Larry Sanders contract extension talk: Addressing the biggest questions for the Bucks

Jonathan Daniel

The Milwaukee Bucks are discussing a lucrative contract extension with big man Larry Sanders. We address the biggest questions surrounding the deal.

Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond entered free agency with the goal maintaining financial flexibility, but the difference between building a winner and assembling eighth seed fodder in the NBA comes down to finding ways to effectively use room under salary cap after it is created. As the Bucks and Larry Sanders converge on a lucrative contract extension reportedly worth $10-plus million annually, the tone for an otherwise understated offseason has changed in an important way.

Dismantling the roster in the wake of a forgettable 38-44 campaign and rejecting a potential core of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick was a good start, but the sheepish reintroduction of Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour and Zaza Pachulia, coupled with the additions of O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight and Gary Neal, represents more of a philosophical step forward than a talent upgrade for the franchise. Drifting away from a short-sighted approach is a relatively easy step to take. Securing a foothold to actually climb the NBA ladder is the hard part. The mission is far from accomplished, but at least it doesn't feel impossible any more.

If the Bucks can lock Sanders into a long-term extension, elements of an actual plan (gasp!) may begin to materialize. Like the spokes on a bike wheel, the Bucks-related rumors and transactions from the past six months have lashed out in every possible direction, only to leave us spinning in circles.

They're not tanking. They're going for it. They're stealth tanking. They're rebuilding. They're accidentally tanking. No, wait, they're actually just doing and saying everything at once to make sure we can't articulate their plan or evaluate them on any stated goals. Here's some of John Hammond's PR gobbledegook from the press conference where the team introduced Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton:

"We are by no means in [tanking] mode whatsoever. We're trying to remain competitive, we want to be a competitive team, and I think we can be a competitive team. Also, we really want to start focusing on the youth of this team and start talking about things like a championship caliber team and building around the young players that we have on this team and can they develop into a core like that."

Focus on a building a championship-caliber team without landing a top-5 pick? Turn the team over to a core of late lottery picks and players that middling franchises like the Pistons and Mavericks tossed aside during the offseason? Teams that literally replaced those guys with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, and sound confident they've upgraded their respective backcourts? I get that the Bucks have regained their appreciation for asset accumulation, but good intentions merely get them pointed in the right direction again (for the first time in forever). We're still waiting for them to take baby steps on a long and difficult journey to the top.

The quote posted above includes enough buzz words to mean whatever your heart desires, which is probably the point. Putting the cheap talk aside, it's nice to see the Bucks get down to business on negotiating with their best young player.

Small market teams can't attract superstar players on second and third contracts, so they are forced to take leaps of faith on imperfect prospects with additional upside. John Hammond is prepared to sacrifice some of the team's financial flexibility, Larry Sanders is primed to become a core player in Milwaukee and now several key questions face the team. I sat down with Frank Madden to discuss the following issues in our latest podcast episode:

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(1) What are the risks and benefits of an early extension?

Sanders will likely never be an impact player on offense as a shooter or a passer -- he's a 29.4 percent shooter beyond eight feet for his NBA career, and he's collected more turnovers (168) than assists (132) -- but this contract isn't a bet on Larry becoming a scorer. The center position isn't an offensive hot spot in the modern NBA, but teams need their big men to protect the rim and anchor a defense. That's how nearly all of the best teams in the association have sustained their success. Sanders passes the eye test and the advanced stats test as a premium defender, as I recently noted in a post about the pending extension:

Sanders is coming off an excellent 2012-13 season. He posted career highs in points (9.8), rebounds (9.5), blocks (2.8) and minutes (27.3) per contest, and a career low in personal fouls per 36 minutes (4.3). More importantly, he emerged as a defensive star. Sanders finished second in the NBA in blocks per game and seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He also became a household name when Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss named hima dominant interior defender in a study on defensive value presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He transformed the Bucks into a top defensive unit when he was on the floor last season, as he recorded at least one block in 40-straight games and became the first Bucks player since Elmore Smith in 1975-76 to swat 200-plus shots in a season.

By locking Larry in with an early extension (that doesn't kick in until the 2014-15 season, by the way), the Bucks become more marketable to a wide range of fans. Casual followers love the blocks and the passion Sanders provides, while hardcore fans understand his the depth of his defensive impact and get to breathe in his thoughtful quotes throughout the year. It's a good situation, even if fouls are still a bit of an issue.

Opposing teams have taken notice of Sanders' impact in the paint, and late last season they made serious efforts to pull him away from the paint. After posting excellent numbers as a defender on spot-up opportunities for two seasons, Sanders' personal defensive numbers as a defender of jump shots suffered as teams implemented a new strategy last season.

Teams opted to go small against Larry and use a stretch big to pull him away from the rim, spotting up guys like Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Al Horford, David Lee, Taj Gibson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Luis Scola, David West, etc. Opponents recognized that they couldn't beat Larry at the rim -- the Bucks allowed the fifth-lowest FG% inside five feet in the NBA last season -- so they used a big man to pull him away from the paint by anchoring him in the 20-foot range as a spot-up shooter.

