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Bucks Player Previews: Larry Sanders looks to put nightmare season behind him

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Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

13/14 Review

Hold on tight...

Sanders missed 25 games in the first half of the season with a torn thumb ligament following his involvement in a fight at a Milwaukee nightclub.  Sanders was cited for disorderly conduct, assault and battery, and the wearing of Teflon shoes.  We've made it three games.

One week later, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Sanders was cited the previous winter for animal cruelty after leaving two dogs outside with no shelter in sub-freezing temperatures.  He paid a fine.

Sanders would miss six weeks with the thumb injury, returning just after Christmas 2013.  Larry played in 20 games, registering a double-double just twice.

The best performance of the year came February 5th in Denver, a 25-point, 15-rebound show in a ten point loss.  The next game, Sanders took an elbow to the right eye from the Rockets' James Harden, causing a fracture of the orbital bone.  He would undergo surgery, and his season was done.  But we churn forward.

In early April, Sanders was suspended five games by the NBA for violating the league's anti-drug policy due to marijuana use.  Sanders vehemently defended his actions and became a vocal proponent for the legalization of marijuana (which I hear is a hot button issue).  The Bucks activated Sanders for the final five games of the season to burn off the suspension.

I'm tired.  Are you tired?  I'm tired.

- Corey Gloor

#ANALYSIS

Many steps forward, many steps back.

For all the improvement we saw from Sanders two seasons ago, we saw just as much regression during Sanders' ill-fated 13/14 season. All of Sanders' per-minute stats declined, including his shot-blocking rate falling to a career-low 2.5 blocks/36. Still, it's not to say that Sanders was an ineffective player. Among big men with reasonable sample sizes, only Roy Hibbert (41.1%) held opponents to a lower fg% at the rim than Sanders (41.5%), and his defensive RPM of 6.29 pts/100 ranked second in the entire league. All of which speaks to the impact Sanders makes even when he's not blocking shots, and the likelihood that opponents are avoiding (or contorting) some shots simply because they know what Larry is capable of doing. As a reminder, here's the unfortunate-looking John Henson RPM chart, which also features Sanders in the top left corner:

RPM-Henson

Offensively, Sanders was less effective from virtually every area on the court. His rim finishing dipped from 63% to 57% and his already-problematic shooting outside 10 feet cratered even further (34% to 23% from 10-16 feet and 28% to 16% on long twos). The only saving grace was his improved shot selection; whereas 28% of Sanders' shots were long twos as a rookie, that figured dropped to just 10% in 12/13 and less than 4% a year ago. Likewise, Sanders' share of shots at the rim continued to climb--69% last year after 61% two seasons ago and a shockingly low 33% as a rookie. Check out the evolution of Sanders' shot chart--nothing here suggests he's ever going to be a good offensive player, but at a minimum he's a guy who seems to be coming to grips with his limitations.

SandersChart1011

SandersChart1213

SandersChart1314

- Frank Madden

I know what you did last summer...

...er, actually I'm not totally sure. After finding himself in the headlines late in the season for all the wrong reasons, Sanders had a pretty quiet summer. What little we heard from him was all pretty positive, which was nice. Sanders popped up in Vegas to practice with the Bucks' Summer League team and apparently bought them all dinner too.

Jim Paschke caught up with Sanders in Vegas and asked him what his focus would be for the upcoming season:

"Just staying in guys' ears. You know, keep a positive mindset, you know, fight through adversity, because it's bound to happen. And just remain true to who I am."

Sanders also spent some time working out with new Bucks assistant coach Greg Foster. Foster, a highly-regarded player development coach in Philadelphia, worked extensively with Nerlens Noel as the young big man worked his way back from an ACL tear suffered in college.

-Dan Sinclair

Upside/Downside

Upside? We don't even need to consider "upside." Bucks fans would be more than happy just seeing Sanders get back to his pre-extension form. That Sanders was a useful offensive garbageman/lob dunker, top-notch rebounder, and elite defensive anchor. For most young big men in the NBA, that would represent a pretty nice upside.

