Defensive stalwart returns for Bucks, not Nets

LeBron James, Larry Sanders
The Bucks welcome back Larry Sanders (right) to their rotation. (AP)
LeBron James, Larry Sanders
The Bucks welcome back Larry Sanders (right) to their rotation. (AP)

The 9-19 Brooklyn Nets have a tough schedule as they head into the new year: on Saturday they’ll start a three-game road trip against the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder, three teams with a combined record of 69-17 (36-6 at home). But before they start their trail of tears, they’ve got one shot to sneak their win column into the double-digits: Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.

This Bucks team has spiraled almost as badly as the Nets: at 6-22, the Bucks rank at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, mostly thanks to their NBA-worst offense. The Bucks shoot 44 percent on two-point attempts, worst in the NBA, and don’t have a single player averaging over 14 points per game. But the Bucks, like the Nets, have played shorthanded for most of the season; unlike the Nets, that’ll change for the Bucks tonight.

The Bucks will bring back a crucial defensive presence that they haven’t had for much of the season: center Larry Sanders, who played 52 minutes in three games in early November before undergoing surgery on his right thumb. Though it’s not clear how much Sanders will play (his coach says “20-plus minutes”), his presence can change a game for Milwaukee.

Sanders is a fearsome shotblocker and rim protector. According to one study presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference, Sanders was the best “spatial defender” in the NBA with the available data at the time: when Sanders was within five feet of a shooting opponent, that opponent shot just 34.9 percent from the field. (You can read the Sloan paper here.

But his impact was registered on the box score, too: Sanders averaged nearly three blocks per game last season despite playing just 27.3 minutes per game. Only Shaun Bradley, Manute Bol, and Jim McIlvaine have blocked a higher percentage of shots and played in more games than Sanders in NBA history, and all three were niche specialists, not all-around defenders like Sanders.

With Sanders on the floor rejecting and deterring close shots last season, the Bucks allowed just 96.1 points per game and 98.8 points per 100 possessions, a defensive efficiency that would rank top-six in the NBA this season.

While the Bucks welcome back their defensive star, the Nets will have to wait at least one more day to see theirs.

Andrei Kirilenko
Andrei Kirilenko (AP/Nick Wass)
The Nets signed forward Andrei Kirilenko this offseason to a two-year deal (the second a player option) well under market value, assuming he’d be able to play in at least the first season. But Kirilenko suffered back spasms in preseason that have kept him off the floor since November 8th.

It’s the longest Kirilenko has dealt with one series of spasms, and he’s called them the worst of his career.


Kirilenko is an all-in-one defensive wizard, comfortable defending perimeter and interior players with ease, and an intelligent offensive player that gets the majority of his points by sneaking around his defenders.

His game relies on constant motion and misdirection, and without his full range of motion his game suffers noticeably.

If he’s fully healthy and able to move freely, he can make an enormous impact on a game, slotting in at nearly any position the Nets need him. He’s not the answer to all their questions, but he’s a response to a lot of their problems.

Whenever he plays, that is.

Tipoff at 7:30 P.M.