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.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.