The struggle at the hoop is real for Larry Sanders

Honestly, there was no need to worry. There was only about a 50/50 chance he was going to make that shot anyway. Heyyoooo.

But really, that’s the problem with Larry Sanders right now, and his biggest problem is a problem for a team that could be counting on his development going forward.

There are a handful of youngish players on the Milwaukee Bucks. To varying degrees, the development of these players is crucial to the success of the Milwaukee Bucks in the coming years. Regardless of how well the likes of Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless and Zaza Pachulia play over the next few months, they won’t be the players that decide if the Bucks will be prosperous or poor when the team rolls the ball out for the first time in the yet to be located, yet to be financed, yet to be named new Milwaukee Arena.

If we’re ruling those guys out as potential contributors, it’s at least fair to wonder about guys like Sanders and Brandon Knight and just how attached to their respective futures the Bucks are. Maybe a lot, maybe not at all. It’s not hard to imagine either of them playing with a different team as early as next season.

But for now, let’s assume the $33 million owed to Larry Sanders after this season will be paid by the Bucks. If that’s the case, how can he start to show more return on investment?

It’s difficult to judge whether or not Sanders is having a “down” year right now. His PER is a league average 15. He’s only playing 21 minutes a night, but still averaging 7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. All of these numbers are down – per game and per 36 minutes – from his breakout seasons in 2012-13, but they’re at least comparable to slightly better than his numbers from last season. And while he’s still a difference maker defensively, he hardly seems like the barrier he proved to be for opponents two season ago.

Among regulars who are defending at least five shots per game at the rim, he’s 11th in defensive field goal percentage, allowing opponents to shoot 45.8%. Despite last year’s mess of a season, Sanders finished second in defensive field goal percentage with the same variables applied, allowing opponents to shoot just 41.5% at the rim. Among those who qualify for the blocks per game leaderboard this season, Sanders ranks 16th in defensive rating, helping to limit opponents to 100 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the court. Last season, one that seems more and more to have been without much of a defensive strategy, his defensive rating was 107.

So he’s probably fallen off a bit from his peak in 2012-13 as a defender, but he’s still definitely a plus there. If he can maintain this level of defense over the next three seasons, it’d be difficult to complain about that.

But it’s easy to complain about Sanders on the other side of the ball.

Among the 48 players who attempt at least five shots within five feet per game, Sanders ranks 37th in field goal percentage, converting on just 56% of his shots. Why so low? The best explanation is simply that Sanders can’t finish in traffic. Let’s compare Sanders numbers when he’s closely guarded this season to some of his athletic, shot-blocking, finishing big man brethren. I’ve pulled numbers for Sanders, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, three other bigs with comparable money and general skillsets:

Larry Sanders FGM FGA FG%
0-2 Feet – Very Tight 0.9 2.2 40.7%
2-4 Feet – Tight 1.7 3.1 54.1%
Tyson Chandler
0-2 Feet – Very Tight 1.1 1.9 59.3%
2-4 Feet – Tight 1.9 2.5 73.4%
DeAndre Jordan
0-2 Feet – Very Tight 0.9 1.7 51.9%
2-4 Feet – Tight 2.1 2.8 73.9%
Andre Drummond
0-2 Feet – Very Tight 2.1 4.5 47.1%
2-4 Feet – Tight 2.7 5.4 50.3%

Each of these players shoots the vast majority of his shots within five feet of the hoop and typically each player is well guarded when he’s trying to finish whether he’s fighting off defenders as he’s trying to putback an offensive rebound or trying to loft in something inside the charge circle. Basically if someone’s right up on any of these guys, it’s a 50-50 chance – a little better in Chandler’s case – that he’ll finish.

But when they have some space, Chandler and Jordan are almost automatic, hitting roughly 75% of shots when defenders are not within two feet. Sanders and Drummond are still working to master the open finish, though Drummond’s numbers indicate he’s getting more looks than just putbacks.

Sanders was even worse with defenders “very tight” on him last season, making just 34% of his shots. So at least he’s showing progress? But right now, it isn’t enough. He’s just getting putbacks and rim runs and he isn’t finishing anywhere near enough of them to be a contributor, even at the most basic level, on offense. Zaza Pachulia isn’t a great finisher either (51.5% and 41.3% respectively), but his ability to catch the ball at the elbow, occasionally make a shot and direct the offense with his passing a little bit, makes him threatening and a positive contributor.

So the next step for Sanders is a pretty basic one: Finish at the rim. Finish when defenders are around, finish when they aren’t around, just find a way to put the ball through the basket with more frequency when you catch the ball within five feet. Until he’s capable of doing so, the comparisons to the Chandlers and the Drummonds of the world are unwarranted and the promise he showed in 2012-13 will go unfulfilled.

(All shot data from

Categories: Stats and Stuff

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  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been wondering lately if our need for a center is beginning to outweigh our need for a PG. Debate!

    Also, it’s amazing how much data and analytics have developed in the NBA.

  2. Still hoping for big things from Larry, who seems to have the skills to be really good on offense, to go along with great defense.

    I hope the Bucks management helps him to get checked out for ADD or any other condition he might have — excuse me for playing amateur doctor — because he seems so out of control with his emotions out on the court. It’s kind of painful to watch, for Larry’s sake, as well as the frustration for us fans.

    It’s remarkable how little Larry has really played this season due to foul trouble; plus, I’m guessing that his emotions oftentimes hinder his play when he is on the court. One thing I hope he learns is that he doesn’t have to block every shot, and that he has to pick his spots for block attempts, and that he can effectively disrupt shots just by showing the threat of a block when he jumps in the air without needing to take a full swat at the ball.

    Larry seems to be a genuinely likeable guy with a good heart, to go with an immense amount of talent for basketball. It would be very sad if he doesn’t realize his potential, and yet I don’t know how much longer things can go on the way they are now. I truly pray that he will somehow get it together, and that he’ll get any help he may need.

    • Talent?? He has stone hands, he cant catch the ball and finish!! What are you watching? He has missed the last 3 games with the flu? Missed games because of a suspension, missed games because he is always hurt with something, and then misses games because he is a jack wagon getting into fights in night clubs and hurting himself. Not a good example for the young players, get rid of him for a gallon of Gatorade.