Larry Sanders’ Road to Redemption Critical to Milwaukee Bucks’ Turnaround

For Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders, his ascension among the NBA‘s best centers and defensive players came as rapidly as his fall from grace last season.

After locking into a four-year extension worth $44 million following a brilliant breakout season in 2012-13, Sanders probably had the worst year he was capable of having.

While we’ve seen players struggle to perform in “contract years,” there was so much more that went into last year’s troubles for Sanders.

Ben Leibowitz of Bleacher Report breaks it all down:

His involvements in a bar fight after just three regular-season games resulted in surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament—which kept him out for more than a month. …

He then underwent surgery to repair fractures to his right orbital bone in February, which he sustained against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 8, per NBA.com. He hasn’t been back in the rotation since—missing 25 straight games.

The five-game drug suspension is essentially the exclamation point on a lost season for Sanders. He was meant to move forward as the team’s up-and-coming leader and alpha dog, but injuries and off-court incidents have derailed his promising career.

Instead of expanding on his skills and continuing to be a strong defensive presence in the middle for the Bucks, Sanders raised questions about whether he has a place in Milwaukee’s future at all. Can he be depended on? What kind of impact will he have on his teammates?

Now on a big contract, Sanders wouldn’t be nearly as easy to move in a trade as before if Milwaukee decided that he was no longer providing a positive impact.

While there will likely always be someone willing to buy low on a game-changing talent like Sanders, the Bucks are sort of tied to him at this point until his stock can improve.

Here’s what Gery Woelfel of The Journal Times wrote earlier this offseason:

Still another Bucks player who could be wearing a new uniform next season is beleaguered center Larry Sanders, who has been saddled by a spate of off-court issues.

Sanders will be entering the first of a fully-guaranteed four-year, $44 million contract next season, making him virtually untradeable.

However, some team may be enticed to take on Sanders’ issues and hefty contract if perhaps Ilyasova, Henson or Knight was part of a trade package.

Obviously, it’s probably not worth it at this stage of Milwaukee’s rebuilding process to forfeit an asset and just dump Sanders. Unless he’s truly damaging everything on the court and in the locker room, the Bucks would be better off stomaching his presence until a better offer comes in.

With that said, the fresh start this year could do both sides a lot of good.

Milwaukee is turning the page as a franchise with new owners and a new head coach in Jason Kidd, so Sanders will be given every opportunity to get back on track.

Here’s what Bucks assistant general manager David Morway told HoopsHype about Sanders’ outlook going forward:

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Larry is in our future plans. We are hopeful that this year Larry gets back to being the basketball player that he was two years ago. He is a defensive presence and a game changer on the court. So when you have his length along with Giannis, Jabari Parker, John Henson and then Zaza Pachulia, Damien Inglis, who is very long, and if you play Khris Middleton at the two… We are a fairly long team.

The Bucks are wise to keep other frontcourt optionslike John Henson—on the roster, as relying on Sanders for a full slate of productive games might be a little tough to do at this point.

Again, though, for Milwaukee to turn things around and get back in the playoff hunt, it’ll need Sanders at his best. 

Here’s what Sanders told Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year:

It’s been two opposite sides of the spectrum in a lot of ways. Two extremes. A consistent season would be great. I’ll be better from this. I’ve learned a lot already from this year. I’m going to continue to learn. I hate that this is a negative impact on my fans and my family or the organization.

At least in some ways, it’s good that the bar is so low right now. Sanders just needs to stay out of trouble and stay on the court, which shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Once he’s there, his incredible length and shot-blocking abilities should take care of the resteven if we don’t see him play at his 2012-13 level quite yet.

It’s important for the development of the entire Bucks team to have Sanders playing well.

Jabari Parker needs his rim protection to cover up for his defensive faults, and such a young team needs to establish an identity early on. With Sanders and all that length elsewhere, it can revolve around defense, so long as there’s consistency. That’s the big question right now.

For the Bucks to eventually turn it around and complete their rebuilding process, a lot of it starts with the man in the middle of it all.

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Larry Bird rips Paul George for ‘thoughtless’ tweets

Indiana Pacers star Paul George ticked off a lot of people Thursday, and that included his boss. George ruffled some feathers when he fired off insensitive tweets regarding the Ray Rice fiasco. The Pacers swingman made light of the incident and defended Rice by implying Rice’s actions weren’t that bad because he was defending himself. George also appeared to take issue with the NFL’s indefinite suspension of the ex-Baltimore Ravens running back. It didn’t take long for George to be raked over the Twitter coals, though. Fans and media alike ripped the All-Star — who is currently recovering from a broken leg — leading George to delete the tweets. He also issued an apology via Twitter. However, that didn’t stop Pacers president Larry Bird from releasing a statement condemning George’s words. “Paul George’s tweets from earlier were thoughtless and without regard to the subject of domestic violence and its seriousness in society,” Bird said in a statement. “We have talked to Paul to strong

