“He’s one of the key, if not the key, piece for us moving forward. Larry is one of the top shot-blockers in our business. And I think he’s only going to get better defensively. We’re really excited to have him part of our organization, moving forward long term.”
That's certainly a bold claim to make about a player who is only one season removed from averaging 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but it's a valid one. The quote—delivered by Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond and relayed by The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn—accurately describes Larry Sanders, who is now the central figure of the team's rebuilding process.
Sanders enjoyed one heck of a breakout season for the Bucks, signing a four-year contract extension that completed his remarkable career turnaround.
Larry Sanders ascent to being Bucks' highest paid player is remarkable. A yr ago some Bucks officials wanted to cut him.— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) August 28, 2013
So, how can Milwaukee keep those good vibes flowing? How can they successfully build around this big man?
Surround Him With Shooters
It takes a rare player to thrive on both the offensive and defensive glass. While both fall under the broad umbrella of "rebounding," they require entirely different skill-sets, and the players who excel in both categories are typically few and far between.
During the 2012-13 season, only eight qualified players ranked in the top 20 for both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, according to Basketball-Reference: Reggie Evans, Zach Randolph, Tyson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Omer Asik, Nikola Vucevic, Larry Sanders and Derrick Favors. And while Sanders is clearly an excellent glass-eater on both ends, it's his offensive rebounding that allows him to be built around.
He finished 16th in both total offensive rebounds and offensive rebounding percentage, helping the Milwaukee Bucks' remarkably up-tempo offense earn even more possessions. When a team already plays at a break-neck pace, those extra resets of the shot clock can be especially important.
There are three ways that Sanders excels on the offensive glass.
He's quite adept at tipping the ball back into the hoop, as evidenced by the 31 makes he had on those opportunities. Sanders could stand to improve his 44.3 percent shooting on tips, but that's actually not a bad mark by any stretch of the imagination.
The Milwaukee big man is also quite adept both at skying over defenders for a second-chance opportunity and fighting with relentless energy to keep a play alive.
Take these two plays against the Miami Heat as examples.
It doesn't look like Sanders has any chance of pulling down an offensive board. That's no mere mortal boxing him out, but rather a Birdman.
So much for that.
Sanders' incredible leaping ability allows him to sky over Chris Andersen and pull down the rebound. He'd go on to commit an offensive foul once he drove the lane, but that's beside the point.
In this second play, the center begins in much better position as Ersan Ilyasova launches an uncontested three-pointer. However, he's too close to the basket and has to recover when the ball clangs hard off the rim and lofts into the air for what looks like a long rebound.
In no time at all, Sanders shifts his positioning and elevates enough to get one hand on the ball. But it's not this part of the process that is most impressive.
Take a look at the time left in the third quarter in the picture directly above.
Now look at the time again. Not even a second has ticked off, and Sanders has already recovered from his first jump and launched back into the air, giving him the ability to corral the tipped ball before any member of the Miami Heat can grab it.
Almost everyone in the NBA can jump. It's the springiness to take off for a second time that makes athletic rebounders special, and Sanders has that ability.
The Bucks have to take advantage of these traits by surrounding the big man with quality shooters. Building a system that allows three-balls to fly with reckless abandon is beneficial when you have a man in the middle who's capable of cleaning up the trash.
Just call Sanders the garbage man. Actually, don't. That's a horrible nickname, but you know what I mean.
Let John Henson Play
According to NBA.com's statistical databases, opponents were only able to shoot 42.5 percent against the Bucks when both Sanders and John Henson were on the court together. That's well below the overall team mark of 45.4, and it was the No. 12 ranked two-man lineup in that category (among combos that played at least 100 minutes together).
The scary part is that there's plenty of room for improvement.
Henson only started coming into his own at the end of the year, and the two are now poised to form a terrifying defensive duo in the frontcourt, assuming that the Bucks let him play.
While both big men are shot-blocking phenoms, it's Henson's versatility that allows him to complement Sanders perfectly. He's quite capable of handling his own against post players, but his lateral quickness and overall foot speed also lets him find success on the perimeter.
