Bucks playoff history: Larry Sanders keys Milwaukee's return to postseason

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucks' plan entering this season seemed shaky, but the breakout performance of Larry Sanders has salvaged things.

Think of this year's Milwaukee Bucks, and two players presumably come to mind. It makes sense. Watch Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis throw up shot after shot, and it becomes awfully easy to watch under the assumption that these two are pretty much all they have.

Such thinking, obviously, would be wrong. It would ignore a burgeoning group of young big men in Milwaukee led by Larry Sanders.

Earlier this season, the Bucks deemed it acceptable to trade 20-year-old forward Tobias Harris to the Magic in a deal for shooting guard J.J. Redick, a spring rental. On the surface, it didn't seem like Milwaukee was giving up all that much, also sending 2012 second-round pick Doron Lamb to Orlando.

Since taking Dwight Howard's old number, Harris is averaging 17.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game playing at the 4.

On the Bucks' roster, Harris was a small forward. The team had no room for another young big man, even one of his caliber. So they played him on the wing until that plan stalled, and he ended up playing garbage minutes until the Redick opportunity came along. Instead of giving up a first round pick, which Orlando had reportedly been seeking, Milwaukee decided to offer Harris.

That Harris has blossomed with the Magic reflects both good and bad on the Bucks. Losing a player of his caliber at the age of 20 is never a good thing. But the reasons for why he was expendable are primarily the result of some very good things happening in Milwaukee.

Their names are Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson. They're the guys that can transform Milwaukee basketball.

Going forward, the Bucks will still likely claim Jennings as face of the franchise. Assuming he gets that fat contract he's looking for this offseason, he'll be everything Milwaukee needs in its star ... except a transcendent player. We still see the flashes of stardom, and at the age of 23, his evolution is continuing.

But right now, it's not clear he's the Bucks' most important player. That just might be Sanders.

Yes, Larry Sanders averages less than 10 points per game. He also shoots just a decent percentage for a big man and fouls more than anyone on the team. But watching him play defense, filling gaps and protecting the rim for about 27 minutes every night, you get it.

That Sanders, the one that cuts Milwaukee's defensive efficiency from 105.7 points per 100 possessions to just 98.8, may be the biggest reason this is a playoff team.

Even with Sanders, the Bucks aren't a markedly better defensive team overall this season than they were previously. More Ellis means two overly aggressive defenders on the perimeter most of the time, while the team's other post defenders aren't exactly post stalwarts. Henson has the length to be that kind of player, but he also needs to get stronger.

An extra dose of Sanders has the Bucks sitting 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season. A nearly identical figure landed Milwaukee 17th in the lockout-shortened season. It's difficult to imagine where the team would be without him, but it's probably not the playoffs.

Last season, the Bucks missed the postseason despite having the 13th-most efficient offense in the league. This year, the team is 22nd in the same statistic, per NBA.com, a relatively unsurprising development with Ellis and Jennings controlling the offense most the time.

The 2013 Bucks are heading to the playoffs, though. Jennings is going for the first time since his rookie year, the last time he was paired with a legit defensive center, Andrew Bogut. Turns out this team needed a big man in the middle to anchor the defense -- what a shocker.

With Sanders is around, maybe this Jennings-the-centerpiece thing might work, after all.

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