Larry Sanders' suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy is apparently over, but if and when he might play NBA basketball again remains somewhat unclear.
Speaking after Wednesday's win over the Kings, Jason Kidd said all the things you'd expect him to say about Sanders possibly returning -- though you also got the feeling that even Kidd is unsure what might happen next with his one-time starting center. Via Fox Sports' Andrew Gruman:
"That will be determined during the break," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "We will get together and talk and get him back in the fold with the family if that's what (is) needed. We'll go from there."
"He could be with the team after the break," Kidd said of Sanders. "As with any injury, we will work him back into the fold and hopefully back in shape and see where that leads us."
Kidd's comments aren't dissimilar from those Jared Dudley made on Zach Lowe's podcast earlier this week, which suggested the Bucks' locker room "family" would welcome Sanders back if and when he gets his life in order. There may well be a fair bit of frustration with Sanders in that family as well, but for now they're still publicly keeping things positive and supportive.
That's a good thing, though at this point it's difficult to predict what might happen next. Sanders' unfortunate battle against undisclosed personal issues has taken plenty of twists and turns over the past year, with the $44 million extension he signed in the summer of 2013 only increasing scrutiny of the mercurial big man. The circumstances of Sanders' reinstatement were fittingly also somewhat odd, as word only leaked out about his "return" midway through Wednesday's win over the Kings. Sanders was once again listed as out for "personal reasons" against Sacramento, which was the first official acknowledgement that he was once again available to play -- at least as far as the league was concerned. Sanders' suspension officially cost him 12 games and $1.2 million of his $11 million annual salary, his second suspension in less than a year. His first came at the end of the 13/14 season when he sat out five games for his fourth violation of the NBA's marijuana policy, and if he gets busted again it would cost him a minimum of 15 games.
Sanders' return could hurt Bucks' backcourt depth
With Sanders returning to the official roster, the Bucks also had to win an injury exception from the league just to keep 16th man Jorge Gutierrez, who had originally been signed after Sanders' spot became open following the fifth game of his suspension. The problem for the Bucks is that the injury exception will go away once Kenyon Martin returns from his ankle injury, raising questions as to whether the Bucks will make an additional move to clear a roster spot before the February 19 trade deadline. Gutierrez's second ten-day contract expires before the Bucks' next game on February 20, so the game of musical roster spots is set to continue. If they want to keep Gutierrez for the season they'll need to make a move to open up a roster spot, otherwise they'll have to hope that Brandon Knight and Jerryd Bayless (who left Wednesday's game with a hip flexor) can provide enough cover at the point going forward. I doubt anyone in the organization is excited about carrying only two point guards through the rest of the season, so I'd have to think some kind of roster shuffle happens between now and next Thursday.
All of those decisions start with what happens next with Sanders, whose absence has gone largely unnoticed on the court despite a slew of injuries to Milwaukee's frontcourt. With John Henson and Zaza Pachulia providing capable minutes at the pivot, the Bucks have gone 12-7 without Sanders this season, including seven wins in eight games going into the all-star break. It doesn't necessarily make much sense, but the Bucks have been able to thrive even with Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Kenyon Martin missing good chunks of time over the past month, putting the Bucks in the odd situation of seemingly no longer needing their highest-paid player.
So what happens next? Well, there's little question that a focused Sanders could be a valuable addition to any roster, though at this point it's unclear whether a "focused Sanders" is something we'll see anytime soon. He's always said the right things about wanting to deal with his personal issues (whatever they might be), but until he proves it on and off the court for some period it's difficult to say whether he can still be a real asset to an NBA team. Up until his last game on December 23, his finishing had left much to be desired, and he's less talented offensively than either Pachulia or Henson. Still, even this year's version of Sanders was an impact defender (8th among all centers in DRPM), and his per-minute numbers were quite solid. On paper that would make him a rather nice addition to a team that's battled injuries to its frontline all season. But even though Sanders is once again collecting a paycheck, we don't know if he's actually mentally and physically ready to return to playing basketball.
That also makes it difficult to imagine the Bucks being able to trade him until he's been able to prove himself on the court, leaving Milwaukee with little choice but to bring Sanders back into the fold or begin to explore buyout options. The latter could open up some additional cap money in the short term (via the stretch provision), and there's been murmurs that both sides could eventually want to explore that possibility. But handing Sanders the remaining $36 million on his contract to just walk away isn't the outcome anyone in Milwaukee should want, and I don't expect Sanders' agent Happy Walters would settle for much less in order to gain his client's freedom.
Ultimately the decision seems to come down mostly to Sanders and Kidd. If Sanders can convince Kidd he's capable of once again becoming a productive member of the locker room, then we'll likely see him in a Bucks uniform again at some point. If he can't, his career in Milwaukee will likely be over. It's a sad possibility for a fan favorite who showed so much promise two years ago, but it's one that ultimately only Sanders can make right.