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The Worst Bucks Contract of the Last Decade: Larry Sanders Three-Thumb Salutes His 2nd Place Finish

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It seemed destined to come to this

Milwaukee Bucks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Ever the enigma, Larry Sanders entered the league with length, athleticism and a wiry frame to boot. Play his career over 10 times, and while I don’t know what the most common outcome would be, it feels like the current reality was probably pretty. As the second to last selection in our worst Bucks contracts, Sanders roughly aligns with where I had him pegged. It’s close between him and Plumlee, but I can see arguments for both. I think I lean Sanders because of the uncertainty surrounding his off-the-court incidents before the extension and because it remains an immovable contract that’s sucked up a small percentage of Milwaukee’s books for seven years.

Sanders came out of Virginia Commonwealth University during the Shaka Smart years, going 15th overall in the 2010 draft. A late bloomer, Sanders didn’t start playing basketball until 11th grade, but emerged at VCU with a 7’7” wingspan that fit squarely into the Hammond pterodactyl archetype. Even with an iffy shot at VCU, he became a staunch rebounder, averaging 14.4 points, 9.1 boards and 2.6 blocks his junior year before leaving for the draft.

Struggling through his first two seasons, Sanders couldn’t seem to transition to pro competition. He didn’t have the softest hands, so turnovers were an issue, and he couldn’t find a complimentary offensive game. He hit only 63% and 58% of his shots at the rim his first two seasons respectively, figures that put him at the 50th percentile or lower among bigs. He also wasn’t a stranger to contact on the defensive end. Perpetual foul trouble made it tough for him to average many minutes. His second season, albeit one with just a shade under 700 minutes played, he averaged 7.4 fouls per-36 minutes.

The one thing he could hang his hat on? Blocks. The man just loved to send the roundball ricocheting away from the rim. Sanders was nearly in the 90th percentile among all bigs for block percentage (per Cleaning The Glass) every one of his first five seasons. He was an elite shot-blocker, the lone skill popping from his first two seasons. It blossomed in his breakout third season with the Bucks, the only one in his career where he even played more than 1,000 minutes. Starting 55 games in 2012-13, he averaged 27 minutes and here were his per-36 averages:

Sanders Per-36 figures

Season ▲ Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Season ▲ Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2012-13 24 MIL NBA C 71 55 1937 5.7 11.2 0.506 0 0 0 5.7 11.2 0.507 1.6 2.5 0.618 4.2 8.3 12.5 1.5 1 3.7 1.6 4.3 12.9

LARRY SANDERS (h/t Zach Lowe) was born. The three-thumbed salute became legend. Even if his offensive game remained paltry that season, with little beyond some paint maneuvering, the Bucks played significantly better with him on the court than off all season with a 5.1 on/off net rating differential per NBA.com. With Andrew Bogut long gone and that Milwaukee team increasingly reliant on two defensive turnstiles in the backcourt in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, Sanders needed to be on mop-up duty consistently. Sanders led the league in block percentage that season, and seemed like he could be a defensive anchor of the future as they tried to soup up his offensive game for the future. He and John Henson could form a formidable shot-blocking duo. And so, with the 2013-14 season about to get underway, the Bucks re-made their roster around a bevy of veterans and opted to extend Larry Sanders before the season to a 4-year, $44 million dollar deal.

The subtext of much of Sanders’ career was his moon-like effort, waxing and waning throughout. Even during his breakout year, his effort could veer too much toward reckless in his pursuit of wrecking opponents. Flashback to late in that 2012-13 season, from this Brew Hoop piece:

Sanders has unquestionably done some damage to his reputation after racking up six technical fouls, three ejections and $95,000 in fines over a 10-day span. He was tossed out in a contest against the Wizards on Match 13, jettisoned from the Heat game on March 15 and fined for his comments about the refs and then sent to the locker room again when the Bucks fell apart against the Pacers on March 22.

The perception of him as an off-court issue are admittedly easily crafted with hindsight. In the moment, signing Sanders to a reasonable extension seemed like a way to avoid restricted free agency and possibly get him under-market value if he kept improving. With our long view, it seems like a disaster. There were warning signs too, beyond the fact that he had played merely one season with the type of breakout numbers that warranted his raise.

The rest of the story is a sad but commonly known one to Bucks fans. He appeared in just 50 more games for Milwaukee. In November 2013, Sanders was in a bar fight that led to a torn ligament in his thumb, and subsequently missed most of that year. The next season, his first under Jason Kidd, he was off and on the team for personal reasons. In January 2015, he was suspended 10 games for violating the NBA’s drug policy. Sanders had also been suspended the year prior for his third failed marijuana test.

It seemed Sanders couldn’t get out of his own way. In February 2015, he and the Bucks agreed to a buyout that would leave $21 million of his guaranteed salary on the table. He discussed his struggles with anxiety and depression; very real, legitimate concerns that have only grown in importance in the ensuing years with the likes of Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan coming out as growing advocates. Sanders mentioned his passion for art outstripping his love of basketball, but feeling stuck on a path once he started to excel at the sport. His Players Tribune video included this quote:

“I’m Larry Sanders. I’m a person. I’m a father. I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I’m a painter. I’m a musician. And sometimes I play basketball.”

It’s not Sanders fault the Bucks doled out that contract. Still, it does reflect an error in judgment on their part, betting on a guy after one season in hopes that a slightly under-market extension could pay dividends rather than letting him hit the “open” market and be forced to match something offered to their restricted free agent. In retrospect, that seems like it would’ve been a far smarter tact. Instead, the buyout they arranged remains on their books until after the 2020-21 season. I recall feeling an incredible sense of relief when the buyout was announced, knowing Sanders sacrificed quite a bit of money that would’ve made it even more difficult for the Bucks’ cap all these years had he pushed for the full amount.

From the Archives

From Eric Buenning’s news piece about it at the time:

For a team that had been somewhat of a circus act the last 18 months, being able to revamp the roster and extend a piece you really believe in (not to mention a piece who likes being here and wants to stay here) for your future is a nice breath of fresh air (even if that wasn’t the original plan). We don’t know whether this extension will bear the fruit we expect it to going forward, but for a team that has had more questions than answers of late, this feels like a step towards something much, much better.


Brew Hoop Worst Contract of the Last Decade Ranking

10. Ersan Ilyasova (2012; 5-year, $40M; team option last year)

9. O.J. Mayo (2013; 3-year, $24M)

8. Mirza Teletovic (2016; 3-year, $31.5M)

7. Tony Snell (2017; 4-year, $44M)

6. John Salmons (2010; 5-year, $39M)

5. John Henson (2015; 4-year, $44M)

4. Drew Gooden (2010; 5-year, $32M)

3. Matthew Dellavedova (2016; 4-year, $38.5M)

2. Larry Sanders (2013; 4-year, $44M)

  1. Miles Plumlee (2016; 4-year, $52M)

Thanks everyone for participating! We’ll have a memorial Miles Plumlee post tomorrow to close out this exercise.