Anderson Varejao was supposed to catch a break this season.
Coming off three straight injury-plagued years, Varejao was now promised the luxury of less minutes in a reserve role. Andrew Bynum would assume the starting duties and take pressure off the career-high 36 minutes a game Varejao was forced into playing a year ago.
He would even get to play more power forward instead of center, the position he played most often during his first six years with the Cavs.
Like so much else in Cleveland this season, things just aren't working out.
Bynum was suspended and eventually traded. Varejao was forced back into big minutes as the starting center and now finds himself dealing with an injury once again.
Varejao is 31, still very productive when on the court and is one of the few players who continues to hustle his butt off every game for the Cavs.
Unfortunately though, he can no longer be trusted as the team's starting center.
Varejao may just be 31, but given the toll his body has taken with every charge (flop?) over the years, it may feel closer to 40.
The past three seasons while playing center, Varejao missed a total of 149 games.
Receiving the luxury of coming off the bench early this season was great for Varejao, as he didn't miss any of the team's first 44 games. Just in January, this is already more than he reached in any of the past three years.
Following the dismissal of Bynum, the inevitable increase in minutes has once again led to injury issues for Varejao.
As of January 30, Varejao had missed his last two games due to a left knee contusion and hyperextension. Currently, he's listed as day-to-day. While this may not seem like a bid deal, fans know all too well what an increased workload has meant for Varejao's health.
In 19 games as a reserve, Varejao was at a comfortable 26.9 minutes a night.
In 25 as a starter, this number has jumped to 32.5 minutes. In January alone, Varejao played 36 minutes or more in a game five times. From October through December 31st, he reached this number just twice.
The center position, one that looked to be dying out just a few years ago, is making a comeback.
Players like Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol are all bigger, stronger and more physical than Varejao. Having to guard players like this night in and night out is a tremendous task for anyone, much less someone who's never played a full 82 games.
Acquiring a starting center that could take Varejao's place and move him back to a reserve role will be crucial to his health and career moving forward.
Decline in Production
Varejao can still produce at a high level, he's proven that.
This season he's putting up 8.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.8 blocks with a PER of 17.5. These are fine numbers to be sure, especially when it comes to rebounding.
Unfortunately, they represent a noticeable drop off from a season ago.
Varejao was off to a hot start last year, averaging 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 blocks with a PER of 21.71. This player efficiency rating would have ranked him second among NBA centers getting 20 minutes a night or more. This season, Varejao ranks just 22nd.
Take a look at Varejao's stats comparing this year and last, per 36 minutes of play.
Besides swatting away a few more shots, Varejao has been worse in every major category. This is certainly understandable, as he's not getting any younger and the injuries may be beginning to take their toll.
As the playoffs begin to fall farther and farther out of reach, at what point do the Cavs consider trading Varejao while he's still putting up solid production?
Waiting another year, or through another serious injury, could be too risky.
Varejao's contract, possibly like his time in Cleveland, is coming to an end.
His deal contains only a partially-guaranteed $9.7 million for next season (via shamsports.com), making it a valuable trade asset. When healthy, Varejao is certainly worth the money, but gambling nearly $10 million that Varejao can stay upright for a whole season may be a risk no one is willing to take.
There's also an uncertainty in team direction right now.
Cleveland is just 1-5 in their last six games and were just embarrassed on national TV by the New York Knicks.
Mike Brown and Chris Grant could both be fired after the season, and Luol Deng will be an unrestricted free agent.
This might be the laziest, most pitiful performance I've seen from this team. Knicks strutting & dancing around. #Cavs standing & watching— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydABJ) January 31, 2014
The Cavaliers need to find their starting center of the future, be it Tyler Zeller (grimaces), someone they can get at the trade deadline or a draft pick.
Varejao has had a long and successful career in Cleveland, and could even enjoy a few more years as a key reserve. It's clear, however, he can no longer be a 30-35 minute a night starter, and that's ok.
The Cavs should begin looking for his replacement now, before it's too late.
All stats via basketball-reference.com.