The dark cloud that's followed Larry Sanders around for almost the entirety of the 2013-14 season looks like it will linger a bit longer. The NBA announced Friday that the Milwaukee Bucks center/power forward has been suspended without pay for five games "for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program." The league's announcement specifies that Sanders' suspension "will begin with the next NBA regular season game for which he is eligible and physically able to play," and since the Bucks have already ruled Sanders out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone in his right eye, that means he'll be missing the first five games of the 2014-15 season. Not exactly the best way to kick off the new campaign.
The Bucks, as you'd expect, weren't exactly thrilled about it:
Larry Sanders has a responsibility to every person in our organization and our fans. We are all disappointed by the news of his suspension.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 4, 2014
The NBA didn't specify the substance for which Sanders tested positive, but the 25-year-old shot-blocker came clean in a team statement:
Larry Sanders statement: “I apologize to the entire Bucks organization and our fans for being suspended five games for using marijuana..."
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) April 4, 2014
The penalty structure laid out in the joint anti-drug policy indicates that this was Sanders' third marijuana-related violation (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:
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.
The suspension is a pretty perfectly ignominious end to a bummerific year for Sanders, who burst into NBA fans' consciousness as a near-Defensive Player of the Year-caliber rim-protector and analytical darling, and who has seen just about everything go south since signing a four-year, $44 million contract extension with the Bucks last offseason. (Although, to be fair, that's a pretty high point.) (No pun intended.)
Sanders started the year by clashing with new head coach Larry Drew over playing time just three games into the season, then saw his troubles move off the court in the form of a fight at a Milwaukee nightclub during which he suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb. Surgery to repair the ligament kept Sanders sidelined for 25 games; the Bucks went 5-20 without him.
Sanders was later cited for disorderly conduct and assault for his role in the nightclub scuffle. He also earned negative headlines with the revelation that he'd been cited twice in January 2013 for leaving two German shepherd puppies outside in the freezing cold.
Five games after making his return to the lineup following surgery, Sanders had a locker-room shouting match with guard Gary Neal, who reportedly blasted Sanders' work ethic: "I earned my money. Why don't you try it?" (Neal was later traded to the Charlotte Bobcats.) A week after the argument, Sanders got the heave-ho from a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder after just 6 1/2 minutes of playing time due to whistling an elbow near the head of center Steven Adams.
Sanders briefly showed signs of life after that incident, averaging 10.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes per game over a 10-game stretch before getting waylaid by James Harden's elbow on Feb. 8. From there, the surgery; from there, the shelving, which ended his season after just 23 appearances in which he'd averaged only 7.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game.
After the Bucks made it official that Sanders wouldn't be returning this season, he turned his attention toward getting himself better prepared to earn the $11 million he's set to make next year, according to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
"I want to put on a lot of weight," he said. "At least 15 pounds. I want to get to 240, 245, a good running weight. I want to be really strong. I want to feel unmovable out there.
"I just see it being the hardest-working summer since back when I was in college, maybe when I was going out for the draft (in 2010). That will be the only one I could probably compare to this one." [...]
"Because of my eye and missing this time here, I get a chance to start back before everybody does," Sanders said. "That's my plan, to at least be in the gym three weeks before everybody else does, just working on my body. Just working on my health and my nutrition and my body.
"I'm excited about that."
Sanders also told Gardner that the nightclub incident taught him that he needed "to move as a public figure," to employ bodyguards, and that he can no longer "move as a normal individual."
"I got myself in trouble," he said. "That mistake won't happen again."
Well, getting popped for smoking weed isn't the same as getting popped in the head with a bottle, but in the eyes of the NBA, at least, Sanders has gotten in trouble once again. As prodigious as his defensive talents are, Sanders' continual inability to color inside the lines is earning him the kind of reputation — both on the court and off it — that can derail, or at least needlessly complicate, a promising and lucrative career. The Bucks have made a major investment in Sanders being able to put away childish things, and while it's unlikely that this latest misstep will convince the organization that he can't — as Brew Hoop's Frank Madden writes, Sanders might be "frustrating and complicated," but he "can't simply be categorized as a bad apple or locker room cancer" — it sure as heck doesn't make him look like a more reliable prospective cornerstone.
This has been a year that everyone associated with the Bucks would just as soon put behind them; Sanders has just ensured that that process will take a little bit longer. Here's hoping he's serious about making a clean break and having a fresh start come Game No. 6.
- - - - - - -