The End of the Larry Sanders Show
The one-hit wonder is a strange beast. At once, one-hit wonder songs can be both revered and mocked for pretty much the same reason - revered for the song becoming a hit, and mocked because it was the only one that did anything for anybody.
Though normally reserved for the music world, the idea of a one-hit wonder is not reserved to audiophiles only. In just one year, a player can make the fans, or even a franchise, say, "Whoomp, there he is!" But then, in an mmmbop, he's gone.
That shouldn't surprise anyone. Players have long been known to step up their performance in a contract year, sign a big deal, and proceed to knock their team's record down, not helping them get up again in the least.
Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, Larry Sanders appears to be much more Los Del Rio than Pitbull. As a result, this season has been a more bitter than sweet symphony in Brew City. With no way to save tonight for the lowly Bucks, and closing time for the Bucks 2013-14 season coming much earlier than expected, it might be time to assess Larry Sanders - a man who left Bucks fans breathless last year, but is leaving them barely breathing this year.
Sanders in 2012-13: This is Why I'm Hot
Though Sanders was not a rookie in 2012-13, he hadn't played very much during his first two years in the league. In fact, Sanders played more minutes last year than he did the previous two years combined. During the 2012-2013 season, he turned it up and turned it on with easily his best year in the league, finishing third in the NBA in blocks, behind Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert, and second in blocks per game behind only Ibaka. Sanders left most opposing offenses pretty blue, finishing with the best block percentage in the league.
In fact, amongst 24 year olds since 2000, Sanders' nERD (learn more about nERD) as a big man compared favorably to some decent young centers when they were 24 years of age:
Perhaps he's not the best player on the list, but Sanders had a decent season at age 24. Though he didn't show a ton of greatness before last year, Sanders was an intimidating force in the paint, and, most importantly, helped the Bucks win some games. It's no shock then to see that the Milwaukee Bucks saw the sign, and it opened up their eyes as they inked Sanders to a deal worth $11,000,000 per year starting in 2014-15, running through 2017-18.
Amongst the youth of the NBA nation, Sanders appeared to be a rising star, a lock for some Defensive Player of the Year awards. Evidence was certainly there to warrant the $11,000,000 extension, especially given the artificially inflated value of centers in this league, and it's certainly tough to grade contracts in retrograde. However, given what has happened with Sanders this season, this contract could already be one the Bucks start regretting next year, if they aren't regretting it already.
How bizarre things have become in Milwaukee.
Sanders in 2013-14: You Get What You Give
Sanders' 2013-14 campaign has been like a car with one headlight - functionally still in existence, but a shell of what you need and expect. I'll stay away from off-the-court issues, though they certainly haven't helped. I can't properly assess how they've affected Sanders' game - his tendency to party like a rockstar certainly has not helped his image within the Bucks organization, but Sanders has also had significant, perhaps tangentially-related injury issues that have kept him off the floor anyway.
Candidly, I wonder if the off-the-court issues have kept Sanders out longer than he otherwise would have been, but I can't say for certain. Sanders has a nERD efficiency of -1.2 this year, behind centers like Kelly Olynyk (-1.0), the embroiled Omer Asik (-0.9), and Kenyon Martin. At $11,000,000 per year starting next year, you really need Sanders to not only improve upon his performance, but to move more towards the elite centers in the league.
Though Sanders has been hit with an injury bug, his per 36-minute averages have seen better days. Milwaukee is just hoping the bottom doesn't drop out. It's tough to compare totals (or really even averages) from last year - Sanders has only played in 20 games, but per minute on the floor, he's been ineffective.
Right now, Sanders is on pace to have worse points, rebounds, blocks, and fouls per 36 minutes compared to last year. In fact, this year he's pacing to have his worst blocks per 36 and his worst free throw percentage of his career. He's currently shooting 47% from the free throw line, down just under 15% from last year. For a guy that Milwaukee thought was everything they wanted - and everything they needed - at the center position, this stark drop-off from last year's production has to have heads in Milwaukee's front office hanging lower than Jibbs' chain.
At the end of the day, this is bad news for the Bucks. Sanders has been a total disaster this year and his big money hasn't even kicked in yet. Milwaukee has easily the lowest nERD as a team, sitting two points worse than the 76ers (at #29) and nearly 10 points worse than the 28th-ranked team (Utah Jazz). When the lights go out on this season, there is going to be some serious soul searching as to whether Sanders is salvageable.
It's been a disaster so far, but a player's athleticism at Sanders' age rarely just ever "goes away" barring a catastrophic injury or being Eddy Curry. Walking it out these next few months will be crucial for Milwaukee's front office this offseason - they undoubtedly will have a top-five pick, but they will need to take a long hard look at their investments.
Milwaukee is hoping they've got a stud. But they might just have a one-year wonder.