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The Cleveland Cavaliers figured restricted free agent Anderson Varejao had three options: sign a five-year deal with them on their terms, play for a pittance in Europe or sit unpaid in his Brazil home for the rest of the season.
They figured way wrong.
By signing a three-year qualifying offer worth $17.4 million Tuesday from the Charlotte Bobcats, Varejao and his agent, Dan Fegan, now have presented the Cavs with an even shorter menu of far less appetizing options: match an offer they never dreamed of making themselves or let their best defensive man walk for nothing in return.
The real dagger is that the Bobcats' offer is actually a two-year deal for the Cavs because it includes a third-year player option. Varejao and Fegan have made it known they will exercise it if he's in Cleveland.
It's akin to Freddy Krueger clacking his razor fingers only to find Edward Scissorhands' shears already around his neck.
"It did come as a surprise," said Cavs GM Danny Ferry of the offer sheet, "but we will obviously match."
Crazy as it sounds, keeping the wild-haired Brazilian might actually be the less palatable option. Varejao has no desire to return to Cleveland after the Cavs refused to discuss anything other than long-term deals once he declined their one-year, $1.2 million qualifying offer last summer. Matching the offer and then dealing him -- a convoluted sign-and-trade deal -- isn't much better. Because of the three-month moratorium on trading a newly signed player, the Cavs couldn't move him before the February trade deadline. That would mean having a disenfranchised player on their hands for however long the season lasts and not recouping much for their trouble.
Keeping Varejao means paying him $11 million for less than two years of work and then watching him walk. Throw in the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax Cleveland will be paying and it's $22 million.
The deal with the Bobcats, meanwhile, is nothing short of a masterstroke for Fegan, who has been publicly vilified by an increasing number of voices as the weeks passed while Varejao sat at home and the Cavs, defending Eastern Conference champions, struggled to stay above .500.
You'd think by now, though, critics and NBA teams would be a bit more wary about casting aspersions too quickly. Fegan went through similar scenarios with Chris Dudley, Shandon Anderson and Stephen Jackson, all of whom ended up getting their asking price, albeit elsewhere. The beauty of the Bobcats' offer for Varejao is not only does he have a short-term deal at an acceptable price, but if the Cavs don't match he could have an immediate impact in Charlotte.
Whether it was Ferry refusing to be dictated to by Fegan, over-confidence in Varejao's seemingly limited options or owner Dan Gilbert forcing Ferry to take a tough financial line, the Cavs wouldn't even consider Fegan's compromise offer of a one-year, $5 million deal at the start of the season.
Granted, the Cavs had $67 million reasons to want Varejao at a bargain price. That's their current payroll, thanks to luring Larry Hughes from Washington at $12 million a year and retaining Zydrunas Ilgauskas for $10 million a year. LeBron James is at $13 million and that will go up dramatically when his spin at the free-agent wheel comes around in 2 ½ seasons.
But they also have high expectations to uphold after sneaking into last season's Finals. While Fegan's price was never quite the $9 million a year reported in various places, it still looks like a lot for a player who averaged six points and six rebounds. Varejao's true value, though, is reflected by 101.2 and 46.05 percent vs. 92.5 and 44.79. The first set of numbers are the Cavs' points allowed and defensive field-goal percentage without Varejao. The second set are their numbers last season with him. In much the same way Stephen Jackson's return to the Warriors transformed their entire defense, the Cavs are seemingly inspired to hunker down by Varejao's energy, savvy and perniciousness.
They could very well have that inspiration again. But neither at the time, nor the price, they had hoped for.Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.