Team Defense is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney push back against a developing school of thought concerning one of the NBA’s hot topics.
THE FLAWED ASSERTION
The Cavaliers, who are currently stuck in the Central Division’s basement with a record of 4-14, should trade center Anderson Varejao. Destined for another trip to the lottery, Cleveland could sell high on Varejao and acquire multiple assets its could use to build around a very young core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Varejao is averaging 15.1 points, 15.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals so far this season and looks poised to make his first All-Star team. With Varejao missing extensive stretches of the last two seasons due to injury, the time is right to cash in on his value with a deal to a more veteran team that could use his rebounding, defense and energy. Moving Varejao, who will make $8.4 million this season and $9 million in 2013-14, for an expiring contract, a young player and/or multiple draft picks would maximize the Cavaliers’ flexibility and long-term prospects.
Even taking into account many of the popular assumptions listed above, trading away Varejao is functionally nonsensical for the Cavs for all of the following reasons:
1. Varejao's internal value matches -- or exceeds -- his external value.
The only way to understand a basketball player’s value is through context. Put a ball-dominant scorer on a team loaded with offensive talent, and his value may wane. Acquire a versatile defender that allows for cross-matching throughout the lineup, and the situational value of other defenders could skyrocket. Deals between teams often capitalize on those discrepancies in context -- because a player could be worth more to one team than another, franchises with varied interests are able to swap assets and both feel like they benefited.
In theory, it’s that quirk of player evaluation that could allow the Cavs -- who wouldn’t be able to use Varejao’s defensive savvy to the same title-chasing ends as, say, the Spurs -- to deal their All-Star-caliber forward away for the sake of picks and prospects deemed more valuable to a rebuilding club. But this is a case in which Varejao’s value to Cleveland is likely even greater than his worth would be to a potential contender. The Cavaliers may not be able to vie for a championship any time soon, but Cleveland nonetheless relies on Varejao’s elite-level defense and rebounding to steady a roster of unschooled talent. Through the Cavs’ limitations, Varejao is able to maximize his on-court impact to the point where he’s been one of the best players in the league through 18 games. He takes full advantage of his per-possession rebounding dominance, thwarts pick-and-rolls consistently over heavy minutes and capitalizes on the Cavs’ lack of competent scorers by expanding his offensive game. Plus, in compensating for his teammates’ weaknesses all over the floor, Varejao makes one of the worst rosters in the NBA look fairly passable at times.
What the Cavs have in Varejao is a massively productive two-way player who is improving through the prime of his career and is signed for less than $10 million a season through 2015. That kind of team-redeeming talent isn’t to be discarded without clear purpose, and on the part of many NBA fans, the pining for a Varejao deal is merely an exercise in wish fulfillment. There are so many interesting teams around the league that are a good defensive big away from challenging the Heat and Thunder, and the idea of one such club elevating itself into the contending ranks with Varejao’s addition is indeed captivating. But that alone is hardly reason for the Cavs to give up one of their best players. There is so little legitimate reason to do so, and most of the teams that could use Varejao are lacking in sufficient trade chips. Late first-round picks and meager role players aren’t going to get the job done; Varejao is simply far too good and far too useful to be liquidated for filler, no matter how much he might help your favorite team.
2. He's instrumental to the culture the Cavs hope to cultivate.
Assembling a group of similarly aged players is a key for long-term success in the NBA, but there’s no reason to obsess over it. Young teams can bloom perfectly like the Thunder, they can collapse upon themselves like the Wizards or they can fall somewhere in between. Good chemistry in the NBA seems to involve a series of secret ingredients, good timing and a lot of luck, but Varejao’s work ethic, team-first approach and professionalism seem to offer the type of tone-setting veteran leadership that coaches and executives stress in team construction.
What’s more: He’s popular with the local fan base for all the right reasons. While trades shouldn’t be driven or overly influenced by public sentiment, it shouldn’t be wholly ignored either. Just as moving Varejao for pieces would create a roster hole without the proper personnel to fill it, his departure would shift a lot of responsibility toward the team’s young core -- particularly Irving. If any player could handle that role at 20 years old, it would seem to be Irving, but if a slower shift into that role is an option, that would have to be considered highly preferable.
There’s also a symbolic value to Varejao’s presence given his link to the LeBron James era in Cleveland. Since the franchise’s fate was turned upside down in 2010 by “The Decision,” Varejao hasn’t taken to the grandstand or made national headlines. Part of that, perhaps, is due to the fact that he played just 56 combined games over the last two seasons. But the bulk of the explanation, it would seem, is that he’s willing to do his job, do it well and leave the NBA's soap opera subplotting to others. That’s a core value any franchise would prize highly and one the Cavaliers surely hold dear, given their recent history.
