Varejao on Cleveland: 'I don't want to play there anymore'

Last season, Anderson Varejao played a key role as the Cleveland Cavaliers won the Eastern Conference title -- he was arguably the Cavs' best young player behind LeBron James.

This season, Varejao is playing in a gym more than a thousand miles from Cleveland in Vitoria, Brazil, while the Cavs struggle to replace Varejao's defensive intensity in the middle.

What's he doing? Working on his jump hook. Trying to stay in shape. And most importantly, waiting.

He's waiting for the lucrative contract he thought he'd sign this offseason.

And waiting for Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry to "show me that he values my contribution to the team," Varejao told ESPN.com by phone in a rare interview.

"I just want to be treated fairly and I don't think Danny's done that."

Varejao expected to be helping the Cavs defend their East crown by now.

"I wanted to come back," he said. "I love the fans and I really love my teammates. But there are others there that have made it very difficult. It's gotten to the point that I don't want to play there anymore. I'm just hoping for a sign-and-trade at this point."

Ferry isn't ready to give up on bring Varejao back.

"We fully understand that negotiations can be emotional," Ferry told ESPN.com. "As for Anderson's potential to remain a Cavalier and put this behind us, we value his presence in this organization, on and off the court, and that has not changed."

Varejao, who turned 25 in September, was a vital part of the Cavs' run to the NBA Finals. As the Cavs' sixth man, his basic stats were modest: 6.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. But he led the league in drawing charges, and his energy and interior defense were invaluable to the team. His adjusted plus-minus numbers last season said he was the 22nd-best player in the league.

The question for the Cavs is, how much do you pay for those less tangible contributions?

That question has been at the heart of one of the most unusual free-agent contract squabbles in NBA history.

(One of the handful of similar cases happened when Ferry himself refused to sign with the team that drafted him, the
Los Angeles Clippers, decided instead to play in Europe and eventually forced the Clippers to trade him to, yes, Cleveland.)

As of now, Varejao has been unable to get another team to sign him to an offer sheet. Because Varejao is a restricted free agent, the Cavs can match any offer he gets, and Ferry has threatened to do just that.

This summer that scared off at least one team reluctant to tie its own hands by making an offer that would ultimately result in Varejao merely returning to Cleveland.

The Memphis Grizzlies flirted with making Varejao a big offer in July, but when the Cavs threatened to match and leave Memphis empty-handed, the Grizzlies went after unrestricted free agent
Darko Milicic instead.

Several other teams told ESPN.com they would have offered Varejao their full midlevel exception (starting at $5.356 million per season), but Varejao has not been willing to sign for that amount because he believes (a) the Cavs would match, and (b) he's worth more.

The Cavs' popular forward wants considerably more than the team is offering. He turned down the Cavs' one-year, $1.2 million tender offer. (To retain a restricted free agent, a team must make a tender offer.) He also refused Cleveland's opening offer of five years, $20 million, and then its latest offer of five years, $32 million, with a starting salary slightly below the midlevel exception.

But Varejao said media reports that he's asking for a contract averaging $10-11 million a season "just aren't true. There are a lot of things being written that are wrong. I know they aren't talking to me or my agent."

He said he and his agent, Dan Fegan, have been more than willing to work out a fair deal with the Cavs. Varejao said he offered to sign a one-year deal at a discount, or to sign a longer-term deal.

Varejao further said he would be willing to take the dispute to an arbitrator, for a resolution similar to those found in Major League Baseball. That would minimize the role of Fegan, who is known as a very tough bargainer.

"Much has been made about the negotiators in this process, but for the record I have been prepared since training camp to submit our differences to a third-party mediator so that both parties can be assured of more objectivity," Fegan says.

The Cavs have rejected all of those counterproposals.

Ferry says the Cavs' offer is fair.

"We believe the Cavs' offers are very much in line with what is widely perceived throughout the industry as fair market value. We have also included bonuses that would serve as upside protection for Anderson," Ferry said.

