Thursday, February 2


Twenty games into the 2011-12 season, at what would normally constitute a quarter of the CaVs' season, I thought initially that I would write about what I've seen so far from the 8-12 CaVs; the rapid development of Kyrie Irving, surprising contributions from Alonzo Gee and Samardo Samuels, and a club that gets out-talented many nights but rarely outworked.

Instead, I want to talk about the Cavaliers' MVP, Anderson Varejão. Yes, I know Irving has the brightest future and is the unquestioned franchise player. But right now, I think Andy means more to the club than anyone else on the roster. A quick look at his per-game stats for the season through 19 games (tonight's Celtics game, in which he had 14 at half, not included), if you please:

Raw Numbers
10.0 points
11.0 rebounds
1.7 assists
1.4 steals
0.7 blocks

Other stats
17.3 PER (only trailing Irving among Cavs)
2nd in NBA in offensive boards
4th in NBA in rebounds
2nd in NBA in rebound % (1st in offensive rebound %)

The thing that so many have said about Varejão's contributions to the CaVs are that they are the sorts of plays that "don't show up on the stat sheet." I would submit that they do indeed show up on the stat sheet - look above if you don't believe me. That's a stat sheet! Do you kow how many NBA players currently average a double-double? Eleven - all eleven guys who pull down 10 or more boards a game, in case you were wondering. It ain't easy. Varejão puts up more impressive numbers than fans of his frenetic, hustling style may even realize.

Of course, that style does indeed add beyond-the-box-score value to Varejão's already impressive line. Even when Andy first came to the Cavaliers in 2004-05 as a raw 22-year-old, he had that scrappiness and nose for the ball that you still see today, but without nearly the finesse to his game that he has now. His knack for loose balls and tipbacks prolonged numerous Cav possessions and ended prematurely those of Cleveland's opponents. Despite the limited minutes he earned at first, Varejão was one of the six Cavs that Coach Mike Brown trusted in crunch time during those first two playoff runs in '06 and '07.

Remember how the Cavaliers acquired their Brazilian big man? From Basketball Reference:

Traded by the Orlando Magic with Drew Gooden and Steven Hunter to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Tony Battie, a 2005 2nd round draft pick (Martynas Andriuskevicius) and a 2007 2nd round draft pick (Brad Newley).

Yeah. At the time, Varejão was a lightly-regarded defensive specialist, and his defensive prowess remains his chief strength today. At 6'11" and 260, he's tall and big enough to stand up to most of the game's toughest centers, but lanky and active enough to cover power forwards as well. This is a bit anecdotal here, but I can't say that I've seen another player defend the high pick and roll as effectively as Andy - it seems that every time a team tries it he ends up running the ballhandler out to center court. And of course, he wouldn't have earned his reputation as a flopper (and the image from included above) without taking lots and lots of charges.

But let's not overlook the improvements he's made to his offensive game. At first, it was kind of painful to watch Andy with the ball - his handle was awkward, he had no shot outside of about three feet, and he posted a 52.4% mark at the line during his first two seasons. I used to joke that every time he went to the line he would make one and only one - he never seemed to make or miss both ends of a trip to the stripe. He's still not the smoothest player, but the improvements he's made at the offensive end are quite significant. He's always been a very smart player, adept at moving without the ball and being in position for easy baskets. That, combined with his soft hands, was how he ended up with a 51.8% shooting percentage during his first six seasons in the league. Yeah, #6 made him look good at times, but Varejão is at 50.8% from the floor since that guy departed two years ago, and with expanded range and an improved ability to create shots. It's not easy cracking 10 points a game when the team doesn't run any plays for you. Look at how his points per game has progressed from '04 through this current campaign (note that he averaged 16 minutes a game for the first two seasons, 27 over the next four, and 32 these past two seasons):

2004-5: 4.9
2005-6: 4.6

2006-7: 6.8
2007-8: 6.7
2008-9: 8.6
2009-10: 8.6

2010-11: 9.1
2011-12: 10.0

That looks a bit to me like a guy who's put some serious effort into his offensive skills, especially playing on a decidedly worse team the past couple of years. It doesn't hurt that he's improved his foul shooting acumen from that 52.4% mark in his first two years up to 66.0% over the past three seasons.

And any of you who've watched Andy and the CaVs (I like that phrase) this year know that it hasn't come at the expense of the other facets of his game. Look at how his rebounding numbers have progressed over the same timeframe:

2004-5: 4.8
2005-6: 4.9

2006-7: 6.7
2007-8: 8.3
2008-9: 7.2
2009-10: 7.6

2010-11: 9.7
2011-12: 11.0

Combine that progression with all the tipbacks, blocks, steals, charges, and loose balls he collects, and you see why he's one of the CaVs' most popular and valuable players.

I mentioned at the outset that he trails Irving in John Hollinger's useful all-in-one metric Player Efficiency Rating, yet I'm still declaring Varejão the Cavaliers' MVP so far this season. As always, I think statistics are an enormously useful guide to evaluating performance, and this is no exception. Yet Hollinger himself admits that his calculation is useful mostly for measuring a player's offensive performance, and the Wikipedia article points out how it can reward volume shooting over efficient shooting; both factors hurt Varejão relative to Irving in this calculation.

So I'm picking the Brazilian's all-around game (for now), and for a final argument I'll look back to last season and an event I described as The Day the Season Died. That was January 6, the day an ankle injury suffered in practice ended Varejão's season and plunged the CaVs into an even deeper abyss. After that they simply had no defense, no cohesion, no energy, and no sense for how to win a basketball game. That showed as well as any numbers or analysis could just how valuable Anderson Varejão is to the Cavaliers.

1 comment:

Nick said...

All this time I thought the Cavs included a first rounder along with the players in the Gooden/Varejao deal. Wow, Jim Paxson actually got the best of someone for once.

In fairness to Paxson, I'm sure he would've included a first round pick if he hadn't been stashing it away for the Jiri Welsch deal.