INDEPENDENCE: The first day of Camp Scott went as planned on Tuesday. The players ran — a lot — and the only real focus was defense. That will be the theme of Cavaliers training camp, which opened with coach Byron Scott again searching for ways to improve a defense that ranked near the bottom in most of the league’s categories each of the last two years.
The Cavs were defending a little better last season, particularly in the post, before Anderson Varejao was lost with a fractured wrist. Semih Erden and Ryan Hollins tried, but Varejao’s ability to protect the rim was never replaced, and the Cavs tumbled in the rankings and ultimately the standings.
They finished 26th in the league in points allowed, and opponents shot nearly 47 percent against them, ranking the Cavs 27th out of the 30 teams.
The return of a healthy Varejao, the continued development of Tristan Thompson and the addition of rookie Tyler Zeller should give the Cavs three interior defenders. That doesn’t include undrafted 7-footer Michael Eric, whose potential as a shot blocker and defender has had Scott gushing since summer league.
The biggest boost, however, comes from Varejao. After playing in 56 of a possible 148 games the last two years, he simply wants to make it through this season healthy.
“It’s my goal to stay healthy this year,” Varejao said. “That’s the biggest thing this year.”
Staying healthy, of course, is a tricky goal. He injured his ankle so badly running sprints after practice two years ago that it required season-ending surgery. Similarly, his fractured wrist last season came on a fluke hit when his hand was chopped by Milwaukee Bucks forward Drew Gooden in the heat of a game. Varejao is a walking floorburn most games, diving head-first for loose balls and at times recklessly throwing his body around the court.
Strangely, he says his style of play won’t change despite his goal to make it through the season without injury.
“I’m not going to change anything,” he said. “I’m going to keep playing the same way. This is how I have to play to help this team.”
The presence of Zeller can help limit Varejao’s minutes, something Scott has been trying to do for two years. Varejao averaged 32 minutes per game two seasons ago and was averaging 31 minutes last season before the injury, the two highest marks of his career. Scott would like to get that number to less than 30 this season, but he isn’t ready to remove Varejao from the starting lineup.
The coach has said Varejao’s best role is coming off the bench, but even with Zeller around, Scott expects Varejao to be the starting center on opening night.
“I still see Andy [as the starter] right now, but it’s great having a guy like Tyler who I know can come in and I can move Andy around,” Scott said. “That gives me the ability to limit his minutes more than I did last year and hopefully keep him healthy.”
Zeller was often the best player on the floor during the Cavs’ summer league games, showing great range on offense. He is still learning the Cavs’ defensive schemes, however. At North Carolina, Zeller said the Tar Heels really only defended the pick-and-roll with one defensive set. He has already been introduced to at least two other new ways to do it in the NBA.
“A lot of it is very similar, but there’s always those small changes,” Zeller said. “The base defenses are the same, but there’s different ways of playing pick and roll, the rotations are a little different.”
Varejao’s name surfaced in trade rumors much of the summer, yet he continues to dismiss the idea of a trade. As with most players in his position, Varejao said it’s out of his control, therefore he doesn’t really dwell on it.
It has been difficult in previous years for the Cavs to trade Varejao because of the lack of big men behind him. There was no one to fill his spot. Now with Zeller on the roster, the Cavs could be grooming a center who has the skillset to play for the next 10 years.
For now, Scott will be happy if his guards can defend on the perimeter better and he’s thrilled to see Varejao back on the court. Just the presence of Varejao and Zeller gives the Cavs hope for defensive improvement.
“I think we’ll be a lot better [defensively], but that’s based on paper,” Scott said. “We’ll have to see how we grow as a team.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.