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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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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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