The Cavs gave a role player $30 million at the start of the season, and it’s going to be a problem in free agency

Anderson varejao
Anderson Varejao has only played an average of 34 games per season in the last five years. Doug Pensinger/Getty

The Cleveland Cavaliers face a challenging summer when much of their core will become free agents or have the chance to become free agents.

Keeping their core together will be expensive, and it becomes more problematic when factoring in the three-year, $US30 million extension the Cavaliers gave center Anderson Varejao at the start of the season.

Though only the first two years and $US20 million are guaranteed, the Cavs will have to pay $US10 million per season for a player who’s only averaged 34 games per season over the last five years.

Varejao was the Cavs’ lone reliable big man at the beginning of the season, but got hurt and missed the rest of the year. When he’s healthy, he’s effective, but the extension remains somewhat puzzling. According to Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd, the extension was partially done to please LeBron James, who is close with Varejao.

Nonetheless, in a huge offseason, Varejao is eating up precious cap space.

The Cavs have a ton of work to do this offseason. LeBron James, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith can all become free agents, and Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, and Matthew Dellavedova will become restricted free agents.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, James, Love, and Smith are all expected to opt out of their deals and become free agents. LeBron will obviously receive a max contract, Love will likely get one (and the Cavs may have no choice but to give him a full max so they didn’t trade Andrew Wiggins for a one-year rental on Love), and Smith must think he can earn more than the $US6 million option he has this season.

The Cavs’ restricted free agents are all valuable to their team, too. Tristan Thompson already turned down $US52 million, and LeBron James has lobbied for his return. Iman Shumpert is a valuable “3 and D” wing player, and Dellavedova became an important contributor in the playoffs.

As Windhorst notes, LeBron is basically in control of the Cavs’ future. Cleveland wants James’ input on how to build the team going forward, and given that the Cavs swept through the Eastern Conference with an incomplete team, it stands to reason that James would want the same cast back together next season. Windhorst reports that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is willing to spend to be competitive, but the NBA’s “luxury tax” penalties are harsh, and even big market teams have avoided committing big to their teams.

By bringing back all of these players on new, larger contracts (plus Kyrie Irving’s five-year, $US90 million extension kicking in) the Cavs’ payroll will swell to potentially historic proportions. In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets set a new record with their $US193 million bill in salaries and taxes, and the Cavs could approach that next season if they retain all of these players.

The Varejao extension then becomes a thorn in the Cavs’ side. At $US9.6 million next season, Varejao could only be the Cavs’ fourth-highest player — behind LeBron, Love, Irving, and Thompson — possibly fifth, depending on what Shumpert may get. With the emergence of Timofey Mozgov, that’s a lot of money to spend on a backup center.

When the Cavs’ front office has to make tough decisions on how much to pay players like Smith, Shumpert, and Dellavedova, they may look at the money Varejao is making as bothersome, particularly because he’s rarely a healthy contributor. However, given his friendship with James and his relatively low trade value, there’s no easy way out of paying him.

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