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Larry Bird Rips Paul George For ‘Thoughtless’ Tweets About Ray Rice

Indiana Pacers star Paul George ticked off a lot of people Thursday, and that included his boss. George ruffled some feathers when he fired off insensitive tweets regarding the Ray Rice fiasco. The Pacers swingman made light of the incident and defended Rice by implying Rice’s actions weren’t that bad because he was defending himself. George also appeared to take issue with the NFL’s indefinite suspension of the ex-Baltimore Ravens running back. It didn’t take long for George to be raked over the Twitter coals, though. Fans and media alike ripped the All-Star — who is currently recovering from a broken leg — leading George to delete the tweets. He also issued an apology via Twitter. However, that didn’t stop Pacers president Larry Bird from releasing a statement condemning George’s words. “Paul George’s tweets from earlier were thoughtless and without regard to the subject of domestic violence and its seriousness in society,” Bird said in a statement. “We have talked to Paul to strong

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Blatt adds Larry Drew to Cavs’ coaching staff (Yahoo Sports)

First-year Cavaliers coach David Blatt has hired former Milwaukee coach Larry Drew as one of his assistants. Blatt will have Drew, Jim Boylan, Bret Brielmaier and James Posey on the bench with him along with Tyronn Lue, named an associate head coach in June. Drew went 15-67 in his only season in Milwaukee. He was expected to get a second year but was fired so the Bucks could hire Jason Kidd.

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Leonard left Larry O’Brien trophy at home to work out

Kawhi Leonard in a nutshell.

      
 

 

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Bucks agree with Nets for Jason Kidd, fire Larry Drew

Bucks will get two future second round picks in exchange for Kidd coaching.

      
 

 

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Larry Bird Confirms Pacers Are Interested in Bringing Back Lance Stephenson

For a minute there during the 2014 playoffs, Lance Stephenson seemed to be doing everything he could to make the Indiana Pacers second-guess their willingness to retain his services. Now a free agent, the Pacers are in position to decide whether Stephenson’s talent outweighs his maturity.

Apparently, that decision had already been made.

Getting those terms right may be a different story altogether, but Bird has at least indicated that the Pacers are interested in keeping Stephenson around.

Indeed, one of the reasons the Pacers ultimately traded away their second-round pick (No. 57 overall) was to retain flexibility under the luxury tax during a summer in which several free-agent decisions are to be made. Bird explained, per Vigilant Sports’ Scott Agness:

The only reason we didn’t pick a player is because we don’t know what is going to happen in free agency. And this is one year we are tight on money. If our guy wasn’t there, we weren’t going to take a stab at it because we got Lance [Stephenson], we got Lavoy [Allen], we got some other guys we’re looking at. In free agency, you never know where we’re going to be. Our owner (Herb Simon) said we can spend up to the tax. That’s what we’re looking forward to do.

Much as the organization may be interested in keeping Stephenson around, the price has to be right, and it’s unclear just how much the Pacers are willing to spend. Complicating matters even more, Indiana will have competition. Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains:

Any team with cap room and some guts could try to persuade Stephenson to be a fixture on the wing for the next half-decade. Rebuilding teams can’t even use the excuse about not wanting to splurge in free agency ahead of schedule; Stephenson’s age makes him a natural fit on any team at the start of its upswing. Nabbing Stephenson comes with the bonus of snatching a crucial piece from an Eastern Conference heavyweight, leaving Indiana capped out and without any means to sign an equal talent.

Though Indiana may be willing to outbid the competition in a vacuum, questions persist about Stephenson’s readiness to avoid distraction while contributing to a team that’s more than ready to contend.

Those questions began to emerge in earnest when Stephenson found himself in a practice dust-up with teammate Evan Turner when the postseason was just around the corner. Given the club’s late-season struggles, the timing and threat to chemistry couldn’t have been appreciated.

Nor was Stephenson’s ill-fated attempt to get inside LeBron James’ head during the two teams’ conference finals matchup. That started after Game 3, when Stephenson labeled James’ trash-talking “a sign of weakness.”

Then things got even worse in Game 5 when Stephenson infamously blew in James’ ear.

For all of his mistakes, however, Stephenson remains one of the league’s most promising young two-way players. The 23-year-old could certainly continue to evolve—both on and off the court—into a capable sidekick for emerging superstar Paul George.

As long as he doesn’t derail this Pacers operation via antics or attitude, the franchise would be far better off with Stephenson than without him—especially given the prospect of losing him for nothing in free agency.

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Billy Donovan, Larry Brown Among Finalists for Naismith Coach of the Year 2014

The Atlanta Tipoff Club named the five finalists for the 2014 Naismith Men’s College Basketball Coach of the Year Award on Thursday, and it figures to be one of the most interesting votes in recent memory.

