Did Milwaukee Bucks Make a Mistake with Huge Larry Sanders Contract?

Jordan RodewaldContributor IIJanuary 28, 2014

Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) talks to fans during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Los Angeles. Bucks won the game 94-79. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

After a breakout 2012-13 season, the Milwaukee Bucks inked center Larry Sanders to a four-year, $44 million extension and left some wondering if they had made a mistake by paying him too much, too soon.

So, did they?

Despite a thumb injury and several off-court issues this season, Sanders still has tremendous upside and it's far too early to pass judgment on the decision the team made over the summer.

The 25-year-old big man possesses a great combination of length, athleticism and shot-blocking capabilities and just needs to learn how to harness his emotions and put his skill set together.

But how can he get back on track?

Emotional Control

David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Sanders to overcome is learning how to keep his emotions in check.

After notching 14 technical fouls and five ejections in 2012-13 (per ESPN.com), it was imperative for Sanders to enter this season with a new and improved attitude.

However, almost immediately he showed he still has plenty of maturing left to do.

As Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported back in November, Sanders got involved in an early morning brawl at a local night club:

TMJ4 cited police sources saying Sanders was involved in a bar fight at Apartment 720 in downtown Milwaukee. The report said Sanders allegedly broke champagne bottles over one man's head in the night club's VIP room and punched another man in the face.

After that incident, Sanders missed more than a month of games because of a thumb injury.

Making matters worse, according to Gardner, Sanders and teammate Gary Neal got into a verbal argument after the team's game against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 4:

And when it was over, Bucks teammates Larry Sanders and Gary Neal got into a heated argument in the locker room.

Neal was yelling loudly as he exited the locker room and Sanders would not comment on the argument as he exited. Earlier Bucks strength and conditioning coach Robert Hackett stepped between the two players to try to keep the situation from escalating.

Sanders was heard questioning Neal's attitude. As Neal exited a few minutes later he yelled back, "I earned my money. Why don't you try it?"

Clearly, Sanders is headed in the wrong direction.

A certain level of passion is great and can contribute to a team's success. But the moment that passion becomes a detriment, it can destroy chemistry.

As soon as Sanders can realize that, he can turn his attention towards his play and worry less about how the game's mental aspect is influencing his production and the team's success.

However, that's probably easier said than done.

Developing a Post Game

Morry Gash/Associated Press/Associated Press

Aside from revamping his attitude, in order for Larry Sanders to become successful he'll need to develop an offensive arsenal in the post.

As it stands, he's extremely raw on that end of the floor and provides little value in terms of scoring in the half-court offense.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), 43.5 percent of Sanders' offensive plays come from cuts or offensive rebounds.

For someone with his size, length and athleticism that's not ideal.

That becomes especially true when looking at his numbers out of the pick-and-roll.

In those sets—which account for 17.0 percent of his offensive plays—Sanders is scoring 1.12 points per play and scoring 60.0 percent of the time. 

Judging from those numbers, the Bucks aren't running enough pick-and-rolls.

Aside from the team not playing more to his strengths, though, Sanders hasn't helped himself much in the post.

In fact, he posts up just 15.6 percent of the time and the team scores on just 17.4 percent of those plays.

Seeing as though Sanders isn't a hybrid big man who is capable of consistently knocking down mid-range jump shots, both of those numbers should be much higher.

Through his first three seasons, Sanders has learned how to use his length to his advantage on the defensive end. Now, he just needs to develop a few solid moves and learn how to use that 7'5" (per DraftExpress.com) wingspan to his advantage in the post. 

If he can, his value on the offensive end will increase significantly.

Continuing to Be a Defensive Force

While keeping his temper in check and developing anything resembling an offensive game will propel him to another level, Sanders can still provide plenty of value if he continues to be a pest defensively.

In 2012-13 he was the league's most intimidating shot-blocker and averaged 2.8 blocks.

This year, in roughly three fewer minutes per game, he's averaging 1.8 blocks and hasn't quite been the same—though that's not a number to scoff at.

Part of the decrease can be attributed to the fact he missed more than a month of action.

However, a good portion of it can be blamed on Sanders' inability to stay out of foul trouble.

In just 24.8 minutes per game, he's averaging 3.3 fouls, and a lot of them are due to him being late on rotations or swiping at slashers without regard.

There's no question he has great shot-blocking instincts. However, sometimes a player must know when to restrain and simply play good defense by contesting the shot as best as possible without committing a foul.

Instinct is great to have, but Sanders now needs to prove he can do some of the smaller things.

By listening to the coaches and working on things like rotations and positioning, he can begin avoid foul trouble and become an even better defender.

Sticking with the defensive trend, Sanders needs to begin rebounding more efficiently.

A season ago he averaged 9.5 rebounds—6.3 of them defensively—and so far in 2013-14 has seen those numbers drop to 6.4 and 4.2 respectively.

Again, much of these dips in stats can be attributed—at least somewhat—to him missing significant time and likely falling a bit out of shape.

However, with 17 games under his belt, that excuse continues to lose its credibility.

The most important thing, though, is that by bolstering his defense, Sanders will mask some of his other deficiencies for the time being. 

Summing It Up

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 18:  Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to a play against the Houston Rockets on January 18, 2014 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or us
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Answering the question posed in the headline is easy when briefly glancing at Sanders' 2013-14 stats.

Ultimately, though, it's still far too early to determine whether the Bucks made the mistake of signing him to a big extension.

At this point, a simple yes or no answer doesn't suffice.

His numbers up until now speak towards an emphatic yes. On the contrary, his raw ability on defense and potential to be molded into a solid offensive presence point towards a no.

It's only been half a season since he signed that massive extension.

Sure, the night club incident is a concern and his play has been less than stellar.

But before proclaiming the decision a major disaster, let's at least be fair and give him an entire season before jumping to a conclusion.

Because if he can follow the aforementioned steps, he'll be just fine.

* All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference (unless otherwise noted) and current through Jan. 27. * 


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