It did not take much to predict that Jeff Green would not be in a great mood after Sunday’s game in Detroit. In addition to the Celtics suffering another loss, their nominal No. 1 scoring option did not log a minute of playing time in the fourth quarter, even when a failure of offensive execution doomed the Celtics down the stretch.
“That was [coach Brad Stevens‘] decision,” Green succinctly told reporters after the game.
Yet if Green is frustrated, imagine how Larry Sanders feels. Three games into his fourth professional season, the defensive machine has yet to play more than 22 minutes in a game. He experienced what may have been the ultimate indignity when he, in a preview of the fate that would befall Green on Sunday, did not get off the bench in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s win at TD Garden on Friday.
Like Green, Sanders’ shortage of playing time is not hard to explain, taken within a vacuum. He got off to a horrible start in the season opener, committing five fouls in 12 minutes and missing all three shots he took. In the Bucks’ home opener, a loss to the Raptors, Sanders again played like a dog on Sunday. He shot just 2-for-8 from the field and blocked just one shot in 21 minutes, 37 seconds of action, his most extensive burn of the season. He has not registered a millisecond of fourth-quarter playing time under new coach Larry Drew.
Unsurprisingly, Sanders is not pleased.
“Last year, I finished so many games,” Sanders told NBA.com. “I feel like that’s when I lock in the most. But I haven’t been able to get in to finish. That carries over to the next game. When you sit the last three quarters of each game, I can’t have no carryover. And it’s hard for me. I’m still a young player. It’s only my eighth year of playing basketball.”
Make no mistake, this is a full-fledged crisis for the Bucks. Sanders is their future. He was arguably the best defensive big man in the league last season and was unquestionably the league’s best shot-blocker, leading the league with a block percentage of 7.6 percent. That means he rejected one of out every 14 shots the opponent took. That’s dominance-level stuff.
Sanders, in other words, is not just some expendable piece a coach can or should discard based off one bad game — or even off one bad stretch in one game. If Sanders were completely lost, Drew might have a leg to stand on. But Sanders isn’t completely lost. He was actually OK overall against the Celtics on Friday, blocking four shots and scoring four points in 18 minutes. He was not outstanding by any stretch, but no one on the Bucks was in the first half of that game. If they had been, they would not have fallen behind by 22 points.
And don’t start claiming that Sanders alone was the reason the Bucks fell behind by that amount against the Celtics. Just don’t.
Drew has long been the NBA’s most accurately rated coach. That is, he is not underrated or overrated. His reputation fits. What Drew is is a serviceable pro coach whose handling of imperfect stars like Josh Smith has never been ideal, and who probably hurt the Hawks organization overall by not making it explicit that it was Al Horford‘s team, dooming the franchise to years of early-round playoff ousters on the shoulders of Smith and Joe Johnson. At the same time, his substitution patterns were not the worst — hello, Ty Corbin, Keith Smart and Mo Cheeks — and players do not seem to hate playing for him.
Yet if Drew, who was thrown something of a lifeline in an offseason in which better veteran coaches like George Karl and Lionel Hollins were left in the unemployment line, continues to handle this developing situation with Sanders the same way, the Bucks need to do what is necessary and replace him as soon as possible if he is not willing to adjust. This is not a matter of Jerry Sloan versus Deron Williams or Stan Van Gundy versus Dwight Howard, in which the team must choose between a top-tier head coach or a petulant star who is on his way out of town anyway.
Not only should the Bucks expect Sanders to work out of his early-season issues; they need him to. Playing in the first year of a four-year, $44-million contract extension he signed in August, Sanders is probably the Bucks’ biggest difference-maker and the foundation of their future. He is not someone they can afford — literally — to just toss aside because he’s had five bad days.
Four years into a career that very well could have had an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award on the mantel already, Sanders deserves a longer leash than the one Drew is giving him. If Drew is unwilling to give Milwaukee’s franchise defensive player that slack, the organization has an obligation to their team and the fans who might soon be asked to bankroll a new arena to install someone who is.