The Milwaukee Bucks claimed their ninth win of the season in thrilling fashion on Monday, taking down the New York Knicks thanks to Brandon Knight's clutch three-pointer with just seconds remaining. It was perhaps the highlight of the season for Bucks fans and maybe even the organization itself. Piling up losses should pay major dividends in the near future, but losing is never fun, and for one night it was nice to see a home crowd energized and enthusiastic.
But now we must snap back to reality, as must the Bucks, who will go on the road hoping to avoid a 10th-straight loss away from home tonight when they face the Denver Nuggets. Even as they prepare for the game, the rumors have begun to swirl as the trade deadline approaches. Two weeks can disappear before you know it, and the present eerie calm could be split at any moment.
ESPN NBA Insider Chad Ford predicts an "epic trade deadline" | TrueHoop TV
Nobody is quite sure what to expect from the trade deadline this season, but ESPN's Chad Ford, speaking with Henry Abbott, says that the huge gap in talent between contending and rebuilding teams could facilitate significantly more player movement than usual. With so many bad teams trying to ship out even their productive players, many contenders will have multiple options to add impact pieces in an effort to bolster their title chances.
One such impact piece Ford calls out specifically is Bucks center Larry Sanders. Ford has been pushing rumors of a Sanders trade for weeks now. He maintains that the organization has soured on Sanders due to his off-court troubles earlier this season and would gladly move him if a satisfactory offer came along. Whether that's his own opinion or one gleaned from the minds of his "sources" is unclear, but he does make a valid point:
...and I think that's what, that to me is glaring, if [Sanders] had been available on the free-agent market, [teams] would have had a lot of interest in him had he been an unrestricted free agent. He's not so far removed from that, I still think there's going to be teams that are going to show interest in Sanders as we get closer to the trade deadline.
It's still pure speculation at this point, but most of the Sanders trade talk has been centered around the Bucks looking to get rid of him, rather than considering other teams that might want him. That's colored by Bucks fans' overexposure to Sanders' rough first few games and subsequent nightclub incident, which had many thinking Sanders was another contract-year bust that nobody in his or her right mind would want on a roster. But if other teams are convinced he can once again be the highly effective defender he was last season (his recent improvements make this easier to believe), there will no doubt be a market for his services. The Bucks would have to decide if parting with the player they were eager to make the de facto Face of the Franchise just a few months ago is worth whatever return might be available.
Bucks not looking to deal Sanders | Dallas Morning News
Speaking of Sanders--and underscoring the dissonance of the rumormill--Dallas beat writer Eddie Lefko reports in his latest chat that the Bucks are not shopping Sanders for more practical reasons:
From what I'm hearing, the Bucks don't want to deal him because they know they'd be selling low.
NBA Rumors Chat with Steve Kyler | Basketball Insiders
Steve Kyler discusses all manner of NBA trade rumors with fans in his chat. Here's what he had to say about the Bucks' efforts on the market to date:
They are active. But nothing that's close to happening. I think they’ll be a player on February 20th simply because they have ending contracts and veterans that could help other teams.
"Active" could mean pretty much anything. I mean, I would have to believe every team is "active" right now. The Bucks' expiring contracts, in case you're wondering, are as follows (courtesy of ShamSports):
NBA Tank Rank | ESPN (Insider Only)
Chad Ford's weekly Tank Rank column keeps the Bucks firmly in control of the top spot (#1 in something!) and elaborates ever so slightly on his view of Milwaukee's mindset as the trade deadline approaches:
The Bucks are clearly in the driver's seat for that 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. The status quo, at this point, will do. But it won't stop them from exploring deals around the league that will return assets. Veterans such as Larry Sanders (who has been a nightmare since signing an extension this past summer) and Ersan Ilyasova will be the primary bait. If they can get the Bucks another first-rounder or another young player to take a look at, they're interested.
As I stated above, "nightmare" is probably overdoing it with regard to Sanders, but he could have decent trade value and trading him would immediately send Milwaukee even deeper into the rebuilding depths.
As for Ersan Ilyasova, he's maybe been the most-discussed trade asset the Bucks possess, but his season on the court has matched Sanders' off-court troubles bottle-for-bottle. Ilyasova has been extremely productive his last two seasons, hitting his stride after the new year and ranking among the NBA top three-point shooters while also providing good production on the glass. But his numbers have plummeted to career-worst levels almost across the board this year, making the remaining $15.8M on his contract look a wee bit onerous.
Part of the problem for Ilyasova has been carving out a role in the total disaster that is Milwaukee's offense. Ersan has been unable to replicate the pick-and-pop three-point game he thrived on next to Brandon Jennings and, in particular, Monta Ellis. The three-point shots he does get are increasingly of the stepback, contested variety, not the wide-open straight-on looks he garnered from the Swag Twins (who, for all their faults, were great at running around screens and making the easy pass back to the perimeter). Worse, Ersan has found the ball in his hands just inside the arc far too often, leading to lower value long twos or wild drives into the paint. Ilyasova is one of the biggest ball-stoppers in the NBA, so if he's not being set up for good looks behind the arc or crashing the glass, he's probably not providing much value.
Can he bounce back? Everybody is waiting to find out. He's been a second-half guy each of the last two seasons, seeing his numbers spike after prolonged slumps. It's possible that trend could continue, even if he has a much deeper slump than usual to dig out of. Trading Ersan makes plenty of sense for the Bucks--he's sort of blocking one of their best young players in John Henson, and his age doesn't quite align him with the rest of Milwaukee's purported "core." And he probably wouldn't mind a chance to win some games elsewhere.
But as with Sanders, any hypothetical trading partner will need to be confident that Ersan can rediscover his shooting and rebounding touch in a new environment. Barring a scorching run through his next five games, Ersan's value will be depressed, perhaps below a level Milwaukee is comfortable accepting. The question then becomes whether gaining any asset now, and presumably freeing up minutes for other young players, is worth the lost marginal benefit of a potentially greater asset later.