The LARRY SANDERS! Show: What the Bucks Big Man Must Do to Justify His New Contract

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John Hammond and Larry Drew, the Bucks’ GM and new head coach, sat together watching practice at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas last month lamenting a little thing in LARRY SANDERS!’s offense. SANDERS! was just barely hamstringing his team’s scoring chances as the screen-setter on pick-and-rolls. “There it is again!” Hammond would exclaim to Drew. “And again! He’s so close.”

Coach and GM were noticing a tic in SANDERS!’s offensive game — a tendency to nail an opposing point guard with a pick and linger there for an extra beat, making sure his pick serves as a real obstacle. It’s an admirable habit at a time when a lot of big men are so eager to dart to the hoop that they start their dive before making contact on a screen. But SANDERS! errs too much in the other direction, delaying his rolls to the hoop just long enough that help defenders are ready by the time he catches the ball — if his point guard can find a passing lane to him in the first place. It’s fixable with time and practice, though exchanging Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight will introduce a new challenge in SANDERS!’s quest to master the pick-and-roll ballet.

It’s a little thing that matters enormously now that SANDERS! has signed a four-year extension that could pay up to $48 million with incentives — a salary range that includes developing disappointments (DeAndre Jordan, JaVale McGee) and underpaid All-Stars who contribute solid work on both ends of the floor (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, potentially Serge Ibaka). SANDERS! is already one of the 10 or so most impactful defenders in the league, though to cement his place on that end, he has to continue some of the trends that only emerged last season — the first in which he averaged even 15 minutes per game: a declining foul rate, better discipline on the defensive glass, and smarter decisions on when to chase shot-blocks.

Those trends should continue as SANDERS! hones his craft. But for SANDERS! to really earn this money, he has to make at least a half-leap on offense — to reach the point where he’s a solid enough all-around threat that Milwaukee can score at an acceptable rate when Ersan Ilyasova rests. That’s not a shot at Ilyasova, or any suggestion he shouldn’t play as much as he does. He’s a so-so defender at best, but his elite 3-point shooting from the power forward spot allows Milwaukee’s offense to breathe; the Bucks scored at nearly a top-10 rate with Ilyasova on the floor, but collapsed all the way to Washington’s league-worst points per possession mark when he sat, per NBA.com. They sunk even further when SANDERS! played without Ilyasova, and the eagerly anticipated SANDERS!–John Henson pairing logged only 107 minutes together because of concerns about floor spacing with two shaky jump-shooters on the front line.

The Bucks believe in the SANDERS!-Henson combination, especially on defense, where they could form a terrifying all-arms wrecking crew at the rim. They might even be able to survive against en vogue smaller lineups because SANDERS! especially has shown an ability to stick with quicker perimeter players one-on-one; he probably should have spent more time guarding LeBron James in Miami’s first-round whitewashing of the Bucks last season.

But the team also knows both guys must develop offensively for that combination to work for sustained stretches. “I think they can play together,” Hammond says. “I know there will be offensive challenges. Larry has just got to get quicker on the pick-and-roll. He still hesitates when he screens. He has made his presence known as a defender, but as he continues to move forward and become a more effective player, it has to happen at the offensive end.”

SANDERS! has the tools to become something like a skinnier Tyson Chandler on the pick-and-roll — a springy alley-oop-gobbling beast who sucks in multiple defenders just by cutting down the gut, opening up outside shots for everyone else. He’s already shown that skill, but only sporadically; his film reel is surprisingly light on pick-and-roll dunks or fouls that defenders commit to stop a certain slam. SANDERS! attempted only 2.5 foul shots per 36 minutes last season, the 12th-lowest mark among 62 players 6-foot-10 or taller who logged at least 1,000 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. That kind of number is fine when you’re Al Horford or Chris Bosh, elite jump-shooting bigs who take a lot of pick-and-pop shots — plays that don’t often draw fouls. It’s a problem for SANDERS!, who has de-emphasized his bricky jumper in favor of rim runs and even the occasional dribble drive when he does catch the ball 20 feet from the rim on a pick-and-pop.

His poor foul shooting probably contributes to this issue. SANDERS! improved to 61.8 percent from the line last year, up from 52.3 percent combined over his first two seasons, but he needs to get better and become more willing to draw contact at the rim. Chandler didn’t become a star until he started hitting 70 percent of his foul shots. (This is the part where Detroit fans cover their ears and do the “I’M NOT LISTENING TO YOU!” routine.)

What the film does show often is SANDERS! holding his screen for that extra second, cutting to the rim, catching the ball in heavy traffic, and then struggling a bit to figure out his next move. He’ll bend his knees, gather the ball, and then rise for a contested layup over at least one help defender — a shot SANDERS! can loft with either hand, and with a decent touch.

But they’re hard shots. And they often come with at least one or two open shooters dotting the 3-point arc — shooters SANDERS! has trouble finding in fast-moving situations like this. He has to get better as a pick-and-roll threat, and the learning curve and present-day skill set suggest he will.

And let’s not exaggerate here: SANDERS! is close. He shot about 55 percent out of pick-and-rolls, 18th among 63 big men who had at least 100 such chances last season, per Synergy Sports. (Glen Davis checked in at dead last, at a pathetic 29 percent. Keep shooting, Big Baby!) That’s a solid number, but, again, it’s not quite as good as it looks, considering SANDERS! rarely shoots jumpers or gets to the line. Bosh shooting 62 percent at the roll man? That’s ridiculous.