3. The supposed financial incentives don’t add up.
We’ve been programmed at this point to associate salary clearing with rebuilding, but take a good look at Cleveland’s cap outlook before shouting that Varejao’s $8.4 million salary is some great burden on the Cavs’ books. Even with every member of its core -- including Varejao -- under contract, Cleveland has just $28 million in committed salary for the 2013-14 season and only $30 million (provided the Cavs keep Alonzo Gee around in the final season of his deal) guaranteed for the following year. Cap space is not the problem; the expiring deals of Daniel Gibson and Luke Walton are set to give Cleveland enough financial flexibility to do handsprings through free agency, and at this point sacrificing so significant an asset with anything less than a stellar return would be far more damaging than footing the bill for one of the most cost-effective contracts in the league.
This doesn’t at all resemble the typical scenario wherein an aging veteran with a bloated salary clogs up the works for a rebuilding club. Varejao’s play well exceeds his contract value and he still allows the Cavs the room to offer a max deal and then some. If there’s a financial motivation for dealing away a team’s underpaid, second-best player, we know not of it.
4. Cleveland is well-positioned to take advantage of a shift in the Central Division's competitive landscape.
It can be hard to find hope during a 4-14 start, but the Cavaliers have three good reasons to believe the future will be bright sooner rather than later: Kyrie Irving, an owner willing to spend and a relatively weak division full of question marks.
In Irving, the Cavaliers have a star point guard who makes everyone around him better and helms the offense expertly through pressure-packed endgame situations. He’s a rare breed. Assuming perfect health, he’s the second-best player in the Central Division, trailing only Derrick Rose. Just as Chris Paul began willing his Hornets teams to the playoffs in his third season, it’s reasonable to expect Irving to be capable of the same feat as soon as next year.
In Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers have one of the quirkiest and most petulant NBA owners, but also one who is fully committed to his franchise. The Cavaliers rank above-average in home attendance this season, even with Irving missing games due to injury. The flexibility facing the organization next summer was laid out above, and Gilbert is willing to open up the checkbook to produce a winner. He was foolish to predict the Cavaliers would win a title before the Heat, but there’s a decent chance he even believed his own delusional proclamation. Gilbert demonstrated his willingness to load up on hefty contracts during James’ last years by taking on Shaquille O’Neal and the like, so the question is not whether he will spend to produce a quality team but whether he can spend more intelligently than he has in the past.
Chances are good that Gilbert will have reason to plunk down some coin over the next two summers. Cleveland is in an excellent position within its division. Its young core is superior to Detroit’s, and the Cavaliers’ don’t have the Pistons’ long-term salary flotsam working against them. The Pacers and Bucks are both at a crossroads; Indiana has committed to a core with a ceiling of “good but not great,” while Milwaukee will have to decide whether it wants to commit to a core whose best-case scenario is along the same lines. The Bulls are the Central’s class act, of course, but their future is totally dependent on Rose’s health and there are all sorts of long-term salary commitments that could present problems down the line. A reasonable goal for the Cavaliers should be to compete for the No. 2 spot in the Central by 2014-15 and thereafter, and keeping Varejao for the duration of his current deal (and perhaps longer) would seem to make that goal more realistic.
Seeing as many of the NBA’s rumor mongers will remain sold on Varejao’s imminent departure regardless of the case against trading him, it’s important that we at least frame a potential Varejao trade in the proper terms. Listed below are a handful of vaguely reasonable (and completely legal) trade ideas involving Varejao that would somewhat satisfy both teams involved:
Young -- a skilled, 24-year-old big who would cushion the Cavs’ defensive drop after Varejao's departure -- is the big get here, but Wright would also allow Byron Scott to phase Alonzo Gee and C.J. Miles into more fitting roles. Moultrie is merely a wild-card addition for Cleveland’s trouble.
If the purpose of dealing Varejao is to get the rest of the core on a similar developmental timeline, then the Rockets may be the best trade partner available. Parsons, Jones and Patterson could help fill out the Cavs’ rotation with young talent, while Cook provides the salary filler necessary to match a handful of rookie-scale deals with Varejao’s larger contract.
Millsap -- who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer -- is a bit of a risk, but Burks and Kanter give the Cavs two solid prospects to work with, and Tinsley gives Cleveland an alternative to Jeremy Pargo and Donald Sloan in the short term.