Let's just call it the Season of Sanders.
While the Bucks' start to the season has had plenty of ups and downs, it's tough to find much fault with the teams' position in the quagmire known as the NBA's Eastern Conference. There's no doubt a sausage-making analogy to be made in terms of what we've seen on the court, but it bears mentioning: no one would have complained with a 15-12 start back in October.
Even so, there's really only been one thing that we've been able to rely on since opening night: Larry Sanders is suddenly a really good basketball player. For that reason it's also a story we've deconstructed ad nauseum over the past two months, though I thought it would be interesting to look ahead and consider how Sanders' breakout season fits into the Bucks' plans for the future--both on the court and in terms of Herb Kohl's pocketbook. As a refresher, let's start with the basic storyline of what we're seeing from Sanders in 12/13 and why that's such a good thing:
1. Larry started rebounding (a lot), stopped fouling (quite so much) and kept blocking shots (at his usual astronomical rates). The Bucks are unfortunately still below average on the defensive boards (24th), but don't blame Sanders. He ranks 9th among 327 qualifying NBA players in defensive rebound rate (28.1%) and 13th overall (18.8%), while also tying reigning defensive player of the year Serge Ibaka for the league lead in shot-blocking (3.00 bpg) despite playing almost eight fewer minutes per game.
Critical to all of this is that Sanders isn't fouling at *quite* the prodigious rate of seasons past. Sanders' 7.4 fouls/36 minutes last year led all qualifying big men, so dropping that figure by more than 25% (5.6) has had a very tangible effect on Scott Skiles' ability to keep him on the court. It's not to say Sanders doesn't have a problem anymore: he still leads the league in fouls per game (3.8). But last year he didn't play enough to even figure into that conversation, so in a weird way that's actually not the most damning stat in the world, especially given what we've seen from him over the past month. In December he's cut down his fouling to 3.3/game while upping his playing time to 27 mpg, helping him pile up some rather gaudy figure: 8.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 3.4 blocks per game.
Advanced stats tell a similar story regarding Sanders' defensive impact. The Bucks continue to be vastly better defensively with Sanders on the court (9.7 pts/100 possession fewer allowed), he leads the league in defensive rating (93) and he's allowed just 0.50 points-per-play in the post, good for second among all NBA players this season (via MySynergySports.com). Opponents have made just 10/34 shots against Sanders in the post, and they haven't fared much better against his buddy Ekpe Udoh, who ranks third in the NBA with 0.56 PPP allowed on 8/31 shooting.
My guess is that a lack of time in the spotlight will limit the buzz Sanders gets for all-defensive consideration, much less defensive player of the year. Which is a shame considering that he's basically doing what Serge Ibaka did last year when the Thunder big man was DPOY runner-up to Tyson Chandler and somehow nipped Chandler for a spot on the All-Defensive First Team. Granted, Ibaka's defense was rather overrated--playing for a great team and blocking an insane amount of shots will do that--but Sanders certainly seems to have both the sexy shot-blocking skills and team defensive metrics to make a good case.
2. He's doing more offensively...by doing less.
There are basically two ways to become a more effective offensive player. The first is related to skill development, ie what everyone obsesses over when it comes to young players. And what journalists love writing softball stories about come September and October: Luc Mbah a Moute took a billion jump shots this summer! Andrew Bogut re-learned how to shoot free throws!
The idea of players becoming more skillful is always appealing, and for obvious reasons: it feeds our hopes that a player can be much better than he already is (or ever will be). And for a star-starved franchise like the Bucks, that's often the only way we can even imagine a path to building a real contender. It's why we obsess over things like Tobias Harris' performances in Vegas. We all do it--it's part of being a fan. But it's almost never that easy, and it's a lot harder than the second avenue for becoming more productive offensively: do more of what you're good at, and less of what you're bad at.
That seems extremely obvious, but it can be surprisingly hard to execute when you're a highly-paid, highly-confident NBA basketball player. Recent exampe: the unwavering self-belief that led Monta Ellis to agonizingly keep gunning pull-up jumpers through 13 straight misses in Memphis also gave him the cajones to lead the Bucks to an overtime win in Boston a couple nights later. That's not to make excuses for Ellis--we're not big on that around here after all--but you can at least understand how the double-edged sword of confidence can overcomplicate and frustrate the process of maximizing a player's performance.
