Larry Sanders is back! Two years ago Sanders, a self-described “person, father, artist, writer, painter, and musician who sometimes plays basketball,” walked away from the game that he thought he was just OK at after struggling with depression and anxiety and various marijuana-related suspensions. At the time, the 6-foot-11 Sanders was only a year or so into a four-year, $44 million extension with the Bucks, who acquired him with the no. 15 pick in 2010. Milwaukee saw the mobile, athletic rim protector and screen setter as a core piece who, along with the long-limbed John Henson, would tangle the paint in thickets of swaying arms and menace.
Sanders played only 23 games in 2013–14. He used the downtime to get in touch with his various other artistic interests. Sensitive and self-aware, Sanders acknowledged that his decision to walk away from the towering piles of currency by which American culture measures merit and success would be perplexing to many people. “People say, ‘How could you be unhappy there?’ Values and the relationships with the people I love, that’s my real riches,” he said in a Players’ Tribune video in 2015. “Happiness is a personal thing.” But Sanders always left the door open for a return.
On Monday, various sources reported that Sanders would join the Cleveland Cavaliers for the remainder of the season. The terms, as yet, are undisclosed. If the Sanders deal pans out, this is a big win for the Cavs and yet another feather in GM David Griffin’s metaphorically plumage-laden cap. This season, Griffin has swung deals for 3-point operator Kyle Korver; Deron Williams, who, even faded and partially washed, is the best pure point guard LeBron has ever played with; and Andrew Bogut, who broke his leg 58 seconds into his very first game with the team. Following up Bogut with the mercurial Sanders is a risk, but a calculated one that could potentially pay major dividends. Sanders has averaged just under two blocks per game for his career, with a block percentage of just over 7 percent. For context, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard’s highest single-season block percentage was 6 percent.
The Cavaliers are the 22nd team in the league by defensive rating. For a squad with its sights set on another title, this is an ominous number. In the last 40 years, only three teams have won the title in a season when they were ranked outside the top 10 in defense: the 1987–88 Lakers, 1994–95 Rockets, and 2000–01 Lakers. A good sign for the Cavaliers: Those teams were all defending champions.
Of those, the Rockets probably provide the best corollary. The ’88 Lakers were creeping toward the end of a historic run of success and leaning heavily on 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The 2001 Lakers were the most egregious “flip the switch” team in recent memory, floating through the regular season on sheer arrogance before clamping down on the postseason like a pitbull. The 1995 Rockets, meanwhile, needed to add Clyde Drexler in a midseason trade to even get over the hump.
Sanders may or may not pan out. Various reports mention that he’s out of shape. Which, yeah, the guy hasn’t played in an NBA game since December 2014. But assuming he can round into form and can deliver some significant percentage of the player he once was, Sanders is exactly what the Cavaliers need.