Larry Sanders is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season.
Things were supposedly on the upswing for the center, a freshly minted extension in his pocket as a reward for a dreamy third year in which he broke out of his foul-prone, hot-headed ways and became an advanced metric demigod and all-caps internet phenomenon. Instead, a cavalcade of off-court incidents, on-court inconsistency, and the foul stench of a Milwaukee Bucks squad that has somehow managed to lap a tanking field while trying to make the playoffs has seen Sanders glumly slide back into the NBA’s tar pit.
The latest of these unfortunate events, an orbital bone fracture suffered against the Rockets that will sideline Sanders for at least 6 weeks, pretty much cements this as a lost season for the Bucks’ defensive fulcrum. Even if Milwaukee allows Sanders to return when he is medically cleared rather than sitting him out to ensure the top seed in this year’s draft lottery, he will only have 10 to 15 meaningless games left to play before the curtain mercifully closes. It seems we’ve seen most of what 2013-14 Larry Sanders can offer, and it is a dark, grim picture that we will want to bury as soon as possible.
When glancing at an amalgamation of Sanders’ past two seasons, one is tempted to scream “fluke”, with your opinion on Sanders’ long-term prospects entirely dependent upon the season your exclamation was directed at. There is logical discourse to be had in both cases. The pessimist points to a career TS% in the high 40s with only one year breaking the halfway barrier (last season, at 52.3%), the still sky-high foul rate (4.6 per 36 minutes this year, though well removed from an ungodly 7.4 in 11-12), and a rather nuance-less terms, yet naggingly hard to dismiss picture of one “good” season sandwiched between three “bad” ones. The optimist reminds us just how little of this year’s extracurricular activity could be seriously accounted for, and how unlikely it is that the defensive skills that brought to Sanders’ initial breakout have just dissolved into dust.
The latter of those two viewpoints is much easier to stomach. Nobody wants a league with less game-changing talent, and Sanders definitely seemed to be on his way towards that point with a profile that tilts the definition of a modern NBA defense. His innate understanding of angles made him seem, at times, like a borderline savant. You don’t just lose savantism. It’s inherent by nature. Likewise, his physical attributes – that athletic stride, that inhuman wingspan, those pogo-stick legs – are the sort that should last, if not forever, then certainly for the near future, giving Sanders ample time to develop the skills needed to compensate for their eventual decline a few years down the road.
Those banking on Sanders – be it the Bucks or an unknown trade partner – will not be doing so blindly. A basic understanding of player progression shows a picture that very much favors a player in Sanders’ position. The typical career arc of an NBA big man – college prospect is drafted, rookie struggles with foul trouble, gradual acquisition of offensive skills and defensive awareness follow, culminating in self-fullfilment around the player’s late 20s – meets the 25 year old Larry Sanders with much still ahead of him.
Of course, Sanders’ 4th season is so disappointing exactly because it so starkly contrasts what normal progression anticipated. A parabolic career graph anticipated yet another solid improvement after the initial jump. The parabola has instead deteriorated into a volatile mess of data points, to the point that the data sheet is torn and battered and the axes themselves are a bit muddied. It’s almost impossible to rejigger back into a normal shape, leaving us mostly guessing as to where the plot (pun intended) continues.
This is not to discredit the process of mapping career arcs in the first place. We have decades of evidence and plain common sense to tell us that players improve when they are young, decline when they are old, and have the very indicatively named “peaks” in between.
But the process of averaging out the careers of hundreds of players smoothes out any chimneys or nooks that may or may not be experienced by one in a hundred individuals. We average out the Gerald Greens, who are thrown out of the league at 23 years of age, only to return with career years at 26 and 28 enveloping a career-worst year at 27, or the Steve Nashes, who peak in their early-mid 30s and fall off with a bang instead of gingerly declining. It averages out contract years and injuries and off court miscellania and that-one-year-where-the-entire-franchise-is-cursed-and-if-you-happen-to-be-a-part-of-it-you’re-screwed, all of which are apt descriptors for Sanders’ current situation.
Common sense dictated that what Sanders learned in his 3rd year, he would have from there on out. Hundreds of test cases predicted an ongoing, monotonous improvement until somewhere in the 28-32 age range, followed by a few years of overpaid veteranhood and maybe a few ring chases. But Sanders’ leap was so unique that it was perhaps naïve to expect a subsequent normal progression. What happens instead remains to be seen.