For Sanders, the sword used to mean trying to do too many of the difficult things his idol Kevin Garnett does, namely those 20-foot jumpers and turn-arounds in the post. Those are great weapons to have when you're a go-to guy expected to deliver 20 points every night, but for an energy guy playing a complementary role? Even if you can hit those shots with some vague consistency, they're by definition low-percentage shots. Still, Sanders took more long twos (1.7/game) than any other type of shot as a rookie; per minute he took more long twos than Brandon Jennings. And while Sanders has always had decent form and an ability to knock down the odd jumper, he simply wasn't good enough to justify taking those shots with any regular frequency (31% each of his first two seasons).
The good news is that Larry's gotten the hint, which is especially important because his jump shot hasn't gotten any better. His long two percentage is down to a career-low 25% this season, and even his finishing between 3-9 feet is worse than it's ever been (24%), which not-so-subtly hints at his still-unrefined post game. But he's no longer trying to be KG or even Serge Ibaka (50% long twos) on the offensive end. Around 60% of Sanders' field goal attempts now come in the immediate basket area, up from just over 30% as a rookie. Which is good, because Larry makes 71% of his shots from there.
To become a higher-volume scorer, Sanders would no doubt have to expand his game into less-comfortable territory, as there is only so much garbage to clean up and only so many alley-oops to finish off. But with all his defensive abilities he doesn't need to score 15 ppg to be a very good NBA player, so for practical purposes the volume question is something we can debate some other time. For now let's just be happy he's playing to his strengths. In doing so, his true shooting percentage has jumped from an abominable 45% and 46% in his first two seasons to an above-average 55% this season, reflecting mainly his improved shot distribution in addition to more consistent (albeit still fairly sporadic) work from the free throw line (64.3%).
Regular double-doubles and those highlight reel blocks are helping Sanders get some deserved buzz for most improved consideration as well, though it's probably not something worth investing much emotional energy in at this point. Heck, as a Bucks fan I'm not sure I want anything to do with another most improved player: Ken Norman and Bobby Simmons didn't exactly pay dividends after signing with the Bucks following their MIP wins, while Ersan Ilyasova's second place finish last season seems like a distant memory after his nightmarish November. It's a great sign that Sanders is even in the conversation, but it's more of a novelty than anything else.
The cost of quality
Even if Sanders doesn't improve a lick from here on out, he'll be an above-average big man with the game-changing defensive abilities that all GMs covet. That's a very good thing on the court, but it will likely also cost the Bucks plenty if they hope to keep him in Milwaukee for the long term.
Back in October the Bucks wisely (well, obviously) picked up Sanders' $3.05 million option for 13/14, though that's unfortunately the last year of his bargain-basement rookie contract. The Bucks can lock him up starting next summer by agreeing to an extension, but the Brandon Jennings extension talks this past summer showed that mutual interest isn't on its own enough to guarantee a deal. Both sides have to feel it's in their interest to agree to a new deal before the player his restricted free agency, and in most cases that doesn't happen.
So what if Sanders finishes up the season at roughly his current level of production--what's that worth? As a starting point, I took a sample of third-year big men from the past 15 years who shared at least some similarities with Sanders before signing their first non-rookie deals: Theo Ratliff, Dan Gadzuric, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, and Taj Gibson. All of them were more defensive-oriented rebounders and/or shot-blockers who played fewer than 30 mpg, though they're still a somewhat diverse bunch stylistically. Even so, their overall metrics were fairly comparable and provide an instructive baseline. Below is what they did in their third NBA seasons, immediately before their new contracts:
Now let's add in a comparison of what each was subsequently paid (brace yourself):
Given their vintage, the Ratliff and Gadzuric contracts aren't particularly relevant to Sanders' current market value, but they reinforce the notion that the economic premium on size is hardly new--and that it can also be dangerous. Most of all, the Ratliff and Gadzuric experiences provide cautionary tales against the six- and seven-year deals possible under previous CBAs. Ratliff maintained his 97/98 production for another three seasons before injuries contributed to a fairly sharp decline, but with a seven year deal he found himself as little more than a cap albatross for the last few seasons of his deal. Meanwhile, the late-bloomng Gadzuric was a fantastic energy player in the 04/05 season, a fact quickly forgotten given his inability to replicate that performance after Andrew Bogut's arrival. We all know how that ended.