According to the official press release, Michigan’s John Beilein, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, SMU’s Larry Brown, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will vie for the title of college basketball’s best coach.   

That list was confirmed by Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com:

All five candidates certainly have their merits, and all of them can potentially stake claim to the award.

Donovan’s Gators finished the season with a perfect record in the SEC, and they enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in the nation.

Brown is the most accomplished coach on the list; however, he is probably the biggest underdog. Brown didn’t lead the Mustangs to the NCAA tournament (they are part of the NIT), but he did manage to help SMU win 24 games after winning just 15 last season.

Marshall is the only coach to lead his team to an undefeated record this season. The Shockers finished the regular season with a perfect 34-0 mark after reaching the Final Four in 2013.

Bennett’s Cavaliers are among college basketball’s most surprising teams, as they shockingly nabbed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Beilein has managed to build upon Michigan’s national title game appearance last year by establishing the Wolverines as one of the top contenders to win it all once again this year.

It would be difficult to argue with any of these coaches as Coach of the Year, but Marshall has to be considered the favorite as the only coach who hasn’t tasted defeat.

Based on his comments prior to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament (per Roger Kuznia of Sporting News), Marshall couldn’t be happier with the way his team has performed:

Very proud. Very proud of these guys, how they handled this. There’s been a lot of focus, both positive and negative about this team. Every day they’ve come to work. They’ve worked extremely hard, they a great group of young men, they’re fun to be around and they deserve to be 31-0.

Even though Wichita State’s level of competition wasn’t on par with some of the best teams in the nation, Marshall’s squad was prepared and executed well every time it hit the floor.

A soft schedule could hurt Marshall’s chances in the eyes of the voters, but look for him to ultimately come out on top.

 

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Larry Bird says he’s ‘disappointed’ with Pacers

The Indiana Pacers have the Eastern Conference’s best record, but Larry Bird is disappointed with the team’s mental approach heading into games this season. “A lot of times, we don’t take the fight to them (the opponent),” Bird said to The Indianapolis Star. “A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing again. We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.” The Pacers (47-17) are 6-4 in their last 10 games, including Tuesday night’s 94-83 win over the Boston Celtics. “People ask me if I’m mad at them,” Bird said. “I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.” Bird, the team’s president of basketball operations, supports Frank Vogel, but wants the Pacers’ coach to start going after players that are slacking. “I’m sort of going to Frank’s side because he’

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Larry Bird Rips into Indiana Pacers, Says He’s ‘Disappointed’ with Team

Larry Bird, a Hall of Fame selection in 1998, knows greatness when he sees it.

And apparently he isn’t seeing it from his Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers president said he’s not happy with his team’s approach, even if that same approach has powered Indiana to an Eastern Conference-leading 47-17 mark.

The talent is clearly in place for the Pacers to do something special, but that talent is being wasted by a lack of proper focus, Bird told Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star:

A lot of times, we don’t take the fight to them (the opponent). A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing again. We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.

That wait-and-see mentality has sent the Pacers into a relative stumble of late. Indiana is just 14-10 over its last 24 games, after securing 33 victories in its first 40 contests.

The team’s stonewall defense has sprung some uncharacteristic leaks (three of its last four opponents have scored in triple digits). The revamped second unit has managed just 26.1 points a night (third-fewest in the league), via HoopsStats.com. Superstar-in-training Paul George hasn’t yet ditched his training wheels (17 points on .381/.241 shooting over his last six outings).

And Roy Hibbert, once an overwhelming favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year, has all but fallen out of that race.

“Indiana is allowing plenty of points in the paint recently, and it all stems from Hibbert‘s ineffectiveness guarding the rim,” Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal wrote. “Those principles of verticality aren’t working in his favor, and he’s been abused both by physicality and finesse.”

The toughest team in the business has started to look a bit fragile:

There are no panic alarms sounding in the Circle City, but flags of concern are flying at full-mast.

People ask me if I’m mad at them,” Bird said, via Kravitz. “I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.”

Anger, frankly, would be easier to deal with for his players. Disappointment, though, cuts right at their core.

It’s a sign of minimizing available opportunities. It’s having the chance at success and letting it flounder away.

That bridge hasn’t been crossed. Not yet, at least.

The Pacers skid hasn’t cost them the top seed out East, and their net rating (plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions) still sits as the fifth-best mark in the NBA.

But clearly there are issues that need to be addressed.

The Pacers have the tools to ease Bird’s concerns, but they’re useless if they’re not coupled with a strong mental approach. If Indiana can’t right the ship, then its shot at securing the No. 1 seed could be at risk—along with any potential postseason prizes the Pacers had envisioned.

There is, of course, no benefit to peaking in the middle of March. But the Pacers have to hope their best basketball isn’t buried in their rearview mirror.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.

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