Despite a fun campaign worthy of his very strong season, Larry Sanders was not voted the NBA’s Most Improved player for the 2012-13 season. He lost out on one of the two awards many were pushing for him to get serious consideration for to another member of his draft class, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George. Sanders finished third in the voting behind George and New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez. Sanders received 10 first place votes.
Sanders improved dramatically from his second season in the lockout shortened 2011-12 season to this past one. He saw his points per game average improved from 3.6 to 9.8, rebounds per game from 3.1 to 9.5 and blocks per game from 1.5 to 2.8.
The increases owe largely to Sanders’ sheer improved ability to stay on the court. How did he manage so much more court time? Two things stood out.
1. Sanders stopped fouling everyone ever
Per 36 minutes in 2011-12, Sanders averaged 7.4 fouls. He could have fouled out and then some on a nightly basis if the Bucks would have let him. He was often out of position and far too aggressive in making up for it. Sanders fouls knew no bounds – he slapped at guards on the perimeter, ran into big men inside and hacked everyone else in between.
Things seemed to bottom out when Sanders found himself fouling out of summer league games that allowed for 10 fouls against players with significantly less if any NBA experience.
Yet by the time training camp and pre-season rolled around, Sanders was a changed man. A man in much more control of himself on the court. Not necessarily his emotions, but certainly of his body and the speed at which it moved. Once Sanders corralled his immense physical gifts, he was able to improve dramatically at avoiding fouls, silly and otherwise.
2. Sanders played significantly better
Simple enough: Milwaukee couldn’t afford to take Larry Sanders off the court very often this season. He became one of the league’s finest defenders, was a monster rebounder and one of Milwaukee’s most consistent finishers at the rim, once he figured out that sprinting to the rim was a much better offensive strategy than hanging back and waiting to launch jumpers.
The simplest way to explain his impact is using his on court / off court splits. With Sanders on the court, a decidedly mediocre Bucks team averaged 104 points per 100 possessions and allowed 103 points per 100 possessions. With him off it? 105 and 109.2. He was a net positive of 5.1 points per 100 possessions for the Bucks. He turned a bad team into a mediocre one for 27.3 minutes per night, pretty much every night.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for him to win Most Improved player. George went from reliable starter for the Pacers to full fledged All-Star and the team’s cornerstone. He followed up a terrific regular season with a triple double in Indiana’s game one throttling of the Hawks.
Sanders will just have to settle for being very improved, very important and very much a bright spot in the otherwise cloudy future of the Bucks.