When the Milwaukee Bucks signed Larry Sanders to a contract extension worth $44 million over four years, it was proclaimed as a victory of sorts for the wonks. The numbers-crunchers. The slide-rule set full of folks Charles Barkley might let do his taxes but wouldn’t let near his basketball roster.
So now that Sanders has proven to be a bust for the Bucks — as witnessed by the buyout he and the team were negotiating Wednesday, at a severe reduction ($15 million) from that remaining balance — does that mean the wonks lost one?
Most likely, it depends. The analytics devotees will say that they merely identified what it was that made Sanders so valuable to Milwaukee during his breakout (now looking flukey) 2012-13 season and that he still would be worth every penny if he just continued doing that. Skeptics may counter that breaking someone’s game and value down into decimal points and percentages has about as much predictive power as the past performance of your IRA.
One way or the other, though, Sanders stopped being the player that Milwaukee paid him to be in August 2013 and became the guy who, fresh from his latest NBA drug suspension and personal layoff, should feel like Dillinger for absconding with a third or so of his pact’s actual value.
It could serve as a lesson, too, against the sort of congratulations handed out prematurely when the deal was struck. After noting that Sanders never had averaged double figures in scoring or rebounding and that he wasn’t a superior athlete, ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss back in August 2013 wrote:
Just based on the raw numbers, signing Sanders to this deal makes no sense.
Unless you’re a nerd — the kind who appreciates Sanders’ mastery of angles, the timing of his jumps and his penchant for adhering to his defensive responsibilities. To the NBA geek, this validation of Sanders is a validation of looking deeper than mere “counting stats.” Though Sanders is the big winner with a hefty pile of cash, his success is a giant victory for basketball nerds all over.
It means Kirk Goldsberry, in detailing Sanders’ secretly sterling defense at the MIT Sloan Conference, isn’t talking to a wall. His reality-based ideas can either influence NBA decision-makers or reflect smarter NBA decision-making.
It means Grantland’s Zach Lowe, he of the “LARRY SANDERS!” meme, can get many readers excited about the subtleties of Sanders’ interior defense, stuff that didn’t rate before in-depth writers like Lowe seized the mainstream as their turf. Even if big men tend to make more, they rarely cash in while scoring fewer than 10 points a game. But the basketball cognoscenti isn’t laughing at this contract.
Why? Because the nerds are winning.
Not to go all Sir Charles on analytics, but proclaiming victories is a lot more fun and way easier than acknowledging foibles and shortcomings. “Moneyball” is great until it never wins or even gets you to the World Series. One fella can be just as wrong mining stats as the other guy can be trusting his eyes or his gut.
If the Sanders buyout is a victory for anyone, it’s the Milwaukee accountants. By shedding so much of his guaranteed salary – and then using the “stretch” provision of the collective-bargaining agreement – the Bucks will be able to reduce the salary-cap hit for this signing mistake to about $2.14 million a year for seven years.
As time goes on, that’s a 3 percent claim on the cap that will grow ever smaller. Less significant to Milwaukee’s bottom line than their annual write-down for flat beer and spoiled brats.
As for Sanders and where he might land, anyone who has followed his career – both pre-NBA and since – has to root that it’s in a safe, comfortable spot, whether that includes basketball or not. The personable 26-year-old has had off-court issues that frequently collide with his sincere desire to do the right thing, and playing up to the expectations of that fat contract seemed to be too much for him.
If another NBA team takes a chance on him this season – his buyout would allow for playoff participation, coming before March 1 – in theory he could impact a postseason berth or swing a game this spring. Then again, his best and healthiest option might be to take another step back and return to NBA action only when, and if, it fits with the rest of his life.