-- One of the Cleveland Cavaliers' worst fears came to fruition on Tuesday night, when center Anderson Varejao tore the Achilles tendon in his left foot during a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Tests Wednesday confirmed the tear, according to Brian Windhorst, and presuming it's a full rupture, Varejao's 2014-15 season is over.
For all the fretting over defensive-minded wings, a serious Varejao injury was always the biggest issue with the Cleveland roster as currently constructed. As long as Varejao stayed healthy, a three-player frontcourt rotation with him, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson was good enough to make the Cavaliers a contender. Without Varejao, the math no longer works.
Thompson can push his playing time back toward the 31-plus minutes he averaged the last two seasons, and there's a solid argument to be made that Cleveland will actually be better off with Thompson playing the lion's share of the minutes next to Love. Per NBA.com/Stats, the Cavaliers are plus-12.6 points per 100 possessions with that duo, as compared to barely breaking even (plus-0.1 per 100) with Love and Varejao. (They were plus-1.7 with Thompson and Varejao.)
The problem is that still leaves Cleveland about 27 minutes a night to fill up front. And that's where things get dicey. The Cavaliers have been OK playing small-ball lineups with either LeBron James or Shawn Marion at power forward next to either Love, Thompson or Varejao, outscoring opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. But in the handful of minutes David Blatt has given other big men ( Lou Amundson, Brendan Haywood and Alex Kirk) outside of garbage time, Cleveland has been destroyed to the tune of minus-20.8 points per 100 possessions. Both their offensive and defensive ratings in these minutes would be the worst in the league over the full season, per NBA.com/Stats.
Obviously, the Cavaliers won't continue to perform so poorly just by virtue of replacing Varejao with Amundson or Haywood. But there's a reason Blatt has been so reluctant to incorporate a fourth big man into the Cleveland frontcourt. Amundson is an energy player who is limited at both ends, and Haywood was a weak scorer before missing all of last season with a navicular fracture in his left foot.
In the short term, expect Blatt to rely on small ball. But playing James or Marion at power forward is not ideal long-term, both because of the extra wear and tear on the veterans and also because it stresses a wing rotation that is not particularly deep in its own right.
The obvious solution here is a trade for a 7-footer, something the Cavaliers have already been pursuing, with Kosta Koufos of the Memphis Grizzlies and Timofey Mozgov of the Denver Nuggets as their main targets, according to Windhorst. Both players would be capable replacements for Varejao, and would actually improve Cleveland's rim protection. According to NBA.com/Stats, opponents are making 47.6 percent of their attempts within 5 feet of the basket with Mozgov as a primary defender and 45.1 percent with Koufos. By comparison, players were shooting 54.4 percent near the basket with Varejao as a primary defender this season. (Thompson is at 51.2 percent, and Love a whopping 60.3 percent.)
While Varejao's injury doesn't give the Grizzlies and Nuggets any additional motivation to part with important pieces of their rotation, it might force the Cavaliers to step up their offers for both players. Cleveland owns a protected first-round pick from Memphis, and getting it back could be enticing enough for the Grizzlies to part with Koufos, who will be a free agent at season's end.
Windhorst also reported the Cavaliers have talked with the Boston Celtics about facilitating a three-way trade. During the course of those talks, Cleveland ought to inquire about Boston's willingness to trade newly acquired Brandan Wright. While Wright isn't the kind of rim protector the Cavaliers desire (opponents are shooting 49.2 percent near the basket against him), he's still an upgrade on what Cleveland currently has inside, and his ultra-high-percentage finishing would make the team's offense more dangerous. Like Koufos and Mozgov, Wright could be acquired using the trade exception the Cavaliers have from the Keith Bogans trade.
Cleveland will also apply for a disabled player exception (DPE) for Varejao, according to Windhorst, which could be used to trade for Koufos. Mozgov is not eligible for the DPE because he is not in the final season of his contract, and Wright makes slightly too much to fit into the Varejao DPE. That could favor a trade for Koufos, which would allow the Cavaliers to maintain the Bogans trade exception for a future move. (The two exceptions cannot be combined.)
Another possibility with the DPE is New York Knicks center Samuel Dalembert, who would figure to come cheaper as an expiring contract on a lottery team. Dalembert would also be an upgrade in terms of rim protection (opponents are shooting just 43.9 percent around the rim against him, per NBA.com/Stats). However, he's not as effective offensively as Koufos and Mozgov and wouldn't be the same kind of long-term option.
While it's always best to hang onto draft picks if possible, parting with one for a center makes sense for Cleveland because of the opportunity to contend for a championship this season. And given how problematic Achilles injuries have been for veteran players, and Varejao's history of serious injuries, the Cavaliers now have to consider center a major need, not just now but going forward. At this point, it would be surprising and maybe stunning if Cleveland doesn't trade for a center between now and the deadline.