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NBA PM: Will Larry Sanders Bounce Back?

After a tumultuous 2013-14 campaign, will Bucks center Larry Sanders bounce back this season? … Andre Drummond may be next cut from Team USA

John Zitzler

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Will Larry Sanders Bounce Back?

Going into the 2012-13 season, Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders was still a bit of a mystery. He had played sparingly in his first two NBA seasons and when he did play, he was inconsistent. Sanders showed flashes of the elite interior defense he would later become known for – in 2010-11 he averaged three blocks per 36 minutes and in 2011-2012 he averaged 4.3 blocks per 36 minutes – but he struggled mightily to stay out of foul trouble and was a bit turnover prone. With his massive wingspan and great timing, it was clear he had the ability to block some shots, but the question remained whether he could develop the rest of his game to allow for him to play big minutes.

He participated in the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League with the Bucks, with the expectation that he would stand out playing against less talented, inexperienced competition. He did not. He played and started in three games and averaged just 6.3 points on 36.4 percent shooting while grabbing 8.3 rebounds per game, again having difficulties staying out of foul trouble. Though he was less than impressive overall, he continued to blocks shots at a striking rate (2.4 rejections per game) despite playing only 25.7 minutes per game. It’s hard to put too much stock into Summer League statistics considering the unstructured style of play and the lack of chemistry among players, but even with that being said his performance was uninspiring.

Sanders began the 2012-13 campaign coming off the bench for the Bucks, but was still playing extended minutes. In those minutes, he was playing some of the best basketball of his career. His most noteworthy performance came in an early season game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. While still coming off the bench, Sanders recorded a triple-double, blocking an astonishing 10 shots, scoring 10 points and adding 12 rebounds. Whatever the reason may be, something appeared to have clicked for Sanders. Shortly after his shot blocking barrage against the Timberwolves, Sanders was inserted into the Bucks’ starting lineup and from there his game took off. He became an absolute force in the paint on the defensive end and was one of the top interior defenders in the league.

In a report released by Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss at the Sloan Sports Analytic conference that looked at interior defense, Sanders proved to be even more valuable than basic statistics would indicate. The report analyzed both shooting efficiency of opponents and shooting frequency of opponents, and according to the study Sanders was the top interior defender in the league in proximal FG% (a measure of how well an opponent shoots when a defender is within five feet of their shot). Opponents’ proximal FG% when Sanders was within five feet was a league best 34.9 percent; for comparison, the league average was 45.6 percent. Sanders became an integral part of the Bucks’ rotation and was arguably the team’s most valuable player that season. He even garnered consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, finishing seventh in the voting and receiving four first-place votes. By all accounts, the Bucks had one the most important and desired pieces in the NBA: a dominant interior defender.

After his incredible season, the Bucks didn’t wait long to offer Sanders a contract extension. In August of 2013, Sanders signed a four-year deal worth $44 million to keep him in Milwaukee through at least 2017-18.

The 2013-14 season figured to be another big year for Sanders, a chance for him to build on his excellent play from the season before. Unfortunately, that would not be the case. Sanders’ season got off to a tumultuous start after he was involved in an altercation in a Milwaukee nightclub. As a result of the altercation, Sanders suffered an injury to his thumb, tearing a ligament. The injury would require surgery and Sanders was sidelined for nearly two months. This was the last thing the Bucks wanted to hear after inking Sanders to a lucrative extension just weeks earlier. To his credit, he took full responsibility and did his best to make amends with the franchise and the city that had fallen in love with him just a season ago.

“I put myself in a bad situation over the weekend,” Sanders said in a statement. “I didn’t make the best decisions down the stretch. I’d like to apologize to our fans here, [Bucks owner Herb] Kohl, who I will talk to directly. I’ve talked to the team and I’ve apologized to them, just for shedding a negative light on our team, on our organization. It’s not what we’re about at all, it’s not who we are, it’s not what we stand for. I offer my apologies to everyone, especially the fans. They put a lot on me and count on me a lot. For everybody I let down, I’m going to get better. I’m going to be better.”