"We are working to make decisions that are best for short- and long-term interests of the organization, yet clearly stepping up and offering him long-term security at a very fair market value."

Varejao said that if the two sides can't agree on a long-term deal, they should agree on a one-year deal that allows both sides to explore their options next year.

From the Cavs' point of view, a one-year deal is counterproductive because it would make Varejao an unrestricted free agent next year, and the team's right to match any offer would disappear. In that case, Varejao could just walk away.

But Fegan says that if Cleveland is willing to pay Varejao "fair market value," the Cavs would then be in the best position to sign him next year.

"It defies logic for the Cavs to accuse Anderson of demanding too much money on a long-term deal while at the same time refusing to allow Anderson to sign a one-year deal for less money, especially when they retain his Bird rights next year." Fegan said. "It begs the question: If their offer is truly fair, what are they afraid of?"

The result has been a standoff that shows no sign of ending.

On each side, the frustration level has been rising the past few weeks, as Varejao is left in limbo in Brazil, and as the Cavs have struggled coming out of the gate in training camp and the regular season.

In October, Ferry made a surprise visit to see Varejao at his parents' home in Brazil in an attempt to convince him to sign.

The move backfired.

Ferry showed up without telling Fegan, and working around an agent is a no-no in the NBA. While GMs are allowed to talk with players without an agent present, it is customary that all contract talk goes through an agent.

"I was shocked," Varejao said. "He showed up and wanted me to sign a contract. I told him he's got to talk to my agent. He didn't even up his offer. I guess he thought if he just showed up, I would just sign whatever he gave me."

Ferry walked away with no deal and with an angry free agent on his hands.

He defends his decision to appeal directly to Varejao.

"From the start of free agency, we told Anderson and his agent that the ability to communicate with him directly was going to be very important to the process," Ferry said. "The trip was done because our communication with Anderson was no longer available to us."

Since that incident, there hasn't been much trust or movement on either side.

While many around the NBA believe that Fegan is driving negotiations, Varejao says he is responsible for his own bargaining position.

"This is me, nobody else," Varejao said. "He takes the offers to me and I decide. He's told me he'll get a deal done for less. I've told him no. It's me. [The Cavs] told me how important I was to the team. I just want to be treated fairly."

Other GMs in the league, while acknowledging that Fegan is a tough negotiator, said that Ferry is equally tenacious.

One serious risk, on Ferry's side, is that the team's most important player, James, might see this impasse as another sign of the Cavs' inability to improve the team.

Varejao says that the Cavs' players support him, and that his conversations with James have been positive.

"He just says, 'We love you and we're waiting,'" Varejao said. "He keeps telling me he wants me back but to get the best deal I can and to take care of my family. He's a great teammate. He always supports us on and off the court."

That sentiment was confirmed by a source close to James, who said, "LeBron wants Andy back. He wants him to get a fair deal. I think his frustration isn't with Andy, it's with the fact that for the past two years, he's been waiting for more help and he hasn't gotten it. This is just a step in the wrong direction."

Over the past few weeks, several NBA general managers have told ESPN.com that Fegan has been searching out potential sign-and-trade deals, in which Varejao would agree to terms with another team and then be traded to that team. In recent days, there have been indications that the Cavs are open to the possibility of a sign-and-trade.

Two GMs told ESPN.com they believe Varejao would agree to a five-year, $45-million deal in a sign-and-trade, if such an offer were made.

"If that's the price, or close to it, I think Danny [Ferry] will get some offers that make sense for the Cavs," one GM said. "I'm not sure he'll get equal value, but right now he has nothing and I don't see it changing."

If Varejao leaves, it will be a bitter ending for both parties.
But at this point, that might be the most workable option.

"I'm willing to go and play in Europe if that's what it takes," Varejao said. "I know it's a risk and I'll be a restricted free agent next year, but at least I'd be happy. I don't think I'll be happy in Cleveland knowing that I was [almost] the lowest-paid player there for three years and am still paid much less than players on the team that I outperform. Life's too short to be unhappy."

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.