Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders has been suspended without pay for a minimum of 10 games "for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program," the NBA announced Friday afternoon. Sanders' punishment will begin with Milwaukee's Monday meeting with the Toronto Raptors, and it's an open-ended sentence that "will continue until he is in full compliance with his treatment program," according to the league's statement.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
This is Sanders' second suspension for violating the league and players' union's drug policy. The first was a five-game rip for marijuana use last April, levied while Sanders was sidelined by surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone near his right eye. (The Bucks found a way for the previously-considered-out-for-the-season Sanders to serve that suspension before it bled into the 2014-15 campaign.)
While Sanders apologized at the time to the Bucks organization and Bucks fans for breaking league rules and getting himself suspended, he wasn't apologetic about smoking pot, telling Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it [...] I study it and I know the benefits it has."
Evidently, Sanders' belief has persisted enough to result in continued use. While the NBA's announcement did not specifically identify the substance for which Sanders tested positive, the penalty structure laid out in the joint anti-drug policy points toward the new 10-game penalty building on top of Sanders' previous pot-related indiscretions (emphasis mine):
(c) Penalties. Any player who (i) tests positive for marijuana pursuant to Section 5 (Reasonable Cause Testing), Section 6 (Random Testing), or Section 15 (Additional Bases for Testing), (ii) is adjudged by the Grievance Arbitrator pursuant to Section 5(e) above to have used or possessed marijuana, or (iii) has been convicted of (including a plea of guilty, no contest or nolo contendere to) the use or possession of marijuana in violation of the law, shall suffer the following penalties:
(A) For the first such violation, the player shall be required to enter the Marijuana Program;
(B) For the second such violation, the player shall be fined $25,000 and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program;
(C) For the third such violation, the player shall be suspended for five (5) games and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program; and
(D) For any subsequent violation, the player shall be suspended for five (5) games longer than his immediately-preceding suspension for violating the Marijuana Program and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program.
NBA players are subject to as many as six random tests each season and offseason — four during the season, two in the offseason. They may also receive "reasonable cause testing," triggered when an "Independent Expert" decides there's reasonable cause to test a player for a banned substance; said player is then subject to four extra random tests over a six-week span.
Sanders' new suspension will cost him a cool $1 million in game checks, and it comes less than two weeks after reports began to circulate that the shot-blocking big man — who left the Bucks just before Christmas for what Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd termed "personal reasons" — was no longer interested in playing professional basketball. The 26-year-old Sanders, who is in the first season of the four-year, $44 million contract extension he signed with the Bucks in August 2013, returned to the team on Jan. 6 to refute those reports, telling reporters that he is "in the process of working things out now to do what's best for my psyche and my physical health going forward," and that "there's a lot of evaluating going on."
"Without these things being corrected, I don't think basketball will be something I can even do," he said.
Despite returning to the team to clear the air surrounding his absence, Sanders has still not suited up for the Bucks since Dec. 23. While Kidd has shown support for the prodigal pivot — "He’s ours. He’s part of the family," the coach said — the Bucks have pressed on without him on the court. They've leaned on the likes of Zaza Pachulia, John Henson and rookie Johnny O'Bryant in the frontcourt rotation, and signed veteran big man Kenyon Martin to add frontcourt depth. With those bigs holding down the fort and Kidd continuing to get strong play from point guard Brandon Knight and wings Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Milwaukee has gone 7-4 since Sanders last saw action, improving to 21-19 on the season, good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
With the team continuing to surprise without Sanders, the 10-game-minimum suspension putting him out through Milwaukee's Feb. 7 meeting with the Boston Celtics at the earliest, and the league's edict that he won't be eligible to return to the floor until "he is in full compliance with his treatment program," one has to wonder what the likelihood is that we'll actually see Sanders on the floor for the Bucks again this season. And while the Bucks are on the hook for another three years and $33 million after this season, you wonder whether Sanders' persistent off-court issues — whatever their specific makeup and whatever your feelings about his perspective on the benefits of marijuana use — and the well-underway franchise reconfiguration around new foundational players like Antetokounmpo, Knight and injured rookie Jabari Parker could lead Milwaukee's front office and ownership to determine that keeping the former Virginia Commonwealth standout around might be more costly than taking pennies on the dollar in exchange for his services in trade, or even just paying him to go away.
These are grim, sad possibilities, the sort of options that nobody wanted to consider when Sanders burst on the scene two seasons ago as an arguably-Defensive Player of the Year-caliber rim-protector and analytical darling. But after the locker room issues, the on-court static and off-court problems, and his apparent difficulties with abiding by this one particular league rule, they're the sort of possibilities we're forced to consider. We'll keep hoping that the future will bring better things for Sanders as an individual and the Bucks as an organization, but it's starting to feel more and more like the journey toward healthy and positive resolutions for both parties might soon diverge into different paths.
- - - - - - -