Larry Sanders' Road to Redemption Critical to Milwaukee Bucks' Turnaround

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor ISeptember 12, 2014

Feb 8, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives for the basket against Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders (8) in the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

For Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders, his ascension among the NBA's best centers and defensive players came as rapidly as his fall from grace last season.

After locking into a four-year extension worth $44 million following a brilliant breakout season in 2012-13, Sanders probably had the worst year he was capable of having.

While we've seen players struggle to perform in "contract years," there was so much more that went into last year's troubles for Sanders.

Ben Leibowitz of Bleacher Report breaks it all down:

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 then underwent surgery to repair fractures to his right orbital bone in February, which he sustained against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 8, per NBA.com. 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.

Instead of expanding on his skills and continuing to be a strong defensive presence in the middle for the Bucks, Sanders raised questions about whether he has a place in Milwaukee's future at all. Can he be depended on? What kind of impact will he have on his teammates?

MEMPHIS, TN - FEBRUARY 1: Ersan Ilyasova #7 and Larry Sanders #8 of the Milwaukee Bucks rebound  against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 1, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Now on a big contract, Sanders wouldn't be nearly as easy to move in a trade as before if Milwaukee decided that he was no longer providing a positive impact.

While there will likely always be someone willing to buy low on a game-changing talent like Sanders, the Bucks are sort of tied to him at this point until his stock can improve.

Here's what Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times wrote earlier this offseason:

Still another Bucks player who could be wearing a new uniform next season is beleaguered center Larry Sanders, who has been saddled by a spate of off-court issues.

Sanders will be entering the first of a fully-guaranteed four-year, $44 million contract next season, making him virtually untradeable.

However, some team may be enticed to take on Sanders’ issues and hefty contract if perhaps Ilyasova, Henson or Knight was part of a trade package.

Obviously, it's probably not worth it at this stage of Milwaukee's rebuilding process to forfeit an asset and just dump Sanders. Unless he's truly damaging everything on the court and in the locker room, the Bucks would be better off stomaching his presence until a better offer comes in.

With that said, the fresh start this year could do both sides a lot of good.

Milwaukee is turning the page as a franchise with new owners and a new head coach in Jason Kidd, so Sanders will be given every opportunity to get back on track.

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 2:  The Milwaukee Bucks introduce Jason Kidd as the new head coach during a press conference at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on July 2, 2014  in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Here's what Bucks assistant general manager David Morway told HoopsHype about Sanders' outlook going forward:

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Larry is in our future plans. We are hopeful that this year Larry gets back to being the basketball player that he was two years ago. He is a defensive presence and a game changer on the court. So when you have his length along with Giannis, Jabari Parker, John Henson and then Zaza Pachulia, Damien Inglis, who is very long, and if you play Khris Middleton at the two... We are a fairly long team.

The Bucks are wise to keep other frontcourt optionslike John Henson—on the roster, as relying on Sanders for a full slate of productive games might be a little tough to do at this point.

Again, though, for Milwaukee to turn things around and get back in the playoff hunt, it'll need Sanders at his best. 

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

Here's what Sanders told Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year:

It's been two opposite sides of the spectrum in a lot of ways. Two extremes. A consistent season would be great. I'll be better from this. I've learned a lot already from this year. I'm going to continue to learn. I hate that this is a negative impact on my fans and my family or the organization.

At least in some ways, it's good that the bar is so low right now. Sanders just needs to stay out of trouble and stay on the court, which shouldn't be too much to ask.

Once he's there, his incredible length and shot-blocking abilities should take care of the resteven if we don't see him play at his 2012-13 level quite yet.

It's important for the development of the entire Bucks team to have Sanders playing well.

Jabari Parker needs his rim protection to cover up for his defensive faults, and such a young team needs to establish an identity early on. With Sanders and all that length elsewhere, it can revolve around defense, so long as there's consistency. That's the big question right now.

For the Bucks to eventually turn it around and complete their rebuilding process, a lot of it starts with the man in the middle of it all.

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