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Bucks and Larry Sanders reportedly begin buyout negotiations

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Larry Sanders Saga may soon be ending -- and it appears Larry Sanders' career in Milwaukee may be ending with it.

ESPN's Marc Stein reported Monday morning that the Milwaukee Bucks have begun buyout discussions this week with Sanders' agent Happy Walters, less than a week after the beleaguered big man was reinstated by the league following his 12-game suspension for marijuana use. Via Stein:

Buyout discussions have commenced between the Milwaukee Bucks and Larry Sanders that would make the recently suspended big man a free agent, according to league sources.

Jason Kidd was coy on the possibility of Sanders returning last week, though the idea of a buyout isn't exactly new -- Grantland's Zach Lowe had suggested three weeks ago that the situation would likely head in that direction. What's not clear is if a buyout will eventually cost the Bucks the full remaining value of Sanders' four-year, $44 million deal or not; he's set to be paid around $4 million for the remainder of this season in addition to $11 million each of the following three seasons.

At the time of Lowe's report we wrote at length about the potential cap ramifications of waiving Sanders via the league's "stretch" provision at the end of the season, though for practical purposes the implications of doing so immediately are more or less the same. Stretched players are paid their regular salary for the current season, with the remainder of their salary spread out over twice the remaining years on their deal plus one. Some more details:

[T]he 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, 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).

Still, 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 Bucks would receive some offset against the amount they owe Sanders if he latches on with another team, but he'd have to sign a pretty significant deal for the Bucks to get any major relief. Obviously it's difficult to see Sanders landing a significant payday in the short term, as no one's even sure if he's capable of returning this season in the first place.

So why look to do a buyout now rather than waiting it out a bit longer? Well, part of the Bucks' motivation for moving now is likely because they can't retain point guard Jorge Gutierrez unless they clear another roster spot. With Sanders around and Kenyon Martin returning from injury, the Bucks would have 15 guys on their roster without accounting for Gutierrez, whose second ten-day contract expires before the Bucks return to the court on Friday against Denver. Presumably the Bucks aren't thrilled at the prospect of carrying just two point guards on their roster going forward, especially with Jerryd Bayless recovering from a hip flexor injury sustained last Wednesday.

Still, it's difficult to imagine the team making such a big decision on Sanders simply to keep a third-string point guard, especially with the possibility that some other smaller move could be made ahead of Thursday's trade deadline. So ultimately this move would seem to be all about Sanders and the team's belief that they're simply better off without him, as evidenced by the fact that Kidd's club has gone 18-8 without Sanders and entered the all-star break winners of seven of their last eight games. Sanders is unquestionably talented, but the Bucks have clearly moved on.

At this point a fresh start is also probably the best possible thing for Sanders personally, so in that sense it wouldn't be surprising for his camp to push for a buyout regardless of whether or not he's close to being ready to play basketball again (besides, being paid for not working is a pretty good deal). But while he may still be struggling to move past his undisclosed off-court troubles, the team itself is flourishing in his absence -- and apparently ready to pay a steep price to be done with him once and for all.

UPDATE: Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders tweets that Sanders is considering a buyout, but remains a long way from returning to the court either way.

The obvious followup question: How much are the Bucks offering Sanders to walk away?