What's Next for Milwaukee Bucks After Re-Signing Larry Sanders?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2013

Larry Sanders rejects a lot of things when he's on the basketball court, but he couldn't reject the Milwaukee Bucks' offer to re-sign him to a long-term deal. 

After all, he is a major building block for this franchise after enjoying a remarkable breakthrough season that established him as one of the premier interior defenders in the NBA

Sanders announced the news by posting a picture of himself inking the five-year extension on Instagram:

It was later confirmed by the Bucks' Twitter feed, and general manager John Hammond expressed that the big man was a crucial part of the team going forward. 

So, what now?

The Bucks aren't in shape to compete immediately, and their future is still questionable at best. What's in the cards going forward, and how is the team going to regain entry into the Eastern Conference playoffs? 


Can Larry Sanders Be Built Around? 

The first question involves Sanders himself. Is he an elite center to the point where he can become the—pun intended—centerpiece of an organization? 

During the 2012-13 season, the big man averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, even posting a triple-double comprised of those three categories. The list of players who have achieved that essentially reads like a who's who of great defensive big men. 

Right now, Sanders' primary skill involves being a complete game-changer on the defensive end of the court. 

According to Basketball-Reference, Milwaukee allowed 5.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when Sanders was on the court, and that number was depressed by the presence of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Had he played with competent defensive guards instead of sieves, perhaps he would have received even more Defensive Player of the Year hype. 

But to put that number in context, 5.9 points per 100 possessions is the same sized difference that separates the Indiana Pacers' league-best defensive rating from the Philadelphia 76ers'. And the Sixers finished at No. 15. 

Yeah, Sanders made a difference. 

Offensively, the story isn't quite as promising, though. 

He's far too prone to shooting jumpers that don't find the bottom of the net, and his post game is limited to turning over either shoulder and lofting up something that's halfway between a hook and jumper. This hook-jumper isn't particularly effective when used on either the weak side or the strong side, and Sanders turns the ball over quite often out of the post. 

It's even more telling that in 60 post possessions during the breakout campaign, Sanders never attempted a single drop-step or up-and-under. Not even one. He was entirely predictable and clearly needed to do a lot of work developing his offensive arsenal. 

Well, at least the part of his offensive game that didn't involve rolling to the hoop after setting a screen for one of his guards. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Sanders scored 1.01 points per possession as the roll man, leaving him at No. 59 in the category among all qualified players. 

He thrived catching the ball in tough, crowded situations, finishing through or drawing contact and elevating above the defense to complete alley-oops. 

In a lot of ways, Sanders is like a poor man's Tyson Chandler right now, and his ceiling involves becoming the current New York Knicks big man, just at the height of his powers. 

Chandler was able to win a title with the Dallas Mavericks while serving as the second-best player (maybe the third depending on how you feel about Jason Terry), but that was a strange situation. Dirk Nowitzki was just on mega-fire during the postseason, and he made Chandler look even better than should have been possible since the big man wasn't really an offensive contributor. 

The Bucks don't have an offensive stud like Dirk on the roster. They won't win with Sanders as the second-best player, but they certainly could with him as the third, provided an offensive standout is one of the two ahead of him.


Who Are the Keepers on the Roster?

Right now, the Bucks' depth chart looks like the following, according to Rotoworld

  • Point guard: Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour, Ish Smith, Nate Wolters
  • Shooting guard: O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal
  • Small forward: Carlos Delfino, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Power forward: Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson
  • Center: Larry Sanders, Zaza Pachulia, Ekpe Udoh, Vyacheslav Kravtsov, Miroslav Raduljica

There aren't many players on the roster who should eventually serve as pieces of a championship-winning puzzle. 

Sanders belongs in the category, as does Brandon Knight, assuming that he develops as expected. That said, Knight will eventually blossom as a shooting guard thanks to his prowess at cutting without the ball and his complete dearth of NBA-caliber distributing skills. 

I'd put Nate Wolters in the category as well, but that's not exactly a conventional opinion, so we're going to leave him out. 

John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova could be keepers as well, just in remarkably different ways. Ilyasova is the stretch 4 that has become so highly coveted in the modern NBA landscape, while Henson is another shot-blocking stud with the upside to turn into a workable role player on offense and a defensive standout alongside Sanders. 

Finally—and you'll note that I'm not putting O.J. Mayo into this category—there's Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

If you know what to make of him, you're lying. Period. End of story. 

Antetokounmpo is one of the Association's biggest mysteries, bursting onto the draft scene and rising up boards until he was considered a lottery prospect. He's been called the Greek Kevin Durant and looks the part playing against low-level competition, but we have no idea how he'll fare against NBA talent. 

At the very least, he's years away from being a quality contributor, and that puts him outside the range we're looking at here. So while Antetokounmpo remains a player with so much upside that he could eventually be an MVP candidate, he'll be ignored for these purposes. 

What does that leave the Bucks with? 

  • Point guard: None
  • Shooting guard: Brandon Knight
  • Small forward: None
  • Power forward: Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson
  • Center: Larry Sanders


Remaining Needs

Now obviously, point guard and small forward have to be the two biggest priorities here. That's what happens when the only players of the future at those spots should shift to the 2 (Knight) or are multiple years away from being NBA-ready (Antetokounmpo). 

But what types of players should the Bucks be looking for? 

Right now, the core of the future has the makings of a defensive powerhouse. Sanders has DPOY potential, and the same can be said about Henson if he continues to follow the typical career arc of a player with his skills. Knight is also a great defensive stopper, just out on the perimeter. 

That said, where is the offense going to come from? 

Ilyasova can score, but Knight needs to have offense created for him. Sanders and Henson are both quite limited on the more glamorous end of the court as well. 

The players who join the Bucks' future unit will inevitably need to be offensive studs, especially at the small forward position. Whoever lands at point guard has to be a multi-talented offensive player, one capable of both taking over the scoring load and distributing the ball among everyone else. 

Obviously that's hard to find, and it's even tougher because the Bucks don't have too much money to play with. Below you can find the projected salaries for each of the coming seasons, originally taken from Spotrac.com but modified by myself to include logical decisions and Sanders' extension. For the sake of the argument, we're going to assume that the four-year, $44 million deal, as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, is evenly split up over the years.

The Bucks are slowly gaining financial flexibility, but not fast enough to be able to sign more studs before inking the key players to the necessary extensions.  

Because of that, Milwaukee needs to continue blowing things up. 

Now that Sanders is inked, tanking has to be the plan, simply because the franchise doesn't have the money or appeal that's needed to lure in a marquee free agent. And since two more stars are actually needed...

The Bucks have to try to milk the 2014 NBA draft for all it's worth. Andrew Wiggins isn't the only prize, after all. Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Andrew Harrison and Glenn Robinson would all be players who could fill the void that Milwaukee currently lays claim to. 

Milwaukee got off to a nice start in the rebuilding process by acquiring Knight, and now Hammond has continued down the right path by extending the best defensive player on the team. 

It's what comes next that is both incredibly difficult and still up in the air. 


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