It has been quite a year for [clears throat] LARRY SANDERS!. He broke out last season, blowing away his previous minutes totals, cutting his once astronomical foul rate, cleaning the defensive glass, and scaring the hell out of any opponent who dared enter the lane. Milwaukee’s defense collapsed whenever SANDERS! hit the bench, and his rare combination of elite rim protection and deft footwork against the pick-and-roll earned him a monster extension that kicks in next season. He is now the face of the Milwaukee Bucks, as strange as that sounds.
The debut of the funky-as-ever Bucks did not go well Wednesday night against the Knicks. Brandon Knight tweaked his hamstring less than two minutes into the game, SANDERS! barely played because of foul trouble (that old bugaboo), and a feisty group of reserves couldn’t complete a comeback down the stretch.
After the game, SANDERS! sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
John Hammond and Larry Drew, the Bucks’ GM and new head coach, sat together watching practice at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas last month lamenting a little thing in LARRY SANDERS!'s offense. SANDERS! was just barely hamstringing his team’s scoring chances as the screen-setter on pick-and-rolls. “There it is again!” Hammond would exclaim to Drew. “And again! He’s so close.”
Coach and GM were noticing a tic in SANDERS!’s offensive game — a tendency to nail an opposing point guard with a pick and linger there for an extra beat, making sure his pick serves as a real obstacle. It’s an admirable habit at a time when a lot of big men are so eager to dart to the hoop that they start their dive before making contact on a screen. But SANDERS! errs too much in the other direction, delaying his rolls to the hoop just long enough that help defenders are ready by the time he catches the ball — if his point guard can find a passing lane to him in the first place. It’s fixable with time and practice, though exchanging Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight will introduce a new challenge in SANDERS!’s quest to master the pick-and-roll ballet.
In case you were busy waiting in line at a food truck for what turned out to be not the best pork buns you've ever eaten, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Syracuse rode a dominant defensive effort into the Elite Eight, upsetting the Indiana Hoosiers, 61-50. "It's a disappointing loss for sure, but we can hold our heads up knowing we went down to one of the best coaches of all time in Jim Boeheim," said Indiana head coach Tom Crean after the game. However, Crean was apparently unaware that Syracuse had replaced Boeheim two years ago with a VHS tape of alumnus Jerry Stiller yelling, "2-3! 2-3! Rotate! Rotate! Come on, boys, get it together," playing on a loop on the sideline.
Marquette continued its impressive tournament run, as Buzz Williams's Golden Eagles knocked out Miami, 71-61. This marks Marquette's first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2003, which means it's time for About Last Night's newest feature: "What Ever Happened To " For our first "What Ever Happened To " we're going to look at former Marquette star Dwyane Wade, who led his team to the 2003 Final Four. It turns out that Wade has been playing basketball professionally with the Miami Heat since his college days. Thus concludes our first episode of "What Ever Happened To " If you have an idea for a long-lost star who you want to track down, leave his or her name in the comments, and we'll look into it for you.
It was just eight days ago that the Milwaukee Bucks were left for dead on the side of the NBA highway. Losers of three straight, the team clung to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot strictly by default. The trigger-happy duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings had seemingly shot the team out of any chance at relevance, and even the addition of the trade deadline’s biggest name, J.J. Redick, couldn’t inspire most NBA fans to care about the happenings in the frozen tundra of southeastern Wisconsin.
After a string of tight-knit and entertaining games, the Bucks have won four straight and are emerging as a potential playoff wild card in the East. Ellis and Jennings have been the catalysts for the most recent surge, but not in their usual fashion. Instead of shooting with reckless abandon, they've taken turns in the role of playmaker — with impressive results.
During their winning streak, Ellis and Jennings have combined for 78 assists, including 36 by Jennings in just the last two wins against Toronto and Utah. It is Jennings’s sudden switch from unapologetic gunner to reserved floor-general that's seemingly sparked new possibilities for a franchise mired in mediocrity.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. Monta Ellis
Ellis had 34 points on 15-21 shooting last night, leading his Milwaukee team to their second overtime win in as many games (this time over the Jazz), and their fourth straight win overall. With J.J. Redick in the lineup, Monta's averaging 21.5 points, 9.3 assists, and 4.3 steals per game. He also does stuff like this.
Let’s not mince words here — the Lakers are boring. Sure, they’re a flaming train wreck from which we can’t avert our eyes, but their actual on-court product (and even some of the drama off it) is far from enjoyable, in the traditional sense. If you stripped away the star power and franchise mystique, all you’d be left with is a basketball team that’s losing far more than it wins, and there’s not much fun about that. (Again, in the traditional sense.)
But given there isn’t any way to not talk about the Lakers, I went to the ESPN Trade Machine (at least in part) and tried to figure out a deal that, in an alternate reality, would make the team more palatable. The trade I came up with is both realistic (based on some real rumors I’ve heard/read and players’ fair market value in mind) and totally effing bananas (five-team, 15-player trades and unicorns tend have a lot in common). I’d still like to think at least some parts dabble in the vicinity of the plausible.
In the end, I came up with a Lakers team (as well as a Cleveland one) that I would actually enjoy watching on a nightly basis. Of course, it’s built along the lines of my own personal views — fit over star power and great offense over any type of defense — but I think it would make the struggling L.A. team, as well as a couple of the others involved, more interesting.
Either way, there’s enough in there to get people yelling at each other (or at me), which is easily the best part of fake trades anyway. So here ya go:
Coming into the season, the biggest question facing the Milwaukee Bucks was one of fit. Their ceiling was going to be defined by how well their diminutive, shot-happy backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis could co-exist.
Armed with a full training camp, it was left to head coach Scott Skiles — known for his defensive acumen — to devise a creative offensive scheme that made all the pieces fit. Like Rick Carlisle does year in and year out in Dallas, Skiles has built a system with concepts that allow his primary creators to not only play to their strengths, but also to avoid their weaknesses.
For both Jennings and Ellis, that means minimizing the number of times they're forced to create with the ball in their weak hand. Ellis, in particular, has diminished effectiveness when forced to his left, something that can occur quite often when teams use “down” side pick-and-rolls or execute a “weak” coverage on ball screens in the middle of the floor.