The Bucks and Larry Sanders are in the final stages of negotiations on a long-term extension, one that reportedly is likely to pay the center more than $10MM a year. That's heady territory for a player who's only once averaged more than 14.5 minutes per game. Sanders has never scored as much as 10 points per game in any season either, but he's made it clear that he's a game-changer on the defensive end. Bucks GM John Hammond seems prepared to make the judgment that Sanders' defensive contributions far outweigh whatever shortcomings he has on offense.
Milwaukee outscored its opponents by 1.9 points per 100 possessions last season with Sanders on the floor, but the Bucks as a whole were minus 1.4 points in that category. Similarly, the Bucks gave up just 98.8 points per 100 possessions with Sanders in the lineup, a rate that would have been the third-best in the league if Milwaukee's subs had kept it up when Sanders went to the bench. Alas, the Bucks gave up 102.3 points per possession as a team, demonstrating a significant drop-off when Sanders, with his nearly 7'6" wingspan, wasn't protecting the middle. That meant the Bucks were just 12th in that category.
The Bucks were worse offensively, ranking 20th in points per 100 possessions, even with a stockpile of players proficient at either shooting or getting to the hoop, like Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy and, for the second half of the season, J.J. Redick. Sanders wasn't a complete offensive liability last season, and he showed improvement, averaging 9.8 PPG on 50.6% shooting after notching 3.6 PPG and 45.7% shooting the year before. He became a more effective finisher at the rim, where nearly two-thirds of his field goal attempts came from, according to Basketball-Reference. He shot 63.3% from point-blank range last season, better than his 58.6% shooting on such attempts in 2011/12. The problems show up on shots between three and 10 feet away from the basket, where he connected on a woeful 29.7% of his 111 attempts last year. That demonstrates a lack of an ability to score from the block.
The former 15th pick out of VCU is an effective rebounder, averaging 9.5 per game last season, more than three times the amount he grabbed in about half as many minutes in 2011/12. Still, he's not as effective on the boards as perhaps he could be, and if he improves on an offensive rebounding percentage that ranked 16th in the league last season, he could boost his scoring average with increased tip-in opportunities.
Sanders finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and there are similarities between him and Serge Ibaka, who narrowly missed out on Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011/12, the season before the Thunder rewarded him with a four-year, $49.4MM extension. Ibaka plays power forward on a contending team while Sanders is the center on a club that finished below .500 last year, but both have taken massive strides since entering the league, prompting excitement over just how much better they can become. Ibaka developed a mid-range shot after receiving the extension, helping the Thunder offset the scoring they lost in the James Harden trade. With Jennings, Ellis, Redick and Dunleavy all gone from Milwaukee, the Bucks may hold out hope that Sanders can similarly expand his offensive game.
Sanders averaged 2.8 blocks per game last season, third-best in the NBA, but nearly a block a game fewer than Ibaka had the year before he signed his extension. Still, opposing players quickly caught on to Sanders' basket protection and simply stayed out of the lane, as evidenced by the drop in his blocks per game from 3.2 before the All-Star break to 2.3 after.
The market for centers has long been inflated, even if some evidence from this summer shows front offices don't always pay for size. Sanders recently hired agent Dan Fegan, notorious for his representation of Dwight Howard, and Fegan will no doubt point to the four-year, $44MM contract the Nuggets gave JaVale McGee based largely on McGee's potential. McGee's per-36-minute scoring and rebounding numbers from the year before he signed his lucrative deal far outpace Sanders' production in those categories from this past season, but it's clear that Sanders possesses a far more nuanced understanding of the game.
Sanders seems destined for a deal worth between McGee's $11MM salary and Ibaka's more than $12MM+ annual pay. The question may lie in whether the Bucks will give him a four-year deal or lock him up for five seasons. Teams can only sign one player coming off a rookie-scale extension to a five-year deal, and it doesn't seem like there are any others on the Bucks roster who'll be worthy candidates when they're eligible in a few years. The Bucks figure to be a lottery team this year, and they could net a talented player in the rich crop of 2014 draft talent. Yet, with Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl in favor of fielding competitive teams rather than stripping the roster and angling for better lottery position, it could be a long time before the Bucks have another player on a rookie deal with Sanders' potential. If Hammond and company are believers in that potential, Sanders could be a major obstacle in front of Milwaukee's basket for years to come.