He’s also not down at the Ibaka/Tyler Hansbrough level as a passer. SANDERS!’s 1.5 assists per 36 minutes puts him right in the middle of those 6-10 (or taller) guys who played at least 1,000 minutes last season. He’s not averse to making reads from the elbow and finding the open man, and he’ll still flash a soft-looking jumper now and then. Again, the tools are there. They just need sharpening.

SANDERS! has the whole defense thing down just fine, and an elite rim protector with rudimentary offensive skills is worth something close to this level of money. In other words, to be crystal clear: This contract should turn out just fine for the Bucks, who could enter each of the next two seasons with something in the ballpark of $10 million of cap space even after this deal. They’d have something like max-level cap space if not for the bizarre Zaza Pachulia overpay, but that’s water under the bridge.

SANDERS!’s footwork on defense last season was downright gorgeous. The Bucks most often had him drop back against pick-and-rolls, so that he’d hang near the elbow as an opposing ball handler turned the corner. That’s him at the right elbow on this Raymond Felton–Chandler pick-and-roll:

The goal of any big man in SANDERS!’s position here is to corral that point guard while keeping in touch with the big man rolling to the basket. SANDERS! has become a freaking savant at this. The best point guards try to fool big men into overcommitting in one direction using head fakes, hesitation moves, and misdirection dribbles. They rarely fool SANDERS! He responds to all those tricky feints by shifting right along with them, but never over-shifting, to the point where he almost moves like a mirror image of that point guard. SANDERS! can manage that because he’s light and bouncy on his feet, balanced but also coiled and ready to spring at the same time.

He’s also smart about keeping tabs on that big, sliding a half-step back in that direction if the point guard moves that way, and spreading those super-long arms into passing lanes:

The result is that point guards often don’t know quite what to do with SANDERS! Some put their heads down and try to drive right by him for layups, and you can guess what SANDERS! does to those puppies; no player blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots while on the court last season, and SANDERS!’s presence was the difference between Milwaukee having a top-three overall defense (with SANDERS! playing) and a bottom-five overall outfit (with SANDERS! sitting), per NBA.com.

Guards who didn’t opt for a desperate rim run often improvised by crossing back over toward the middle of the court and trying to make something happen from there. Here’s Jrue Holiday pulling this act in front of SANDERS!:

And here’s Kemba Walker about to do the same:

What often happened here: turnovers. The middle of the floor is a crowded area, dribbling sideways is dangerous, and moving across the foul line gives weakside defenders a chance to creep closer to their men and anticipate cross-court passes. Milwaukee forced pick-and-roll ball handlers into turnovers at a much higher than average rate, per Synergy, and SANDERS!’s presence as a drive deterrent had a lot to do with that.

And then you had the point guards who just opted to launch panicked floaters from outside the normal floater range, a “fight-or-flight” response to SANDERS! lurking nearby:

He’s not a perfect defender, obviously. He still fouls too much. He’ll bite on pump fakes against the very best midrange shooters, though he’s at least cut this habit against the rest. His default assumption is that he should be close to the rim, even when he’s guarding an elite spot-up shooter; Bosh absolutely ate up the Bucks all season, and, I mean, SANDERS! is technically supposed to be guarding Dirk F’ing Nowitzki on this Mike James–Brandan Wright pick-and-roll that Ilyasova seems to have under control:

Spoiler alert: James found Nowitzki for a wide-open jumper, which Nowitzki made. SANDERS! also isn’t great at recognizing when a team has bent Milwaukee’s defense into rotations so dramatic that he’s next in line to rotate out toward a deadly shooter parked in the corner. But let’s just say the perimeter defense of Jennings and Monta Ellis wasn’t exactly helping the cause at the front end of those plays.

Knight and O.J. Mayo compose the Bucks made-over backcourt, and SANDERS! now emerges as the centerpiece of an intriguing young team. But the downgrade at the point from Jennings to Knight (and Luke Ridnour) will make it hard for Milwaukee to nail its customary no. 7 or no. 8 seed, assuming good health for the Wizards, so-so health for the Cavaliers, improvement from the Pistons, and some stability in Toronto.

Milwaukee is playing the long game a bit more than usual, though. The frontcourt is young, exciting, and crowded; Ekpe Udoh might be the most obvious trade piece in the league, and Ilyasova will draw heavy interest if the Bucks ever decide to move him. They’re set with that cap space, though some of it depends on contract options, how their bundle of extra second-round picks turn out, and what they do with Knight’s cap hold after the 2014-15 season — and obviously with whatever salary comes in and out in trades. (The Bucks have about $7 million in cap room going into the season, meaning they could serve as a prime dumping ground in trades.)

But it’s hard to see a high long-term ceiling with the current backcourt and wing rotation. The Bucks have aspirations of being the Pacers, a small-market team that builds something special without the benefit of a homegrown top-10 pick. SANDERS! can be their Roy Hibbert, only with pick-and-roll finishing in place of Hibbert’s soft-touch post game and offensive rebounding. But who among the guard and wing crew is ready to be George Hill or Paul George — the young guys who reach high enough ceilings so that the team is one free-agent home run (i.e., a David West) away from 45 to 50 wins and playoff excellence?

That’s the question the Bucks face now. Locking up SANDERS! answers one question, and closes off a repeat of last season’s damaging free agency drama with Jennings. Here, at least, is a deal that should turn out just fine.

Filed Under: Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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