Larry Sanders Is Milwaukee Bucks' Biggest Problem in Nightmare Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

Jan 2, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) leaves the court after losing to the Utah Jazz 96-87 at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Here we thought Brandon Jennings was toxic.

Expectations were high following Larry Sanders' stellar 2012-13 campaign, during which he averaged 12.9 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes. So high, the Milwaukee Bucks invested $44 million in him, hoping he could be the franchise cornerstone Jennings wasn't. 

What the Bucks have gotten in return isn't what they paid for. Or even close to it. Or even on the same continent as it.

Sanders has been terrible. More heartrending than the Bucks, owners of the NBA's worst record (7-29), themselves. 

Off-Court Drama

Nov 9, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (center) sits on the bench with guard O.J. Mayo (left) and forward Ersan Ilyasova (right) in the 2nd quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Sanders did not play after suffering a hand i
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

First impressions mean everything, and our first impression of Sanders since he signed his fancy new contract is that of an irresponsible miscreant, unworthy of the money he's being handed.

Hours after Milwaukee lost its home opener to the Toronto Raptors, Sanders tore a ligament in his right thumb during a bar fight. Video of the incident was eventually released, showing Sanders throwing bottles into a crowd.

Sanders would require surgery that caused him to miss 25 games, prompting him to apologize, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner:

I want to start by saying I put myself in a bad situation over the weekend. I didn't make the best decisions down the stretch, but I would like to apologize to my fans here and Sen. Kohl, who I will talk to directly. I've talked to the team and apologized to them, just for shedding a negative light on our team and our organization.


For everyone I let down, I'm going to get better, going to be better. I'm going to get better at this, on and off the court. I'm going to come back better. I just thank everyone for their concerns and being patient with me.

Patience is officially wearing thin.

Soon after returning to Milwaukee's lineup, Sanders got into an altercation with teammate Gary Neal.

From Gardner:

The two were arguing after reporters were allowed in the locker room following the Bucks' 116-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night at the US Airways Center.

Reporters were asked by players to leave but the argument continued and Neal left shouting, 'I earned my money. Why don't you try it?'

Sanders earlier could be heard questioning Neal's attitude.

Five games back, and Sanders is already getting into it with teammates. Hardly indicative of a burgeoning professional prepared to take a leap into stardom, wouldn't you say?

Even so, the Bucks remain all-in on Sanders. 

Following his disagreement with Sanders, ESPN's Marc Stein says Neal could be on his way out of Milwaukee:

What choice do the Bucks have? Neal isn't the franchise's "future," nor is Sanders on a movable contract. 

One of Jennings' greatest pratfalls was his inability to connect and lead teammates, to remain a responsible lineup fixture who could lead by example. Less than halfway through a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, it appears Sanders has inherited the inability to put his team before his own selfish inclinations.  

On-Court Nightmare

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 8:  Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks runs out before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at The Quicken Loans Arena on October 8, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

On those rare occasions Sanders has been in the lineup, he hasn't been productive.

In 11 appearances, he's averaging 8.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. According to (subscription required), Milwaukee's offense is also 9.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he's on the floor.

Oh, and there's also the matter of his ejections. He's been ejected once and has fouled out twice. In 11 games. That's more than 25 percent of the time.


Sanders has always had an unhealthy affinity for on-court scuffles. He led the NBA with five ejections last season and, counting ejections and foul-outs, is on pace for more than 15 this year. 

The latest incident came midway through the second quarter of Milwaukee's 101-85 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, when Sanders repeatedly threw an elbow in rookie Steven Adams' direction:

Disgusting. Again.

This isn't Sanders' first or second season—it's his fourth. And he's 25. It's time to grow up and play the right way.

Leaders don't get themselves ejected in the first half. They don't let their tempers flare as often as Sanders. 

They lead. By example.

But Sanders either can't or, worse, he won't.

Piling It On

Sep 30, 2013; St. Francis, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks player Larry Sanders speaks during media day at Milwaukee Bucks Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Their record doesn't show it, but the Bucks weren't supposed to be this bad.

General manager John Hammond pieced together a mediocre outfit just like Milwaukee always does, hoping to parlay hum-drum talent into a seventh- or eighth-seeded playoff berth. But the Bucks have been awful instead.

Really, ridiculously bad.

They rank dead last in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency. Not-so-proud owners of the NBA's worst record, their only saving grace is this summer's draft, when supreme talents like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle should be available.

Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo has been entertaining, and Nate Wolters has had his moments, too. 

Yet, the Bucks have been terrible.

Worst of all is Sanders, and yes, that's saying something.

Calling him a disappointment is putting it lightly. "Failure" is more fitting.

Nov 1, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics center Vitor Faverani (38) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Glaring immaturity prevented him from playing for six weeks. That should've been the end of it—the bar fight. That should have been his wake-up call. His epiphany. 

Sadly, albeit predictably, it wasn't. 

Ejections, altercations, essential temper tantrums—that's Sanders. What he's done this season, on and off the court, is indefensible.

Youth isn't an excuse. Not for incidents like these, boiling down to pure restraint and common sense.

Not when Sanders is proving so detrimental, he overshadows the performance of a completely inept basketball team.

"It's not what we're about at all; it's not who we are," he said in his apology following the bar fight, via Gardner. "It's not what we stand for. I offer my apologies to everyone, especially the fans."

Is he lying, or are we witnessing the painstaking growth of a conflicted prospect not yet ready to do what the Bucks are asking? Is Sanders truly sorry and prepared to repent, and the latest just a brief blip in a protracted quest for redemption, or is he simply full of crap, destined to torment Milwaukee and its fans for the duration of his contract?

We don't know. The Bucks don't know. They thought he was different. They thought Sanders was their future, or a huge part of it at least.

But after what we've seen, what they've seen, you can't help but wonder if the Bucks, desperate for direction, are better off without the player they believed had what they needed.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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