The Warriors? big man now known for his flopping and uninspiring play was once a young kid overflowing with potential. What happened?
The historic title run by the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers couldn?t have been more of a storybook tale. LeBron James came home to lead his city to the biggest Finals comeback in NBA history over the greatest regular season team of all time to break a 52-year spell that had plagued the city of Cleveland for many fans? entire lives. Everything had fallen perfectly into place for the city, the team, and all of its players. All but one, that is.
Anderson Varejao started his basketball career in his home country of Brazil at age 18. He was a standout player, leading his team to top records in his first two seasons and earning the Brazilian League MVP in his second year. By the time he declared for the NBA draft in 2004, Varejao had impressed scouts with dominant domestic play as well as strong international play in the 2001 Goodwill Games and the 2002 World Championships.
Varejao was drafted with the thirtieth overall pick of the 2004 NBA draft by the Orlando Magic, who quickly traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, led by developing superstar LeBron James, were looking for a replacement for their aging All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and were hoping they had struck gold with another international stud. Varejao looked to be the final big piece Cleveland needed to finish off the rebuild and look towards the playoffs once more.
It didn?t take long for Varejao?s infectious style of play to strike a chord with the city of Cleveland and make him an almost instant fan favorite. He established a reputation around the league for his abundant energy and unrelenting hustle. He fought hard for rebounds, set hard screens, played strong fundamental defense, and was never afraid to step into the lane to take a charge. He was obviously not the most skilled player in the NBA but his hustle and heart made him beloved by his fans. His signature floppy haired fro and his nickname ?the Wild Thing? brought flair and charisma to a true competitor.
It wasn?t just in the NBA that Varejao was a fan favorite either. In his home country of Brazil, Anderson played for the national team all through his professional career earning a gold medal in the 2003 Pan-American games, a dominant player for the national team throughout his career. The ?Wild Thing? and his hard work were a favorite wherever he went.
As Varejao?s minutes and role grew for the Cavaliers, so did his production. By 2007 the big man was averaging 6.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for a team who made it all the way to the NBA Finals. His stat sheet couldn?t show his superb play on defense, especially in pick-and-roll situations, but he was recognized for those efforts by being named to the All-NBA Second Team All Defense at the season?s conclusion. Varejao was performing on some of basketball?s highest stages and still brimming with potential. The future looked bright.
Over the next couple seasons, Andy looked to increase his offensive ability and efficiency. His team continued to compete for a championship on a yearly basis with LeBron James at the helm, and Varejao focused on continuing to improve. It was obvious that his hard work and effort didn?t stop when he was off camera. In 2009 his hard work paid off when he signed his first significant NBA contract for six years and $48 million. The team showed immense faith in his continued development and he came through in 2010, posting career highs in points, assists, and blocks per game along with both field goal and free throw percentages. His hard work was certainly paying off.
That season, LeBron James made the decision to take his talents to South Beach and inadvertently altered the course of Anderson Varejao?s entire career. Without LeBron, the Cavs were suddenly searching for an identity after being dominant for years. The team began trading away useful veterans for draft picks and going into full tank mode. Suddenly, the large contract Varejao had signed the season prior made him poised to be a centerpiece to a complete roster rebuild.
Initially Anderson looked up to the task. He was immediately inserted into the starting lineup and his play was one of the lone bright spots during a devastating beginning of the season. He was relied upon by the team in ways he hadn?t experienced in the NBA before but upped his production as his name was called. His workload was much heavier than in previous season, but his trademark grit and grind never faltered as he averaged 9.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in the first 31 games. However, on January 6, 2011, Anderson was bitten by the injury bug when he tore a tendon in his ankle and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
This began a year-in-year-out cycle of Varejao returning from injury and looking better than ever before falling to another season-ending injury. In 2011 he averaged a double-double before breaking his wrist and ending his season. The following year he averaged 14 and 14 and garnered talks of being an All-Star candidate before developing a life-threatening blood clot and ending his season. As he couldn?t be trusted to stay healthy for a season the team moved on and gave minutes to Andrew Bynum and Spencer Hawes, and while Andy largely stayed healthy in the 2013?2014 season, his minutes and production took a big fall. Andy couldn?t catch a break and his career seemed to be dwindling before it could ever really catch fire.