If we're being really optimistic? How about a return to form on defense and marked improvement as a screener and pick-and-roll finisher? In a best-case scenario, Sanders would not only provide excellent defense on the interior, but develop a little more on-the-move ability, taking passes in the pick and roll and getting to the rim with one hard dribble or a strong vertical move. Finishing with authority isn't a problem for Sanders given his size and athleticism, but getting all the way to the rim can be tough because of his general lack of, uh...horizontal coordination. Better play from his guards (including some court time with Kendall Marshall, perhaps) could help in that regard. Some good statistical targets would be 67% shooting at the rim, a turnover rate below 12.0, and a total rebound rate above 17.0.

As for downside? It would be hard to undercut last season, but short of another injury/off-court issue that significantly limits Sanders' availability, it would certainly be discouraging to see Sanders regress to the production levels we saw before his breakout 2012-2013 season. That Sanders shot too many jumpers and fouled way too much. If Sanders slides all the way back to being a complete non-element on offense--poor shooting from the floor and free-throw line, high turnover rate--it'll be a bit harder to feel good about featuring him regardless of defensive ability.

The question of defensive variability remains an interesting one. While numbers like three-point percentage can see a good deal of variability from year to year, defensive "production" is generally viewed as rock solid. That is, if you're a good defender one year, you will be the next. Even in Sanders' limited game time last year, his defensive metrics remained solid. So it would seem reasonable to expect those metrics to stay in good shape this season. And if you buy that hypothesis of defensive consistency, any slump in rim protection numbers would be a bit concerning. Even darkest-timeline Sanders is probably a lock to block 1 or 2 shots a game, but if those blocks are accompanied by poor positioning and personal fouls, it's a net loss.

-Dan Sinclair

How it feels to watch Larry Sanders

Goggles

Not that long ago, Larry Sanders affected every single shot that came his way, Aaron Rodgers viewed him as a more viable business partner than Ryan Braun, and Zach Lowe always typed his name in all caps and punctuated it with an EXCLAMATION MARK! But then last season happened. Injuries, citations, misguided drug advocacy … I won’t work through the details here, but, like, what the hell, man?

At this point, though, none of that matters. Absolutely none of it. The good. The bad. It doesn’t matter. Not at all. Not now. Not ever again. That is the past and this is the now and that up ahead is the future. And it is brighter than we ever could have imagined.

Why?

Because Larry Sanders wears goggles now, and that automatically makes watching him play so much better. From the moment I thought Tiny Gallon was Larry Sanders’ nickname, Sanders has provided my life with a constant stream of entertainment. He’s trademarked the ironic thumbs up, inspired (crazed) firm believers, attempted to fight entire nations, played some really good basketball, and served as the subject of my favorite photoshop I’ve ever done.

And now he wears goggles. Goggles! Goggles. I don’t know what else to tell you. The man wears goggles. And it is good.

- JJ Bersch

Expected Role

Though his preseason was short-circuited by a mysterious "outpatient procedure," Sanders returned to practice over the weekend and will be the favorite to start at center on opening night in Charlotte. Ditto the remaining 81 games.

At this point it's no secret why Sanders is so important: No big man on the Bucks' roster has the same potential to alter a game, and the Bucks' lack of defensive mettle at the power forward spot makes Sanders' rim protection all the more crucial to a Bucks' defense that was routinely shredded a year ago. In other words, if Jabari Parker playing power forward is a big part of the Bucks' long-term plans, it's all the more important to have a defensive anchor like Sanders at center. Offensively, Sanders' lack of shooting and ball skill means that less is generally more; cleaning up on the offensive glass and finishing P&Rs is far more important than trying to develop a reliable jump shot, so once again there's no need for Sanders to dramatically reinvent himself.

It's not to say Sanders is a lock to bounce back or return to the dominating form of the 2012/13 season, though it's also not as though he's being asked to do things he's never done before either. We all know he's been his own worst enemy over the past year, so at this point merely getting on the court and staying there is job one. Foul trouble, ejections, injuries, suspensions, and bad life choices all prevented Sanders from living up to expectations a year ago, and it stands to reason that the Bucks won't have the same tolerance for Sanders' antics going forward. We should probably still expect to see Larry chalk up his fair share of technicals while battling foul trouble on a semi-regular basis, but getting an average of 25 good minutes from Sanders over at least 70 games will go a long way to improving on last season's 15-win debacle. Steve and I are optimistic that he can live up to those modest goals, but if he can't? Well, his future will likely be someplace other than Milwaukee.

- Frank Madden