Milwaukee Bucks Can No Longer Rely on Larry Sanders as a Building Block

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIApril 4, 2014

Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders looks on against the Denver Nuggets in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Denver on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski

The Milwaukee Bucks' 2013-14 campaign has been utterly abysmal, and while the blame for a league-worst 14-61 record can’t be pinned on one man, Larry Sanders has continued to prove that he can’t be relied upon as a franchise centerpiece.

According to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowksi, the embattled center has been hit with a five-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.

Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing a statement from Sanders, clarified the reasoning for his suspension and explained that the five-game ban will likely occur in 2014-15.

Sanders signed a four-year, $44 million contract extension in August after a breakout 2012-13 campaign. Bucks' general manager John Hammond said at the time, “Larry has developed into one of the top young defensive players in the league. He is a very important part of what we are doing in Milwaukee.”

As they say, what a difference a year—or, in this case, eight months—makes.

Instead of showing continued success after signing the hefty new contract, Sanders has played just 23 games due to various injuries and has seen his statistics dip nearly across the board. That has effectively left Milwaukee searching for a new blueprint.

The Breakout Year

While Hammond shouldn’t receive much credit as the Bucks GM after signing O.J. Mayo (three years, $24 million) and Zaza Pachulia (three years, $16 million) among others last offseason, he was spot on with his comment that Sanders had “developed into one of the top young defensive players in the league.”

The former VCU Ram averaged 2.8 blocks per game—second in the Association behind Oklahoma City Thunder big man Serge Ibaka—to accompany career highs of 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 50.6 percent shooting from the field.

His tremendous interior defense even managed to highlight an MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference paper by Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss.

According to the paper, Sanders led the league with a proximal field-goal percentage—opponent’s field-goal percentage when the defender is within five feet of the shot attempt—of 34.9 percent.

His length and athletic ability allowed him to not only swat 2.8 shot attempts per game but also alter a plethora of other looks. His presence around the rim gave opposing players nightmares.

His upstart performance warranted a long-term extension, but he hasn’t been able to live up to the hype due to a collection of off-court incidents.

The Downward Spiral

David J. Phillip

Before Sanders’ new season could even get off the ground post-contract extension, he put himself in a compromising position.

His involvements in a bar fight after just three regular-season games resulted in surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament—which kept him out for more than a month.

He returned to action on Dec. 27 against the Brooklyn Nets, recording 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in the 104-93 road loss, but solid performances were few and far between.

He then underwent surgery to repair fractures to his right orbital bone in February, which he sustained against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 8, per He hasn’t been back in the rotation since—missing 25 straight games.

The five-game drug suspension is essentially the exclamation point on a lost season for Sanders. He was meant to move forward as the team’s up-and-coming leader and alpha dog, but injuries and off-court incidents have derailed his promising career.

This isn’t to say he’ll never return to form as a viable NBA talent, but he clearly has some maturity issues he needs to address moving forward.

He’s still just 25 years old, but the Bucks organization needs to focus its attention on new franchise building blocks in the wake of his off-court distractions.

Who’s the Future?

Whether or not Sanders returns to form as a dominant interior force in the NBA is up for debate, but at least the Bucks have viable young talent to stem the bleeding.

For instance, John Henson—the 14th overall pick in the 2012 draft—has shown great strides as a sophomore.

Tom Lynn

The North Carolina product is averaging career highs in points (10.9), rebounds (7.2), blocks (1.7) assists (1.5), steals (0.5) and field-goal percentage (53 percent). He’s posting those impressive numbers, despite the fact that he’s receiving just 26.4 minutes per contest and has started only 23 of 63 games.

Henson uses his length to his advantage when blocking shots and snatching rebounds, but he’s still just scratching the surface in terms of overall potential.

Speaking of potential, rookie swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo has already shown flashes of becoming a special player.

B/R’s Adam Fromal broke down the budding talent that is “The Greek Freak” in a February column and wrote:

Ridiculous athletic tools, great instincts, a love for the game, flashes of offensive prowess in multiple areas and a great set of defensive assets?

Yes please. The Bucks are lucky to have such a talent on the roster and under a rookie-scale deal for the next few seasons.

While the 19-year-old is averaging just seven points and 4.4 rebounds per game, he’s also shooting a respectable 33.6 percent from beyond the arc—a remarkable stat for a player so young and raw. It takes many NBA players years to develop confidence in their outside shot. Antetokounmpo has already displayed a sweet stroke that will only improve with more practice.

Of course, that fails to mention the Bucks' eventual lottery pick in 2014—when Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker could be on the board for the taking.

Sanders’ complete letdown of a campaign undoubtedly has Bucks fans shaking their heads. He was breaking out as a solid two-way talent with elite defensive skills and an improving offensive repertoire, but his professional career is at a crossroads.

Hopefully the big man can get his NBA lifestyle back on track, but Milwaukee can at least take solace in having promising young players on the rise.


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