NBA

NBA PM: Will Larry Sanders Bounce Back?

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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.

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About John Zitzler

John Zitzler

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.