Where he’s been: Everywhere but the basketball court, it seems. From bar brawls to broken faces to poorly timed marijuana lobbying, Sanders managed to make waves everywhere except on the basketball court in 2013-14. This after a promising breakout season that showcased him as a defensive game changer and earned him a hefty $44 million contract (that just happens to kick in this year).
To be fair, it was one impressive season; I feel that it’s been overshadowed by the ensuing train wreck. Not only was he on the cusp of averaging a double-double (9.8 pts/9.5 reb), he was, scientifically speaking, the most effective paint defender in the league.
Nonetheless, his recent past continues to hang over him. Sanders at least said things on Media Day to indicate he’s matured:
“Nothing grows without pain; nothing grows without struggle. You just have to pick apart the lessons within the struggle.”
“I wouldn’t take back anything. I’m not a believer in mistakes. I believe in purpose. To say one thing is a mistake is to say the whole system is flawed, and I don’t believe that. I think everything is going to result in good, but everything has a recipe.”
Not to sound toooooo jaded, but, you know…. talk is cheap.
What he does: Well, when he’s on the court, Sanders is positioned to be one of the most dominant shot-blockers in the NBA. In his breakout season he swatted 201 of ’em, good for 2.8 per game. In his career, the Bucks have given up more than five additional points per 100 possessions when he takes a seat (102.4 opponent offensive rating with Sanders on the court vs. 107.7 when he’s off the floor). Playing on teams with a pair of defensively deficient guards (see Jennings, Brandon and Ellis, Monta) left Larry to clean up after his teammates’ messes, and as a result the benefit of his defensive presence was made very clear.
Offensively, he’s almost exclusively a paint player–apart from a few misguided attempts to establish a jumper–and thrives mostly on dunks, putbacks, and lay-ins around the rim. It’s tough to see him ever becoming a dominant source of scoring due to some still-unrefined post moves and absent jump shot, but that doesn’t have to be his game either. If he can maintain his defensive impact while continuing to improve his offensive efficiency and already-good rebounding skills (he’s grabbed 16% of available rebounds in his career and almost 22% of the available defensive boards), Sanders can still reasonably earn the money he’s owed for the next four years.
Where he’s going: He’ll be wearing goggles this season and for the rest of his career. That could be a cool look.
Eyewear aside, of all the Bucks we’ll see this year, Sanders might have the widest range of possible outcomes. There’s every possibility that he can resume his position as a defensive anchor, continue to improve his offensive repertoire, and live up to every cent of the big contract he signed a year ago. He did, after all, end his truncated season last year with a 25/15 game against the Denver Nuggets, demonstrating his potential on both ends of the court when he’s right.
On the other hand, the issues looming over Sanders’ head may follow him too closely to shake. He developed his reputation as a hothead and poor decision maker over multiple years, not just this last one. A spate of technical fouls and dustups proved to be only the precursor to the perfect storm that enveloped him in 2013. As much as he’s saying all the right things thus far, it’ll take far more than words to make everything alright and to restore the goodwill that he lost.
If there’s one encouraging thing we can glean from Sanders’ early work with the new-look Bucks, it’s that his coach has already keyed in on him as a key contributor as a defensive anchor while also indicating that he’ll have more involvement in the team’s offense. As he looks to bounce back from a season’s worth of tribulations, the Bucks will also be watching for their biggest investment to be a cornerstone in the team’s effort to rise back out of the NBA’s cellar.