The jury is still out on the Jordan, Ibaka and Gibson deals, but Sanders' agent will no doubt cite the magnitude of their deals when he talks extension with the Bucks next summer. The Ibaka comparison is probably the most problematic for the Bucks: Ibaka's new deal is enormous and his numbers last year are remarkably similar to what Sanders is doing right now. But the circumstances are obviously different as well. Ibaka is viewed as a critical cog in the Thunder's championship blueprint, and at 22 last season he had already shown far more offensive upside than the 24-year-old Sanders is showing now. Sure enough, Ibaka has raised his game in the first two months of this season, upping both his scoring rate (13.5 to 17.9 pts/40) and efficiency (55.6% to 61.0% true shooting) while maintaining his high defensive impact.
A long future in Milwaukee?
My guess is that Sanders doesn't sign a big extension next summer, but that says as much about the uncertainty surrounding the Bucks' direction as anything about Sanders specifically. At the moment it's not clear who will even be calling the shots in the Bucks' front office next July, and the Ilyasova experience may leave Kohl a bit gun-shy to shell out big dollars for a one-season star. On the positive side, the Bucks are also unique in that they have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality young big men, with Sanders joined by John Henson, Udoh and Ilyasova (if you still count him) up front.
The Bucks will have to make decisions on Sanders and Udoh at the same time, and there's a good argument to be made for simply waiting another year and letting both hit restricted free agency in order to get a better sense of how good they really are. I doubt Udoh changes much at all to be honest, but for all we know Sanders could regress and be surpassed by Henson a year from now. Heck, back in July that's what we were all expecting would happen this season, right? Either way, at the moment you would expect the Bucks to prefer keeping both Sanders and Udoh locked up as they enter their primes, at least in principle. In practice, the Bucks could also opt to cash in some of those assets for the kind of star that they haven't been able to find in the draft or free agency...well, at least we can dream, right?
Thankfully the Bucks have the cap flexibility to keep all of their promising big men, especially if they avoid re-signing Monta Ellis to another monster contract. Assuming Ellis opts out and not including a Brandon Jennings extension, the Bucks have just $31 million committed in 13/14, $24 million in 14/15 (when new Sanders/Udoh deals would kick in) and $14 million in 15/16. Keeping Jennings, Udoh and Sanders while filling out the rest of the roster gets a fair bit hairier if you continue to plow $10+ million into the shooting guard position, but that's another major reason why I'm not terribly worried about Ellis walking next summer "for nothing." While the Bucks will have plenty of cap space with which to play next summer, they also need to be wary of tying their hands when it comes to keeping their front line together.
Given the deals for Gibson, Jordan and Ibaka as well as the Bucks' own free agent dealings, it seems like Sanders' next deal would at a minimum start with the the four years and guaranteed $32 million that Ilyasova received. And considering the way teams spend on big men, getting upwards of $10 million annually on the open market shouldn't surprise anyone. Those are awfully big numbers for a fan favorite who has excelled without the burden of huge expectations, but that's what we should expect if his current production holds. Thankfully, Udoh's unremarkable statistics will likely suppress his value; he seems much more likely to fit into the Chuck Hayes/Nick Collison MLE wheelhouse.
Together, that could mean $16 million or more annually to keep both Udoh and Sanders starting in 2014, a major price tag for guys who may never crack 30 mpg and a serious philosophical decision for the Bucks. Getting big and defensive has been a major help to the Bucks on the court, but how much is it really worth to them? Much of it will depend on how Sanders and Udoh--and the team--perform between now and then, though Henson may be the biggest x-factor of them all. Should Henson emerge as the starting-caliber big man we all hope, the Bucks' best move may very well be paying to keep two of Ilyasova, Sanders and Udoh while shipping the third out for other assets. It's easy to dismiss as a problem for next year, but the reality is that the Bucks' short-term decision-making depends a fair bit on how they see things fitting together down the road.