Larry Sanders was one of the NBA’s breakout performers in 2012-13, finishing seventh in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year and third in the Most Improved Player balloting after averaging 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots in 27.3 minutes a game and helping the Milwaukee Bucks into the playoffs.
A coaching change and a four-year, $44 million contract extension later, Sanders is having a little bit of difficulty getting going in 2013-14 and part of the problem, at least in Sanders’ opinion, is that he’s not getting minutes in crunch time.
He’s played just 15 minutes in the second half over Milwaukee’s first three games, two of them losses and all of them contests where the Bucks overcame huge second-half deficits to make games interesting in the closing minutes.
“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 on Saturday following Milwaukee’s 97-90 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “I haven’t been able to get my rhythm out there. I understand foul trouble situations, but [Saturday] I wasn’t in foul trouble.”
Sanders is getting just 17.3 minutes a game in the early going, even though he’s started all three games. Instead, veteran free-agent acquisition Zaza Pachulia—who played for coach Larry Drew with the Atlanta Hawks—is averaging 26 minutes a night at center.
Of course, Pachulia is also producing. The 29-year-old is averaging 13 points and 7.7 rebounds a game—both team highs—and is shooting 58.3 percent from the floor (14-for-24).
Conversely, Sanders has eight points and 11 rebounds—total—in three games and is 4-for-16 shooting (25 percent).
A look at Sanders’ shot chart thus far (ridiculously small sample size alert!) is a study in red:
That compares to last season, when he was an average shooter at the rim and above average from the left block.
So will playing time cure Sanders’ lack of productivity? Or does he need to produce more in order to earn the trust of Drew when the chips are down?
“Throughout the game, I just didn’t feel like we put a burst together, where we were really moving and flying around,” Drew said Saturday. “So I elected to go smaller in the fourth quarter. At that point, I was really going to ride that group.”
That group wiped out a 12-point deficit and got Milwaukee even with the Raptors at 85-85 before the Bucks faltered down the stretch. The one substitution Drew made was to put Caron Butler in for Middleton after the second-year forward from Texas A&M clanked a pair of free throws and misfired on a pair of layups.
Drew said some of Sanders’ frustration might stem from playing for a third coach and in a second system in less than a year. Milwaukee was coached by Scott Skiles and interim coach Jim Boylan after Skiles’ resignation in 2012-13, with Drew coming in over the summer.
“It’s him still trying to learn this system and trying to learn his teammates,” Drew said. “He had some point-blank shots right around the basket—he just couldn’t get them to drop.”
The teammate issue is also a fair one to bring up—the Bucks have 11 players on the roster that weren’t in Milwaukee at the end of last season and the starting lineup includes just two holdovers from a year ago—Sanders and power forward Ersan Ilyasova.
Henson, however, theorized that Sanders’ biggest problem to this point might be the new contract.
Sanders disagrees and Drew said that if Sanders is pressing, he shouldn’t be. After all, he got his security. Now he just needs to go out and play.
That could be a problem tonight as the Bucks host the Cleveland Cavaliers; Sanders is on the injury report, listed as questionable with a swollen right thumb. He missed practice on Tuesday because of the injury after falling on the thumb Saturday night, but he hopes to go against the Cavaliers.
Ilyasova is also back on the injury report after aggravating his sprained right ankle in the loss to the Raptors. Ilyasova missed all but 10 minutes of the preseason with the injury, but came back to play off the bench in the opener at New York last week before starting the Bucks’ next two games.