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How Anderson Varejao Can Make the Most of Limited Expectations

When Anderson Varejao signed his three-year, $30 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers last fall, the expectation was for the big man to remain a staple in the team’s frontcourt. At the time, Cavs general manager David Griffin expressed why it was important to keep the 33-year-old in the fold.

“He (Varejao) 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 toward our goals at the highest level,” Griffin said last November. “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.”

It’s also worth noting that, despite Varejao’s extensive injury history, the team still opted to give him a new deal instead of the younger, more durable Tristan Thompson, whose long-term future with the club remains up in the air.

A year later, the frontcourt landscape in Cleveland has changed dramatically. Kevin Love is the franchise’s featured big man after being acquired in a blockbuster trade last summer and agreeing to a five-year, $110 million deal during the offseason. Varejao’s old starting center spot now belongs to last year’s midseason acquisition Timofey Mozgov, while Thompson is in line for a bigger role after emerging as one of the league’s top rebounding machines last season.

Meanwhile, Varejao enters his 12th season in the NBA attempting to come back from a devastating Achilles injury that shortened his 2014-15 campaign. Traditionally, Achilles injuries are tough to bounce back from. Before rupturing his Achilles during the 1998-99 season with the Detroit Pistons, Christian Laettner contributed 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in 74 games for the Atlanta Hawks in 1997-98. In the six seasons he played after, he averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 boards per contest. Elton Brand notched 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in 80 games with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2006-07 before also rupturing his Achilles a year later. Brand would go on to play seven more seasons in the pros, delivering a nightly clip of 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Both players were younger than Varejao is currently when they attempted their comebacks.

The good news is Varejao is expected to be 100 percent for the start of training camp this week.

I’m ready to go for the season,” Varejao said during the team’s Media Day. “I sat down with the medical staff and we had a nice talk and I’m able to be full go from the beginning. Of course, we are going to have to be smart and not overdo it because I’m coming back from a big injury. But I’m excited.”

Even though Varejao’s role and durability are both huge question marks going into the upcoming season, the big Brazilian could still carve out his own niche. While the Cavs are crowded up front with Love, Mozgov, Thompson, newcomer Sasha Kaun and LeBron James occasionally playing some small-ball power forward, Varejao’s tenacity on the boards and underrated mid-range game make him a sneaky weapon coming off the bench.

As seen in the chart below (stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com), a significant chunk of Varejao’s ’14-’15 field-goal attempts came from outside the paint. Although the sample size is small due to him only playing 26 games, Varejao’s conversion rate from within 10-16 feet (43.3 percent) and 16 feet and below the three-point line (57.1) were the best of any big man currently on the Cavaliers’ roster:

[infogram id=”mid_range-1724011″]

Varejao’s ability to knock down mid-range jumpers makes him an asset in pick-and-pop situations as well as keeps the paint less congested for players like Thompson and Kaun, who are more effective scoring around the rim.

Also, while wear and tear will likely sap some of Varejao’s trademark frenetic style, history suggests he’ll still be a factor on the boards. For the last nine seasons, he’s pulled down at least six rebounds per game. He also has an average rebounding percentage slash line of 11.6 (offensive)/23.3 (defensive)/17.4 (total) during his 11-year career.

A potential tandem of Thompson and Varejao on the second unit would allow Cleveland to space the floor while also utilizing two of its best garbage men at the same time.

Varejao may never live up to the contract he signed last year, but the Cavs will be playing with house money when it comes to the big man’s 2015-16 contributions. With a frontcourt suddenly loaded with options, anything Varejao gives them this season will be a plus. Unlike in past seasons, Varejao will enter this year with a ton of uncertainty and limited expectations. With the bar set at an all-time low and the big man motivated to resurrect his injury-riddled career, there’s a good chance one of the team’s fan favorites also becomes one of its biggest surprises.

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