Everybody seems to love a juicy trade rumor.
And these days, it seems Thunder fans love any one that involves Anderson Varejao.
The big man for the Cavaliers has become one of the NBA’s most attractive trade chips. He’s averaging 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals. All are career highs. But all that production is being provided for a bad team. The Cavs are just 5-21, ahead of only league-worst Washington in the standings.
So rather than watch Varejao waste what’s left of his prime on a team headed nowhere fast, the Cavs, many believe, must make a decision: part ways with their energizer bunny of a center to gain future assets, or stick with the status quo and risk being no better now or beyond with him.
Here’s where the Thunder comes into the picture. Oklahoma City is the league’s best team, a championship-caliber squad. Its roster, though, has flaws and weaknesses like every other team ever assembled. It just so happens that the center spot is the weakest of the five positions. Acquiring a player like Varejao would only upgrade the Thunder’s frontcourt and, perhaps, make OKC better suited for a title run in 2013. The Thunder also happens to have an enticing collection of young talent and a stable of draft picks that could sweeten any deal if the Cavs are indeed looking to secure future assets and promising prospects should they ship Varejao.
But that’s were things get tricky.
Today on Fear the Sword, which is an SB Nation blog, seven potential trade scenarios for Varejao were kicked around. It came as no surprise that the Thunder was among the seven. The suggested deal would send Kendrick Perkins, Perry Jones III, Jeremy Lamb and the Thunder-owned protected first-round pick of Toronto to Cleveland in exchange for Varejao.
That, give or take a player or two, has become a popular package floated by many. The numbers work, and there are reasons it makes sense for both teams. Here was Fear the Sword’s logic.
Why it works for OKC – Most reports say that OKC is happy with their team at the moment and aren’t looking to make a deal. Still, you have to think that adding Andy and getting rid of Perkins deal would be something appealing to them. Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefalosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Anderson Varejao and a deep bench is a pretty darn good team.
Why it works for Cleveland – Lamb theoretically is perfect with Kyrie Irving, and could even play in three guard sets with Waiters and Irving. I would talk about this for 300 more words, but you have heard enough from me on Lamb. Perry Jones, meh. Maybe he figures things out. I don’t know. The first round pick should be pretty valuable.”
I think regular readers understand where I stand on a deal for Varejao. But allow me to approach it differently this time, removing my opinion and any biases. Let me attempt to provide analysis of the trade that so many seem to covet strictly by supplying facts.
First, contrary to Fear the Sword’s logic, the Thunder would not have a deep bench if that trade went down. It’s debatable whether the Thunder has a deep bench now, let alone after it loses two promising young players from that bench and replaces them with nothing. OKC’s bench would be left with Eric Maynor, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet, DeAndre Liggins and Daniel Orton. We all know only two of those guys, at best, have been dependable this season.
Fact number two, Varejao is extremely risky. He’s tearing it up this season, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s been an injury-plagued player throughout his career. Since his rookie year in 2004-05, Varejao has missed roughly 162 games due to various injuries. (I use the term roughly because researching exact games that were missed specifically because of an injury gets a little tricky. At times, the reason is listed as personal reasons or simply “did not dress.”) As good of a player as Varejao is, you can’t ignore how he’s missed nearly a quarter of his possible games because of various injuries. (Newsflash: the Thunder shies away from that sort of thing. See: Chandler, Tyson). Here’s a quick rundown:
2004-05: 6 games with left patella tendinitis; 11 games with a left high ankle sprain
2005-06: 32 games with a dislocated right shoulder
2006-07: 1 game with a neck strain
2007-08: 12 games with left ankle sprain
2008-09: 1 game with right wrist contusion
2009-10: 6 games; 2 with hip contusion; 4 with sore left hamstring
2010-11: 51 games missed; 1 for personal reasons, 1 for a rib contusion, 2 for a maxilla fracture, 47 ankle/foot injury
2011-12: 41 games with broken right wrist
2012-13: 1 game with a bruised right knee
By no means is that list supposed to suggest Varejao wouldn’t be valuable to the Thunder today. Chandler is proof that the opposite could be true. But when it’s major money in play, millions upon millions of dollars, smart teams, small market teams, tend to be more careful.
The risk on Varejao quickly outweighs the reward. How do I know this? Oklahoma City, under the aforementioned scenario, would be giving up four players in exchange for one that has a long history of injuries. Two of those players are 20 and 21, respectively, in Lamb and Jones, two players Kevin Durant even said had talent equivalent to top five picks. The third player, the Toronto draft pick, could be on the cusp of becoming an actual top five selection. And the fourth is only a player widely considered to be the best low-post man defender in basketball, the Thunder’s defensive anchor and someone who is a full two years younger than Varejao.
Is Varejao really that good?
Maybe. Maybe not.
The question is whether the Thunder would be willing to sacrifice so much of its core, on the court and with the all-so important salary cap, for a shot at this type of an upgrade. I don’t claim to know the answer. But I do know my history. The Thunder has never done that.
For all of Perkins’ shortcomings, the Thunder is 101-42 in the regular season and playoffs since he arrived. The brain trust in OKC is fully aware of that record and puts a ton of stock into it. How much better do they think it would be with Varejao? How much better could it be?
From everything I know, everyone in the Thunder organization is too fond of Perkins to snoop around trying to find out. This team, from Durant to Scott Brooks to Sam Presti, supports Perkins 100 percent. They know he means much more to the team than the figures that appear alongside his name in a stat sheet.
Parting ways with Perk now would mean the Thunder is departing from its tried and true philosophy, which is growing together. Players aren’t just shuffled in and out of Oklahoma City. There’s a real commitment to people, not just players, with the Thunder. It might sound strange in the big business world of sports, but in Oklahoma City that’s the ‘Thunder Way.’ Fans from this blue-collar market actually appreciate having familiar faces around, players with whom they can identify and watch grow up through the years. And it’s worked. Continuity, and the chemistry that comes with it, undoubtedly is a large part of what’s made the Thunder so successful over the past three seasons.
Meanwhile, it’s impossible to overstate how important pieces like Lamb and Jones and the Toronto pick are to the Thunder. Parting ways with those players and assets could go a long way toward destroying the Thunder’s future. Lamb, Jones and Reggie Jackson aren’t just promising players. They’re pivotal players, young bloods who will be integral to the Thunder’s future financial state as well as its future goal of flanking Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka with adequate talent.
Luring a player like Varejao at the expense of those young players wouldn’t hurt the Thunder’s salary structure now. But it could devastate it down the line. The reason is because with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all inked to lucrative contracts, the Thunder is banking on cheap labor like Jones, Lamb and Jackson. All are on rookie scale contracts for the next two to three seasons. The Toronto pick, even if it ends up the fourth overall selection, will come in on another manageable rookie scale deal of less than $4 million for the first two years.
Give those up and the Thunder is left with little to nothing to surround its big guns with. And because the Thunder still would be a playoff team thanks to its to-heavy roster of stars, OKC wouldn’t be in a position to draft anyone of substance with mid-to-late selections. Add to that, being over the cap would prevent the Thunder from acquiring any key free agents. The Thunder would be handicapped, which is why those young players are so important.
Is Anderson Varejao really worth all that?