Larry Sanders spent the majority of the 2013-14 season in street clothes.
If 2012-13 was Larry Sanders’ breakout season, 2013-14 was when he was supposed to establish himself as one of the NBA’s best defensive big men.
Suffice it to say that didn’t happen.
Flash back to last summer: Coming off of easily his best NBA season, Sanders signed a four-year, $44 million extension to keep him in Milwaukee through 2017-18. It was a lofty commitment to a relatively unproven commodity with a penchant for on-court outbursts. But in a small market like Milwaukee, the deal was necessary to keep a high-upside talent eager to be the face of the franchise. After all, Sanders nearly averaged a double-double (9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds) in fewer than 28 minutes per game and finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year balloting, even garnering four first-place votes.
Sanders was hailed as the centerpiece of a franchise looking to rebuild and rebrand itself in the post-Jennings era. By August, the roster had been completely overhauled and all eyes were on Sanders, and new point guard Brandon Knight, to lead the way into the future in a historically weak Eastern Conference.
Despite a disappointing 0-5 preseason in which Sanders failed to show discernible offensive improvement, expectations remained steady entering the regular season. But opening night would serve as a solid indication of where the season was headed.
In a 90-83 loss to the Knicks at The Garden, Sanders played just 12 minutes, picking up five fouls, missing all three of his field goal attempts and committing two turnovers. But it was the Knicks – the second seed in the East a year ago and a team with one of the NBA’s most physical centers in Tyson Chandler.
Over the next two games, Sanders would play a total of 40 minutes, despite picking up just two fouls in each contest. He posted four points (2-5 FG), three boards and four blocks in a win over Boston, and four points (2-8 FG), four rebounds and one block in a loss to the Raptors on Nov. 2. The offensive end was still clearly a work in progress, but the assumption was Sanders’ production would pick up once Larry Drew settled on a rotation. As Bucks fans came to find out, however, a rash of injuries and inconsistent play prevented a steady rotation from ever becoming a reality.
That Nov. 2 game against the Raptors would prove to be Sanders’ last for nearly two months, as a thumb injury held him out until Dec. 27. But how he suffered the injury turned out to be the biggest story. Sanders initially claimed to have injured his thumb during the Toronto game but would later acknowledge his role in a Milwaukee nightclub brawl that left him with a torn ligament.
The incident wasn’t exactly a dream from a PR standpoint, and it came to define Milwaukee’s early season struggles, as the team limped to a 3-13 record at the end of November. Concerns of Sanders’ character surfaced again a few days after the nightclub incident, when it was revealed he’d been cited for animal cruelty in January.
With the Bucks already looking like a lottery lock, Sanders made his return on Dec. 27 after missing 25 contests. He played 22 minutes in a loss to the Nets, scoring 10 points and grabbing seven rebounds off the bench. Even with Sanders back in the fold, the Bucks continued to lose at an alarming rate. Following a double-digit loss to the Suns on January 5, Sanders was back in the public eye after engaging in a verbal dispute with then-teammate Gary Neal.
Per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sanders questioned the struggling Neal’s attitude, to which Neal responded: “I earn my money. Why don’t you try it?”
The confrontation was another black eye for Sanders and the organization, and it likely played a role in Neal’s annexation to Charlotte at the deadline after signing with Milwaukee as a free agent over the summer.
While Sanders continued to struggle offensively over the next month (44.1% FG in January), he provided solid rebounding and shot-blocking, though never neared the previous season’s level of production. He finished December averaging 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 26.5 minutes.
Sanders began the month of February with a strong three-game stretch, averaging 14.3 points and 11.3 boards in games against Memphis, New York and Denver. But just when he appeared to finding his comfort zone, his season was cut short during the first quarter of a Feb. 8 game against the Rockets. While battling for a rebound with Houston’s James Harden, Sanders took an inadvertent elbow to the face, leaving him with a fractured orbital bone. Initially slated to miss at least six weeks, he would later be ruled out by the Bucks for the remainder of the season.
Sanders didn’t let this latest injury keep him out of the headlines, though. On April 4, with the Bucks careening toward the worst record in the league, it was announced Sanders had been suspended five games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy by “using marijuana.”
It was the cherry on top of a disastrous season for both Sanders and the Bucks, a team most expected to contend for a playoff spot. Sanders issued an apology but would go on to speak up in favor of marijuana legal reform.
Sanders told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and NBA.com:
“It’s something I feel strongly about, just to let you know something personal about me. I will deal with the consequences from it. It’s a banned substance in my league. But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it. I know what it is if I’m going to use it.
“I study it and I know the benefits it has. In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived. You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.
“The stigma is that it’s illegal. I hate that. Once this becomes legal, this all will go away. But I understand for my work it’s a banned substance. I will deal with the consequences and I apologize again to my fans for that.”
Sanders finished the 2013-14 campaign with averages of 7.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 24.5 minutes. He played in just 23 games, making 20 starts. It was certainly a step back for the 25-year-old, but all is not lost as he heads into Year 1 of his $44 million extension. It’s difficult to believe he simply “got worse” from his third NBA season to his fourth. Yes, he struggled, but he was never able to truly find a consistent role within Larry Drew’s wildly inconsistent rotations. Plus, Sanders never played in more than 12 consecutive games, far too small a sample to draw definitive conclusions, especially considering the injuries to several other key players.
I’m willing to call 2013-14 a wash for Sanders. A lost season, yes, but not one in which he significantly regressed. Did we see any semblance of improvement on the offense end? No way. His offensive game is virtually non-existent outside of the restricted area (26.7% FG from 3-10 feet). When he was healthy, though, the innate defensive abilities were still there. With the extension looming large overhead, Sanders enters the offseason under heavy pressure to prove John Hammond and Co. made the right move. His supporting cast will undoubtedly be better (it has to be, right?) and healthier, but it’s on his shoulders to demonstrate the off-the-court issues are a thing of the past.
Overall grade: Incomplete
Off-the-court grade: F————