When your team finishes with the worst record in the league, there usually aren't too many positives to take away from it. The best you can hope for is that you can quickly put it behind you and move forward.
For Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo -- two of the Bucks' most disappointing players last season -- a new season has meant not just moving on, but reasserting themselves as two key contributors to Milwaukee's surprising 8-7 start.
Sanders' rough 2013-2014 season off the court is well documented, but his more consistent -- and arguably just as concerning -- issue was keeping himself together on the court. In an injury/suspension-shortened season, Sanders amassed six technicals, three foul outs, two flagrants, and one ejection in just 23 games. So far this season, the results have been remarkably different: zero technicals, zero foul outs, zero flagrants, and zero ejections in 14 games.
He doesn't have a vice grip on those emotions just yet, but his efforts to react differently have greatly improved.
"It's very visible, but it makes me a better person," Sanders said earlier this season on channeling those emotions. "To see myself react and learn a different way to react is definitely possible. It just takes work. Every day is a test, every game is a test, and hopefully I can just put a win in that column."
Having Sanders on the court as the anchor of the league's eighth-ranked defense is a big plus, but the burst of energy and emotion with which he plays is also valuable. It's been difficult to rein in at times, but Sanders is understanding that his emotions can have just as much of an effect on a game as his play does.
"Definitely, and not letting [my emotions] spew out and cost my team a shot...[I'm] just being mindful of that. Most games come down to one or two possessions, and I like to keep as many points off the board as we can."
Though he hasn't fouled out yet, Sanders has picked up four or more fouls in 10 of his 14 games this season, and is averaging a career-high 3.9 fouls in 21.8 minutes of action. That spike in foul rate is worth monitoring going forward, because the Bucks would probably like to have Sanders on the floor for more than half a game. So far, Sanders (and, in part, the coaching staff) have managed to avoid that final foul, but for the Bucks to keep improving on this surprising start, Sanders will need to be on the court more.
That being said, Sanders has made big strides in improving himself, and he deserves his share of the credit for the team's early success. His teammates are taking notice of that. Veteran forward Jared Dudley shed light on this improvement to James Herbert of CBS Sports.
"It seems like he's matured. He's actually, definitely one of the leaders -- very vocal -- and defensively, he's just as good as advertised.
"I think also, sometimes, in the NBA, a situation can be bad," Dudley continues. "The Bucks, obviously, you don't want to say it, but they were really, really bad last year. It snowballed with his injuries and then getting suspensions and stuff like that. So I think, for him, it's just clean slate, new coaching staff, new owner, and usually when you have that, you can kind of get a second chance with people not judging you, not looking at you. And I think he's done really, really well with that."
Another player who is benefiting from this fresh start is O.J. Mayo. After signing a 3-year, $24 million contract last year with Milwaukee, Mayo lost his starting position 23 games into the season and was quickly out of the rotation after gaining weight and failing to get his conditioning back, among other issues. The guy the Bucks had signed in the summer with hopes of being a reliable scoring threat ended up sitting on the bench for 17 of the team's final 19 games, and was even considered the team's "least valuable asset" in a series of polls we conducted over the summer.
We didn't hear (or expect) much from Mayo this summer, but he returned to training camp in fantastic shape and has been a pleasant surprise since. After spending time this summer training with Brandon Knight -- who, in case you forgot, was doing this kind of stuff in the offseason -- Mayo has been a consistent spark off the bench, and was just inserted into the starting lineup for Tuesday night's game against the Pistons. He rewarded that decision with 17 points on 10 shots with 3-4 shooting with deep.
Though his scoring and shooting aren't all that much better from last season, Mayo has taken on a more prominent role as a facilitator and overall leader. The scoring still helps, but his impact can be felt a lot more now.
"He's one of the guys we've asked to do a lot of different things and he's responded in a positive way, and I think he's been a role model on and off the court for the young guys," Coach Kidd said before Tuesday's game."He's not just a scorer or shooter, he finds the open guys. Teammates love playing with him because he's not just looking to score, but also give those guys a shot. With him in the starting lineup, it gives us a nice playmaker on the floor."
It's been like night and day for Mayo since last year, a season which he still refuses to speak about. He, like Sanders is eager to move past it.
"Obviously, after having a year like last year, it was really important to have a good rebounding year as an organization. Obviously, individually, you have to look in the mirror as well, so that's what we wanted to do."