Anderson Varejao the key to Cavs' title hopes

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By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network

When a team features three stars, it's hard not to overlook the rest of the roster. However, those "other guys" are just as important as the players that appear on commercials and get their own shoe line, especially in the playoffs.

In Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat finished off the Thunder to collect the first championship of their Big Three era. Mike Miller scored 23 points in that game on an NBA Finals record seven three-pointers. When the Heat were all but defeated by the Spurs in the next season's Finals matchup, it was Ray Allen who hit the tying corner three with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 and then scored half of Miami's overtime points to send the series to a Game 7.

In the end it will be the star players that determine the success of a team's season, but for the Cleveland Cavaliers, they need Anderson Varejao to be on the court just as much as they need LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

Anderson Varejao? They need Anderson Varejao as much as they need a surefire Hall of Famer, a power forward that gets 20 points and 10 rebounds in his sleep, and a budding superstar point guard?

Varejao won't stand out in the box score, but he's just about the only hope the Cavaliers have of defending in the paint.

For all the talent Cleveland has on its roster, they have a serious lack of a big that inspires confidence on defense. Every player that's listed as at least 6-foot-10 on the Cavaliers: Varejao, Love, Brendan Haywood, and undrafted rookie Alex Kirk.

Picking out faults in Love's game is like trying to find a flaw in the Sistine Chapel; whatever little inconsistency you find, it's still going to be beautiful. The one blemish on Love's record however has been that he's not a good team defender. Love is neck-in-neck with Dirk Nowitzki as the most offensively skilled big man in the league, but on the other end he's shown so far that he lacks the athleticism and instincts to anchor a defense.

Haywood is on the team in the first place because the $10.5 million he is owed in the 2015-16 season makes him a valuable trade asset for Cleveland. Haywood missed all of last season with a foot injury and will turn 35 by December. He can be a borderline serviceable interior defender in limited minutes, but, in Cleveland's best interest, limited minutes is all Haywood should be expected to contribute this season.

Varejao himself is not exactly a player that locks down the paint, either. He's a smart defender rather than a physically imposing one, known more for taking charges than blocking shots. While the Cavaliers don't have a single dominating force in the paint, Varejao is their best team defender.

Cleveland even tried experimenting with playing Tristan Thompson at center during the preseason. At 6-foot-9, Thompson rebounds very well for his size and is a more gifted offensive player than Varejao, but he isn't any better at altering shots.

Per basketball-reference.com, Varejao blocked 1.8 percent of opponent's field goals while he was on the floor last season while Thompson rejected 1.1 percent. It's also important to note that Varejao's steal percentage, assist percentage and defensive win shares were all higher than those of Thompson.

The importance of Varejao this season should be especially stressful for Cavaliers fans because they know more than anyone that the guy just can't stay healthy. As he enters his 11th year in the association, Varejao has never played all 82 games in a season.

Varejao missed 17 games last season and dealt with a shoulder injury and a knee injury at different points in the year. The 65 contests he appeared in were the most games he's played since 2010. In each of the three seasons between, he suffered three different season-ending injuries before the All-Star break.

If Cleveland can get a healthy season out of Varejao, it would be an even luckier feat than having LeBron James and Kevin Love fall into its lap. But if Varejao does need to miss time this season, opposing power forwards and centers will look forward to their matchup with Cleveland like Christmas Day.


Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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