As shown by Synergy Sports (subscription required), Henson allowed only 0.77 points per possession to spot-up shooters during the 2012-13 season, which just so happened to be his rookie year. That allowed the North Carolina product to rank 24th among all qualified defenders.
This ability to close out on shooters takes an inordinate amount of pressure of Sanders, allowing the center to stay fixated on the center of the court, where he can do the most damage. And that's why it's so vital for them to play together.
Sanders received a lot of credit for his shot-blocking excellence, and deservedly so. But his overall rim protection didn't get the attention that it merited. Even when the former VCU Ram wasn't swatting away shots, he was altering them and maintaining principles of verticality that allowed him to cut back on his fouling while playing stellar defense.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry.
His defensive excellence has made NBA coaches take notice as well. Doc Rivers had nothing but kind things to say in an interview that was posted on YouTube by WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia:
We should probably stop shooting when he’s right there. That would probably help, because he always blocks your shot. It’s funny, he does it to everybody. I actually told my son, Austin, when they played the Bucks, I said, ‘Hey Austin, be careful with Sanders, you get a step deep and he’ll get you.’ I think his first two shots were blocked, so I was thinking, ‘Nothing changes. No one listens.’
The more the Bucks can do to promote Sanders protecting the interior of the defense, the better. Playing Henson would do exactly that, as the Tar Heel's strengths would enable Sanders to focus on his own best defensive traits.
Playing him would be a bold move in the 2013-14 season, because minutes would come at the expense of Ersan Ilyasova, unless the Turkish forward was subsequently shifted to the 3 and subsumed Caron Butler's role.
However, it needs to happen as often as possible.
Pick-and-Roll All Day, Every Day
If the Bucks really are intent on building around Sanders, they're going to have to find a way to promote his scoring. He can't be content to average only 9.8 points per game, as he did during his breakout 2012-13 campaign.
You can find a complete breakdown of how he can become a more complete offensive player here, but the basic principle is that he has to start running pick-and-roll sets with even more frequency. While Sanders struggled immensely as a post-up player and spot-up shooter, he was one of the better finishers at the rim.
Here's what I had to say about Sanders in that previous breakdown:
While Sanders wasn't a particularly effective offensive player during his breakout season with the Bucks, he was still potent in certain situations. Many of his 9.8 points per game stemmed from his ability to grab offensive rebounds and then slam the ball back through the hole, and he was also a great finisher in pick-and-roll situations.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Sanders scored 1.01 points per possession (59th in the NBA) when he was the roll man, and he functioned as such more than twice per game. He shot 55 percent after receiving the ball en route to the basket and drew six and-ones in the process.
Even if he isn't the most technically gifted player, Sanders showed off some soft hands and good finishing skills around the rim.
Although he's a player without much finesse, Sanders sometimes seems almost impervious to contact. Even when bracing himself for body blows from the defense, he can catch the ball in traffic and finish after the referee's whistle has sounded.
Below you'll find another example of Sanders' soft hands, even if the play doesn't come in a PnR situation. Instead, it comes in transition against the Miami Heat, but that shouldn't diminish the impressive nature of this one-handed finish on a lob from Brandon Jennings.
As a third highlight, take a look at this next easy dunk for Sanders.
Although he doesn't do anything particularly special, it's worth noting that he understands the positioning of screens perfectly, sets ones that aren't easy to get around and can grasp the concept of trailing behind to let a defender mistakenly hedge out on the ball-handler.
Sanders will eventually need to develop a competent jumper and start becoming at least semi-potent with his back to the basket, but those improvements can take place in the future. For now, Milwaukee has to maximize his chances at offensive contributions by letting him thrive as a PnR finisher.
Can the Bucks build a championship-contending team around Sanders?
The breakout big man doesn't have to morph into an offensive stud in order for the Bucks to successfully build around him. As long as he plays elite defense (and I'm talking about some of the best defense in the league, which he should do in 2013-14 as he draws serious DPOY consideration) and isn't a liability on the other end, they'll be fine.
Milwaukee doesn't have too many parts of the future in place right now, but general manager John Hammond has certainly found one.
Sanders is going to be blocking shots and throwing down big dunks in a Bucks uniform for a long time. And if they build around him properly, he won't just be producing those highlights during the regular season.