Grantland's Zach Lowe writes that the Larry Sanders Saga has inspired plenty of talk around the league...and it's not exactly encouraging. Lowe writes:
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reported over the weekend that the Bucks had not yet discussed a potential buyout with Sanders, but most league sources expect the discussion to eventually go that direction. It's tempting to suggest the Bucks ride this out for a bit. Sanders is one of the league's best rim protectors. His development on offense has stalled out, but he has some potential on that end as a Tyson Chandler Lite - a guy who screens, dives to the rim, and sucks help defenders in from the perimeter. He needs time (and possibly a hand transplant) to approach even 60 percent of Chandler's value on offense, but his contract is fair in basketball terms.
Milwaukee has a clean cap sheet going forward and no plans to rush its rebuild with a mega-free agency signing. Is the savings it might net in a buyout, plus lifting the Sanders pall from the locker room, worth the risk he might eventually thrive on another team? Maybe it is. The situation may well be worse than we realize.
Assuming Sanders sticks around through the end of the season, the Bucks could opt to waive Sanders and "stretch" his remaining salary obligations over seven years, effectively turning three years at a cost of $11 million annually into seven years at $4.71 million per season. It could also be less if a buyout offset some of the Bucks' remaining obligation. That would make the biggest difference this coming summer, when the Bucks project to have only the mid-level exception after accounting for cap holds related to Brandon Knight and the team's first round pick. Once 2016 arrives it probably won't matter much at all, as the Bucks will see a slew of current deals expire and the cap is expected to increase significantly beyond its current $63 million mark.
If Sanders were stretched this summer, Milwaukee could effectively double its cap space to something in the ballpark of $10 million next summer -- and with close to a full roster's worth of salary slots already filled, they could be selective in how they use it. Of course, whether they can actually put that sort of flexibility to use is a separate question; last summer they wisely opted to avoid splashing all their cap space out on mid-tier veterans, and in the process also avoided the usual mistakes that mid-tier veterans turn out to be (my sincerest apologies to Bobby Simmons, Mo Williams, Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo, et al).
Of course, options are good things, and while Sanders is away from the team they don't really have any pressure to make a decision one way or another. Once he's ready to return things necessarily change -- does Jason Kidd even want him around the locker room? Do the Bucks believe there's real upside in trying to rehabilitate his value by inserting him back onto the court (and into the team dynamic)? From a pure talent and asset management perspective the obvious move would be to hang onto him in case he can figure things out. But that also ignores important behind-the-scenes dynamics that we can only guess at from the outside. Sanders is a complicated person whose volatile personality may or may not be an impediment to the team moving forward.
The upside is that the Bucks aren't out of options, and as a result Sanders' contract -- as big and ultimately ill-conceived as it's appearing to be -- probably doesn't come close to the team's most damaging move over the past couple decades. Don't get me wrong, $44 million is a lot of money, and thus far the Bucks have gotten very little for it (more if you factor in the terrific 12/13 season Sanders provided while on his bargain-basement rookie deal). But it doesn't threaten to cripple the Bucks' cap flexibility now or in the future -- not with the stretch provision and a rapidly expanding salary cap on the horizon. It's also not killing the Bucks on the court, as Kidd and company have managed to avoid letting Sanders' distractions derail the league's most overachieving team.
In contrast, other deals have been more damaging when put into context. Michael Redd's six-year, $90 million deal accounted for roughly a quarter of the Bucks' entire cap for six years, with Redd starting just 44 games over his last three years in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Bobby Simmons' $47 million deal -- signed the same catastrophic summer as Redd's -- ate up another 15% or so of the Bucks' cap while he was around, which was a big reason why Milwaukee found itself tiptoeing around the luxury tax threshold early in John Hammond's tenure as GM. Sanders' deal is shorter than both, and the Bucks likely won't have to worry about luxury tax implications anytime soon. That doesn't make the Sanders deal one the Bucks won't regret, but at least it shouldn't stop them from moving forward no matter what happens next.