Why We Watch: Anderson Varejao, Mr. Cleveland

Anderson Varejao is not necessarily graceful, not necessarily great, and not really an All-Star. But he's at home in the NBA, and Cleveland, at least for now.
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His career is like a John Donne poem minus the anguish. Anderson Varejao has been a Cavalier for almost nine years and doesn’t seem to realize it. All his motion is circular—run and jump and screen and slide and never really get where you want to go. Six years with LeBron, one aboard the meteor from Armageddon, one-and-a-half with Kyrie. All remarkable, but only sort of. I wrote him a farewell letter in January of 2012. He’s still in Cleveland. He seems to like it there. What a strange guy.

There are players so talented that their games appear effortless, and there are players so athletically overmatched that they look like a 1920s industrial worker in fast-forward. Varejao trends toward the latter, but there’s more to him than late-round draft pick scrappitude and floor burns. He’s perpetual motion with a conscience.

Team-specific blogs and a relatively newfound fascination with front office personalities have conspired to turn a lot of fans into amateur team-builders. Fans of teams on the fringes of relevance craft elaborate five-year plans for their organization and debate whether Oklahoma City’s rise to prominence constitutes a viable contender-building model or simply reflects exceedingly good luck. It makes sense that the sports-destitute do this. If you’re laid up on the couch for two months with a broken leg, you probably spend a lot of time daydreaming about all the stuff you’re going to do once mobile again.

We, the amateur team-builders, are quick to remark, when a GM makes a short-sighted move in an attempt to push his team out of the lottery and into the outskirts of the playoff picture, that the guiding principle of team-building should be that the goal is to construct a championship contender, not a seventh seed. That’s fine and well in a vacuum, but only one team wins the title each year while, in today’s talent-flush NBA, there are about a dozen really fun squads to watch, and not all of them are even necessarily playoff teams.

All this title-or-bust rhetoric shifts our focus toward an endpoint. We are directed toward the result of sport, not the process—the part we’re watching 99 percent of the time. Surely, a championship is the apex of sports fandom, but this is not a zero sum affair, and basketball played happily and well can offer a series of gleeful moments of relief and release even in losing efforts. We too frequently confuse the object of sports fandom with the in-the-moment purpose of sports fandom, which is to care deeply about something that doesn’t actually matter and take what that experience gives.

Anderson Varejao is a player who makes us appreciate a process we know won’t end well. He’s currently sitting on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench looking like a stalk of broccoli that has been fitted for a suit, but he was exhilarating to watch when healthy. Not exhilarating in the violent, graceful sense of the pre-sad trombone Amare Stoudemire, but exhilarating in an oddly practical sense: like watching someone parallel park the shit out of a large van. Varejao and person-for-whom-there-is-not-enough-love-in-the-universe-to-properly-appreciate Kyrie Irving formed the best pick and roll combination in the league earlier this season because of their buddy-cop psychic connection and Varejao’s ability to finish at the rim with his body cocked at all manner of Nowitzkian angles.

On a Cavs team with few offensive options, Varejao ran as if on a conveyer belt between the block and the top of the key, his hair bobbing up and down as he ambled to and away from Irving. He flashed and popped and rolled and made the team watchable. Without him, they spend a lot of time standing around waiting for Irving to do amazing things as Irving grows increasingly frustrated with Tyler Zeller, who remains incapable of setting a decent screen despite being a very large person.

Before Varejao’s legitimately scary blood clot, Tristan Thompson joked that he was glad to see the Brazilian on the bench for a couple weeks because it meant he could finally grab some rebounds. (He wasn’t wrong, by the way: Thompson’s rebounding numbers jumped up from 7.7 RPG with Varejao to 10.5 RPG without him.) Varejao seems to get his hands or fingertips on nearly everything that clangs off the rim, whether he’s sticking his butt into somebody and securing a miss all fundamental-like or pirouetting between two players to tip the ball to a teammate. He often appears to be trying and failing to gain his sea legs as he corrals a board; he leads the league in one-footed outlet passes. He routinely, goofily grabs 15 rebounds in a game.

The way he moves like he’s made out of Slinkies, his falling-over lay-ins, and his ability to guard almost any forward or center in the league despite not being particularly big or particularly able to jump over small dogs feeds into the perception of Varejao as an “energy guy.” He’s overmatched and does what he can with what he has. Bless his heart, etc. But this misclassification undersells him.

He’s not Reggie Evans. This is a guy who was averaging 14-and-14 before he got hurt. All that manic energy isn’t manic; it’s orchestrated chaos. Varejao is kooky—wonderfully kooky—but also an adept passer, an aware defender, and crafty around the basket. For whatever reason, both he and similarly wacky-haired Joakim Noah get thrown in the “scrappy big man” category when they’re actually both just really, really good at basketball in difficult to define ways.

Regrettably, Anderson Varejao will not resume being really, really good at basketball until next season. He’s out for the year and has ended each of the last three seasons on the injured list. The logic thrown around in NBA nerd circles is that he plays too hard not to get hurt—a player so kinetic is bound to fall the wrong way or run into something hard at one point or another. This may be accurate or Varejao may just have shit luck, but perhaps the shittest of shit luck is that his injuries have prevented the Cavs from trading him to a contender, where his Varejao Things could help a team win a title.

The amateur team-builders and I have been pushing Varejao out the door each of the last three seasons. It’s nothing against him; he’s just had the misfortune of being in his late 20s (and now early 30s) on a team full of recent draft picks. Plus he helps the team win games, and the Cavs haven’t wanted any part of winning games since LeBron left. He has lived a double life in the minds of many fans as a favorite son and an asset. It’s a strange relationship: Cavaliers fans love Anderson Varejao, then spend their lunch breaks plugging him into speculative trades.

In this way, Varejao’s injury comes as a relief. Now that he has been tagged as injury prone, his trade value has probably been diminished to the point that Cleveland will simply hang onto him. Not unlike famous Cavalier Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Varejao is an immigrant who has found a home in the rust belt’s paunch, and he deserves, like Big Z, to be a beloved fixture in the community for the next handful of decades, perhaps joining the Cavs’ coaching staff or front office after he retires.

If Varejao stays and finishes his career in Cleveland, he might not sniff a title, and he certainly won’t come close to one while he’s still playing at a borderline all-star level. When I say Varejao doesn’t seem to notice he’s a Cavalier, I mean he plays and conducts himself like Cleveland is a fine place to be, even as he gives his prime to a lottery-dweller. Of course, we fans are also giving, if not exactly our primes, our time and psychic effort and hope to a team that’s just now, two and a half years after LeBron’s departure, figuring out how to not embarrass itself on a weekly basis. We keep coming back because we can’t transfer our allegiance to the Clippers or the Thunder, though that would probably be more gratifying. Varejao is stuck with the Cavs, and so are we.

And when he runs pick-and-rolls with Kyrie Irving, it becomes easier to think that being a Cavaliers fan might be fine too. Maybe not in a long-run, rooting-for-a-promising-young-team way, but definitely in the sense that in small moments, you can enjoy a terrible team for what it is right now. Which is, at least, ours.

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