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At Long Last, The Bucks Are No Longer Paying Larry Sanders (!!!)

Jon Leuer just came off the books too

Milwaukee Bucks v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Way back in 2013, the Bucks completed a rookie scale extension with then-24-year-old, third-year center Larry Sanders (a.k.a. LARRY SANDERS!!!) worth $44m over 4 years. Coming off a breakout year where he finished second in the NBA in blocks per game (behind Serge Ibaka, no less) and third in Most Improved Player voting. Sanders was well-liked by the fan base at the time and with his sensational rim protection, it seemed like a good bit of business.

Things went south within a matter of months, however, and that may be an understatement. In the first year of the contract alone (*takes deep breath*), he missed 25 games resulting from a finger injury he sustained in a nightclub brawl, was cited for disorderly conduct twice, cited for animal cruelty twice for leaving his dogs out in the cold during a road trip, suspended 5 games for marijuana use, and missed more time with fractured right orbital bone.

The following season, he suited up for 27 games but after a matchup with Charlotte on December 23rd, he left the team for 7 games. That would end up being his last appearance with the Bucks because upon return, he did not dress for any games and rumors began to swirl that he wanted to quit basketball. After again receiving a marijuana suspension for 10 games in January 2015, the Bucks bought out his contract in late February and Sanders subsequently announced that he was indeed leaving the sport. Here’s our full story stream from that time detailing the Sanders saga.

From his comments at the time of his quasi-retirement and that laundry list of baggage from the prior 12 months, it was plainly clear that Sanders had some very real mental health concerns at the time. He mentioned checking into rehab and losing his desire to play the game, which he came to a bit later in his adolescence than most players. Sanders expressed a desire to do more with art (he majored in it in college) and experiment with music. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that while we’re disappointed (maybe even miffed) that it didn’t work out, we hoped then and now that he’s in a better place.

Buying Sanders out was nothing simple, though. At the time he was actually in year one of the extension and thus had over three years and about $36m remaining on the deal, which meant he played only 8% of its length. He still ended up receiving nearly half of the money he signed for, however. To retire, Sanders had to give up around $20m in the buyout, which meant the Bucks still owed him approximately $15.2m. Rather than pay that money out each of the next three seasons, the Bucks used the stretch provision to save about $5.1m annually over that timespan after the buyout.

Stretching his contract after waiving him in February 2015 and after paying him the rest of the money they owed him that season, it meant that the Bucks paid Sanders just shy of $1.9m every year since. That’s six seasons paying a player who wasn’t on the roster and outside of a 5-game, 13-minute stint with the Cavs in 2017, wasn’t playing professional basketball. Though in the grand scheme of NBA cap figures, that’s a pretty small number, it would cover a veteran’s minimum salary in any of those years. Buying out and stretching put about $9m per year (he would have made $11m annually had he played out his contract plus possible incentives) back on the cap sheet for Milwaukee from 2015–2018 at least, but all and all this isn’t ideal.

No more! As of now, midnight on July 1 when this article posts to the site (I’ve had this article cued up and ready to go for months atop our writer’s dashboard, prompting laughs from my colleagues), the 2021–22 league year is over and the Bucks salary obligations to Sanders are complete. After $1.9m of dead money on the books earmarked for him each year, Milwaukee no longer has to pay him. By my calculations ended up paying him $13.1m by the time it was all said and done, so somehow they saved some money on what was originally expected. Pretty nice for Sanders, getting all that money not to play basketball.

That’s not the only good news regarding the Bucks’ cap ledgers today. They also are no longer obligated to pay all-time Badgers great and former Bucks second-round pick Jon Leuer $3.2m annually. You may recall that in summer 2019, just a few days before the draft, Milwaukee traded Tony Snell and their 30th overall first-round pick (which later ended up in Cleveland, who chose Kevin Porter Jr.) to Detroit in what amounted to a bad contract swap that could save Milwaukee some money.

Though Snell had a few solid years in Milwaukee, he was due nearly $25.6m over the remaining two seasons of the 4-year, $46m rookie-scale extension he inked in July 2017. If you recall, 2019 was a huge offseason for the Bucks where they had four very important players up for free agency: Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon. While Bledsoe was extended that spring, clearing cap space to get new deals for four-fifths (!) of their starting lineup was a priority. By then, Snell had fallen out of the rotation due to injury and mediocre performance, so he was the obvious guy to move on from in order to free up space.

The cost of getting another team to take on that unwanted salary was a late first-round pick, however, and because Detroit didn’t have the cap room to absorb Snell’s contract without, they had to send back quite a bit of salary to Milwaukee. In 2016, the Pistons signed the former Wisconsin star to a 4-year $42m contract (isn’t it funny how similar all these contracts I’ve mentioned are?) on the heels of a productive year with the Suns. Leuer played well enough his first year in Detroit but played only 8 games the following season due to an ankle injury and just 41 in 2018–19.

With one year and $10.5m remaining on his contract and no role on the team, the Pistons sent him back across Lake Michigan, where the Bucks then waived him. Rather than pay him eight figures, though, they stretched the remaining salary over the next three seasons to open up further cap room needed for Middleton and Lopez. Leuer never played in the NBA again but collected almost $3.2m in each of the past three seasons, fulfilling the salary he would have made in 2019–20.

That money also just came off the books! After paying over $5m to two players not on the roster since the 2019 offseason, the Bucks now finally have zero dead money on their cap sheet. In some seasons, that was worth nearly the taxpayer midlevel exception. With the Bucks recently above the luxury tax line, though, they were paying quite a bit more for these two players due to the multiplying effects of the tax. They weren’t just paying $5m to them: in 2021–22, the team paid about $17.9m more in tax penalties due to these stretched salaries.

Now free of these ball-and-chains, the Bucks can divert more money to players actually on the roster. Thanks to Pat Connaughton opting into the final year of his deal at an under-market value, with Bobby Portis’ shiny new extension, Marjon Beauchamp’s expected rookie contract, free agent signing Joe Ingles, plus returning contracts to Wes Matthews and Jevon Carter, the team’s payroll is about $172.5m with one roster spot left to fill. Unlike previous years, though, all that money is going to players currently in the NBA, so these savings from removed dead money come just at the right time.

Thus ends a very strange chapter in Bucks history.