Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders and what could have been

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 17: Larry Sanders
PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 17: Larry Sanders /

At 24, Larry Sanders was one of the league’s great young centers. By 26, he was out of the NBA and the Milwaukee Bucks were left without a starting center.

On August 21, 2013 the Milwaukee Bucks signed center Larry Sanders to a four-year extension worth $44 million. At the time of the deal he was a crucial piece to a young Milwaukee core of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, and 18-year-old rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo.

At the time, $11 million was a significant cap-hit. The cap in 2014-2015, the first year of the contract, was just over $63 million, meaning his contract made up approximately 17.5% of the overall cap. Comparing that to today’s values, Sanders’ contract would have been worth over $17 million.

While looking back it may seem like the Bucks overpaid for the young center, at the time the deal was seen as quite reasonable.

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The season before his big contract, Larry Sanders was spectacular. During the 2012-13 season, Sanders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game. He was third in the league in blocks and in one game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he recorded a triple-double.

Sanders wasn’t putting up empty stats either. That season he ranked third in voting for Most Improved Player and seventh for Defensive Player of the Year. All of this helping the Bucks to earn, an admittedly weak, playoff berth.

Unfortunately for the Bucks and Sanders, things quickly went downhill.

Both Sanders and the organization seemed to have a black cloud covering them for the 2013-2014 season. Just three games into the season, Sanders injured himself for 25 games, after tearing a ligament in his hand during an incident at a night club. The Bucks were terrible during this stretch, posting a record of 5-20 during his absence.

When Sanders returned he looked rusty. He was not the same player as the year before, and although he was struggling, after a couple of weeks he looked to be getting his footing again. After a game in February, the team announced Sanders would miss a minimum six weeks due to a fractured orbital bone. Later in the season he would be suspended for five-games, after testing positive for marijuana. From there, the Bucks fell to the NBA’s worst record and selected Jabari Parker.

Many expected, once healthy, Sanders to have a bounce-back season. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Sanders’ numbers were down across the board. At this time, though, he still proved to be a valuable rotation piece playing more than 20 minutes per game.

Although no one knew it at the time, December 23, 2014 was the last time Larry Sanders would play for the Milwaukee Bucks. Shortly after that game, the Bucks placed Sanders on their inactive list due to personal reasons. Later that season he would be suspended a second time for marijuana, and later reports surfaced that the he would be bought out. 

It was later revealed that Sanders needed to step away from the NBA due to issues with stress, anxiety, and depression. These are severe issues, and truthfully much more important than basketball. Luckily, Sanders seems to have worked through some of those problems as last year he was able to return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers for a short period of time.

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The future is bright for Milwaukee. The Bucks have a talented young core with the potential to grow from within. The team even has a young, improving center, Thon Maker. Still, one can’t help but wonder about what could have been with Larry Sanders. For Bucks fans, it’s a question that will linger for years to come.