Suddenly, in a career that seemed to be wilting, life sprang forth for the big man in the offseason of 2014 when LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland. Weeks later the team traded for Minnesota star Kevin Love to complete the ?big three? alongside young point guard Kyrie Irving, and Cleveland looked to be a top team in the league once more. The team showed belief in Varejao as their only remaining center on the roster by giving him a large $30 million extension just a few days into the season. Maybe there was life in this career after all.
It had been years since Anderson had played championship-level basketball, but he performed well in his role as the starting center, complimenting the rest of the team nicely and still showing his abounding hustle and energy. The city was hopeful for Anderson as he started his season, but his health didn?t last long as he suffered yet another season-ending injury in December of 2014. After tearing his Achilles tendon, not only was his season ruled out, but his trademark athleticism and hustle jeopardized. He watched his team return to the NBA Finals, only to lose in six games to the Golden State Warriors.
When Varejao returned from injury it was abundantly clear that his athleticism and vertical had taken a brutal hit. He saw his role shrink significantly until he was eventually traded near the deadline for Channing Frye and was released by the Portland Trailblazers the same day.
Anderson fielded offers from multiple teams but none looked better than the Golden State Warriors. Some fans saw his signing as a betrayal because the team had beaten his Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals the season before, and were in the midst of an historic season that was stealing the limelight the slightly less dominant Cavs thought they deserved, but the offer was too good to refuse. Anderson joined the Warriors and they went on to finish the regular season with the best record of all time. Varejao?s role with the team was small, but he seemed content to just be a part of something great.
The Warriors and the Cavs breezed through the playoffs and met in the NBA Finals for the second straight year, much to Varejao?s chagrin. Anderson hadn?t played against Cleveland since his departure, and now he would be not only playing against them for the first time, but would also be required to travel back there for at least two games.
Anderson?s role in the series stayed small despite his personal connection to the series until Game Five, when Draymond Green was suspended. The team needed more minutes from big men with his absence and Anderson found himself playing some meaningful minutes on the highest stage for the first time since his first Finals appearance in 2007 with Cleveland.
In that pivotal Game Five, the Warriors starting center Andrew Bogut was injured and ruled out for the remainder of the series. This required Anderson to be more involved for the remaining two games. Sadly, Anderson quickly proved himself not up for the task as the Cavaliers attacked his poor defense and lack of athleticism and lateral movement on what seemed like every defensive possession he had on the court. Anderson was drowning on the court, but the Warriors had little options as their big man pool was very small and minutes needed to be shared. Varejao became a scapegoat for the Warriors? failures and their eventual loss to the Cavaliers in seven games.
The story Cleveland has waited so long for was finally finished. The curse they had fought for decades was finally broken. But the loyal hero who had stuck by the team through thick and thin was on the wrong side of the story. Varejao, who had been with the Cavaliers for over a decade, had to watch his former teammates celebrate their long awaited win without him. The organization offered to send Anderson a championship ring due to his contributions to the team earlier that season but he declined the offer.
Varejao is now viewed by many NBA enthusiasts as a laughingstock. He is often viewed as a large part of the meme of the Warriors defeat and a novelty item, a poor player on an otherwise great team. Some who are more sympathetic see him as a tragic story of a man who had to sit on the other bench and watch the team he had been loyal to for a decade finally get their ring.
But others remember him for what he once was. They look at Varejao and see the floppy-haired freak who was the heart and soul of an organization. Some still see the streak of energy grabbing a tough board or stepping into contact to take the charge. They see the grit and grind he embodied on a daily basis for so many years, the steady improvement he worked so hard to achieve for most of his career.
Varejao?s career is waning. He?s not a force on the court anymore, and perhaps a few of the jokes surrounding his play these days are deserved. But some still remember ?The Wild Thing? as a kid out of Brazil overflowing with potential.