A look at the film revealed a common trend: teams attacked Jennings/Ellis on the strong side of the play with a pick-and-roll while Sanders marked his man on the weak side of the play. As the guards penetrated into the paint, Larry properly slid into help position to cut off the drive, but had to leave his man open for a long jumper in the process. The guard kicked the ball out to the perimeter and that's how the spot-up jumpers occurred. Here's a look at the trend using stats from MySynergySports.com:

Spot-up FGs Spot-up PPP allowed Rank
2010-11 20-61 (32.8%) 0.7 6
2011-12 10-40 (25%) 0.57 4
2012-13 69-149 (47.9%) 1.1 319

With Ellis and Jennings gone, things should improve in that area pretty quickly. It's important to remember that spot-up shots are created by breakdowns in other spots on the defense, so better perimeter defense will help blunt the angles of penetrations for guards and give Sanders more time to recover. With two top-10 finishes as a spot-up defender, we know Larry can stifle jumpers if he can get close enough to contest.

It will also be important for Larry Drew to manage lineups well and punish teams for going small to combat Larry's impact. Perhaps that's why Hammond added Pachulia and Miroslav Raduljica to the mix this summer. If the rest of the defense improves around Sanders this year, the Bucks may be in for a very successful season on that end of the floor.

(2) How much will Sanders get paid, and how much he is worth?

Frank analyzed the market for big man and set a reasonable number in his recent post, and we built our podcast discussion around the wisdom from that post:

I'll peg the over/under on his extension at $12 million per year. That's not cheap, but unfortunately premium interior defenders don't come cheap. Up-and-coming young centers have made a habit of nabbing at least $10 million per season in recent years:

Value-wise, Sanders would seem to slot in above the McGee/Jordan cluster (more consistent and better defensively) but below the Gasol/Hibbert grouping (who bring much more to the table offensively). Ibaka is certainly more talented offensively, but slightly less capable defensively (and more of a PF at that) and thus he seems like the most likely comparable in terms of contract-size.

(3) Do John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova fit next to Sanders going forward?

This is the biggest question for the Bucks, and the decision is more difficult than you think. Ilyasova is a shooter who can stretch the floor and score efficiently, and Sanders can effectively cover up his defensive issues in most lineups. That pairing figures to be the centerpiece of the Bucks' starting lineup next season, and it's a good fit that should enhance the value of both players.

Trying to connect Sanders and Henson is bit like trying to jam puzzle pieces from different boxes together. As noted above, Sanders can't shoot from the perimeter and he isn't a reliable passer. Here's the dirty little secret from Henson's college career and early NBA adventure: he struggles with the same issues. Because I know this is a slightly controversial stance, let's take a closer look at the evidence...

Henson has never been an efficient scorer. He played for ultra-talented teams with multiple NBA prospects at North Carolina and functioned as a second or third option on offense (which is similar to his projected role in the NBA), but his offensive numbers weren't inspiring.

In 2010-11, Henson shot 27% on jump shots and posted a ghastly 46.2% TS mark -- worst among the top-six players for FGA on the Tar Heels, according to hoop-math.com. The following year he shot 38% on jumpers and raised his TS% to 50.7 -- worst among the top-give players for FGA on the team. Note that the NBA average on jump shots from last season was 39.3%, and the TS average was 53.5%. Henson's college numbers are in Brandon Jennings territory. Combine that with three straight years hovering around 50% for free throw shooting, and it's easy to see why he slipped outside the lottery in the draft.

In his rookie season, things didn't get any better. In fact, they got worse. Henson converted on just 18 of his 81 jumpers outside of eight feet (22.2%) and finished with a TS% of 49.7 -- worse than every regular player on the Bucks except Monta Ellis, Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels. If we drill down even farther, it gets even messier. Henson only shot 41-140 (29.2%) outside of the charge circle, including a terrible 25-70 mark in the paint but beyond the restricted area. For all of his pretty post moves, Henson ranked 142nd in post efficiency last year by converting 23 of 63 attempts (36.5%, 0.68 ppp), according to the Synergy numbers.

Henson has room for improvement and time to made adjustments, but his track record as a shooter (and scorer) is spotty enough to raise some red flags. It's the same question I asked with Brandon Jennings: how often do players drastically improve their shooting ability? Jennings has the natural efficiency of the three-point shot to give him hope. Henson does not. And because post play isn't particularly efficient as a play time, it's not like we can expect that area of his game to boost his efficiency.

Can the Bucks really risk building around a potential offensive wasteland of Sanders, Henson and Antetokounmpo? Maybe Henson can smash his statistical track record and become an offensive weapon, but if he doesn't the Bucks could be facing some serious floor spacing issues.

For now they can keep Ilyasova and Henson to pair with Sanders, but they will eventually have to make a choice. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops next year.

(4) What constitutes the core of the current team?

It's a more interesting question than you think. Refer to (3).

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