Wait, you thought the Bucks' big man rotation was actually getting healthy?
Coinciding almost perfectly with the return of Larry Sanders from an 8-week layoff, John Henson has missed two of the Bucks' previous four games with a nagging ankle injury first sustained December 20 in Cleveland...and now he's due to miss at least three more.
Henson will not accompany the team on the upcoming 3-gm trip (sprained left ankle). He will be re-evaluated when the team returns next week.— Bucks PR (@BucksPR) December 30, 2013
Henson's absence means Sanders will start against the Lakers, Jazz and Suns, though what happens thereafter is anyone's guess. Much to the chagrin of most fans, Larry Drew has thus far been loathe to experiment with Sanders and Henson playing together, though injuries have limited their opportunities as well. The early season big rotation was supposed to be Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova starting together with Henson and Zaza Pachulia forming the second unit, but injuries to Ilyasova, Sanders and Pachulia had forced Henson into the starting center role for the past month.
And while few would have expected Sanders to relinquish his starting spot coming into the season, Henson has been so good that it would seem both unfair and unwise to drop him from the starting five once he is healthy. While Sanders has battled a seemingly endless loop of injury, ineffectiveness and off-court distraction since signing his $44 million extension, Henson has simply taken care of business, posting averages of 15.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 2.3 bpg through 12 games in December. Sanders' first two games since returning have offered hints of the old Larry, but from a production standpoint there's no one on the Bucks right now that can touch Henson.
The obvious solution would be starting the two of them together, especially in light of the continued struggles of Ersan Ilyasova. After connecting on 45% of his three point attempts over the previous two seasons, Ilyasova has struggled through his own nagging ankle injury and shown only occasional flashes of the inside-out game that helped him claim $32 million in guaranteed money back in the summer of 2012. He's looked a bit more active since returning from a week's rest on Friday in Brooklyn, but 4/21 shooting over the past two games has only further dropped his seasonal shooting splits to an Ish Smithian 36% overall and 18% from three.
That leaves Drew in something of a pickle. Whether a Sanders/Henson pairing can work has been much debated, but so far it's mostly been an abstract question rather than something we can empirically test. After sharing the court for just over 100 minutes last season, Henson and Sanders have been active in the same game only four times this season while being on the court together for just two minutes total (but hey, the Bucks did outscore opponents 7-6).
Spacing issues be damned, it's difficult to imagine a Sanders/Henson combo being worse than pairing either with an ineffective Ilyasova, but the tough part is that Drew almost has to keep giving Ilyasova big minutes for now. Ersan's confidence is notoriously touch-and-go, and as un-meritocratic as it might seem, Drew seems intent on trying to get him on track with continued opportunities rather than tough love. The Bucks' lack of depth is also an obvious factor--even putting aside Henson's injury, Milwaukee just doesn't have many "true" power forward options other than Ilyasova.
Either way, Henson's injury means the Bucks' theoretical log jam up front will remain theoretical for at least another three games. Thereafter Drew will have real decisions to make, though at this point the easiest one would seemingly also be the one most of us feel is inevitable: let Ilyasova try to work out his problems with the second unit while finally giving the Sanders/Henson combo an extended look as part of the starting five.