Sanders returned to the Bucks’ lineup on December 27 after missing 25 games. As bad as the start to his season was, Sanders was beginning to find his stride again in early February. Over a five-game span from January 29 through February 5, Sanders averaged 13.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and two blocks, appearing poised to finish the season strong. However, his run of strong play came to an abrupt end on February 6. In the first quarter of a game against the Houston Rockets, Sanders caught an elbow to the face, suffering what was later announced as a fractured orbital bone. The injury would sideline Sanders for the rest of the season as he again needed surgery.

The 2013-14 was a nightmare for both Sanders and the Bucks. Milwaukee finished with a league-worst record of 15-67 and Sanders battled numerous injuries and off the court issues. For Sanders, the 2014-15 season can’t come soon enough. Under new head coach Jason Kidd, he will strive to regain the defensive form that had him mentioned among the league’s best defenders. When he is right, Sanders has the ability to change the game defensively like few others. This will be a critical year for Sanders; he will be under immense pressure to prove the 2012-13 season wasn’t just a flash in the pan and also to justify the big contract he signed, which will kick in next season. If the Bucks want to turn things around, one of the most important steps will be the resurgence of Sanders.

Sanders traveled to Las Vegas and worked out with the Bucks’ Summer League team after being cleared to return to the court. The team’s young players like Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo said that Sanders was extremely helpful in Vegas, offering advice to the young players and spending a ton of time with them.

Sanders should be fully healthy and ready to go by the start of the season. If Sanders can avoid injuries and remain focused, don’t be surprised to see the fiery center once again playing at a high level for Milwaukee.

Drummond Next To Be Cut From Team USA?

Reports have surfaced indicating that Andre Drummond may be one of the final cuts for Team USA as head coach Mike Krzyzewski and chairman Jerry Colangelo continue to trim the national team roster in preparation for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that Drummond is the 15th man on the roster and will likely be cut, according to Perry A. Farrell of the Detroit Free Press.

Team USA took on Brazil in an exhibition game this past Saturday. Brazil boasts one of the stronger frontcourts among FIBA competitors with the likes of Anderson Varejao, Nene and Tiago Splitter down low. That group served as a strong test for Team USA’s frontcourt. Anthony Davis excelled, finishing a number of lobs, running the court and contesting shots around the rim. With Kevin Durant deciding not to participate in the World Cup, Davis may well be the most important player on Team USA’s roster. Davis had some help in the frontcourt from Kenneth Faried, who started alongside him, and from Mason Plumlee, who played 15 minutes off the bench. Andre Drummond, however, was nowhere to be found. He did not playing a single minute in the exhibition game. DeMarcus Cousins, who is also competing for a spot in the frontcourt, missed the Brazil game with a minor knee injury. Despite his absence, he still appears to have the edge over Drummond for one of the final roster spots, assuming he can get back to full strength.

According to Colangelo, final cuts may come sooner than some may have expected. They could happen as early as this Thursday, but nothing is set in stone as of yet.

“We’ve said we wanted to wait through the end of the week in New York before we made cutbacks,” Colangelo told ESPN.com. “But that could still change.”

Colangelo also mentioned the possibility that Team USA may bring 13 players to Spain before making one last cut to bring the roster down to 12. Team USA still has two more exhibition games in New York before heading to Spain for a final exhibition contest against Slovenia. Tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden, Team USA will face the Dominican Republic and on Friday the team will take on Puerto Rico.

“People read into everything,” Krzyzewski told ESPN.com. “That’s part of the world we live in. That’s why we have shows. Because if they weren’t talking about that, no one would be watching. … First of all, you never play 16 guys in a game, so we have to take a look at certain things. In these next two games, we’ll look at more and then hopefully we’ll be down, before we go to Gran Canaria, to about 12.”

Even though reports have indicated Drummond may be cut, the Detroit Pistons center is remaining confident that he’ll make the roster.

“I don’t plan on going home,” Drummond told Pistons.com when asked about the looming roster decision. “I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job here these past couple of weeks really proving I could be a part of this team. We have a lot of great players out here. I’m not going to back down. I know what’s at stake. I want to win a gold medal.”

It sounds like Drummond may get the chance to make one final push for a roster spot over the next two exhibition games. As of now, he looks to be a long shot to make the team but with a strong showing in these games, things could change.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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