Larry Drew congratulates Larry Sanders on his extension, considers how not to play him (Gary Dineen/ Getty).
Heading into this season, the Milwaukee Bucks did not appear to provide non-partisan fans with many reasons for excitement. However, their roster did boast big man Larry Sanders, a high-energy, very entertaining player with the possibility to become widely known as one of the best interior defenders in the NBA. Sanders is fun, talented, recently signed to a lucrative long-term deal, and liable to get quite a bit better. To the extent that the Bucks would be watchable in 2013-14, he seemed to be a big reason to get excited.
After three games, Sanders has not played such a large role in the Bucks' plan. Playing just 12 minutes in the season opener due to foul trouble, Sanders played a combined 40 minutes in the team's next two contests for an early average of 17.3 minutes, well shy of his 27.3 mark in 2012-13. Worse yet, he hasn't been playing in crunch time.
“I feel like I’m capable of being in the game at the end and helping my team win, coming up with blocks and rebounds,” Sanders told NBA.com before exiting the locker room swiftly. “I haven’t been able to get my rhythm out there. I understand foul trouble situations, but tonight I wasn’t in foul trouble.
“Last year I finished so many games. I feel like that’s when I lock in the most. But I haven’t been able to get in the game to finish. That carries over to the next game. When you sit the last three quarters of each game, I can’t have no carryover. And it’s hard for me. I’m still a young player. It’s only my eighth year playing basketball.”
Sanders, 24, has played only 15 of his 52 minutes so far in the second half. He logged 3:12 at New York Wednesday, 5:34 at Boston Friday and 6:18 against the Raptors after the break. But then, the Bucks outscored the Knicks 52-34 after halftime and the Celtics 58-35. They had a 39-34 edge on the Raptors through 18 minutes of the second half Saturday before slipping back to lose the game by seven (and the half, 46-44).
It's hard to condone any player speaking out about playing time or the coaches' rotations after three games, because it's simply not a big enough sample size to gauge season-long trends. As those scores show, the Bucks didn't exactly struggle with Sanders playing relatively few second-half minutes, although who knows what his presence could have meant. Given the situation, it would probably be advisable for him to keep his mouth shut, see how the situation plays out over a period longer than five days, and assess his options if his playing time persists. It's a long season, and it's hard to know much after less than 1/27th of the whole thing.
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But those qualifications don't mean Sanders is wrong. Based on their roster makeup, the Bucks can realistically hope for a finish no better than seventh or eighth in the East, with a lower bound somewhere in the mid-lottery. This is not a very good team, but beyond that they just don't give fans and neutrals much reason to be excited about the future. Whether because of owner interests or the preferences of new head coach Larry Drew (or some combination of the two), this team is caught between not being good enough to contend and being committed enough to winning as many games as possible that it's unclear how they're going to get better any time soon. In Sanders, the franchise at least has a player who projects as an elite, very dependable player at the defensive end (which, it should be said, he already is when he gets on the court).
Sanders is far from an ideal player — he tends to let his emotions get the better of him, isn't a particularly good free throw shooter, and isn't so consistent that coaches trust him fully at the ends of games. Yet the Bucks have plenty of players with glaring weaknesses, and it's unclear exactly what the franchise gains when Drew sits Sanders at a time when he could be growing and learning from experience.
There's plenty of time for Sanders, Drew, and all other involved parties to work out this disagreement. However, it appears as if this dilemma may speak to broader issues within the organization and not just a single issue between a coach and player. Eventually, the Bucks need to decide if they'll continue to consider a win to be the best mark of progress.
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