cavaliers merely need Varejao to fill his role, to come close to replicating his numbers from last season, and to stay healthy down the stretch. The limited guaranteed money nicely protects Cleveland from an injury-related cap disaster, and the per-year salary figure makes Varejao underpaid if he can stay on the court.
Varejao, for his part, gets an additional $19 million worth of security against a fluky injury that might abruptly end his earning power given his age and recent history. Together, team and player march forward on their title quest.