Back on March 20, Bucks coach Larry Drew confirmed to reporters that the team's star center Larry Sanders would miss the remainder of the season due to a fractured bone near his right eye. Sanders had undergone surgery in February after an errant elbow caused the injury; there was little reason for worst-in-the-league Milwaukee to bring him back for the final two weeks.
Last week, the NBA announced that Sanders had been suspended five games for drug violations. Five-game suspensions indicate a third positive test for marijuana. Sanders later admitted to smoking weed. It was expected that, given he's been medically ruled out for this season, he'd serve the suspension at the beginning of next season.
Instead, he began serving the suspension on Wednesday. Milwaukee had five games remaining as of Wednesday, which means that Sanders will complete his suspension this season, and be free and clear when next season begins.
Basically, it means that Sanders doesn't really have to serve a suspension at all since he was not going to play this week in the first place. Plus, as Brew Hoop's Frank Madden notes, Sanders will lose pay from five games this season when he's making about $37,000 per game instead of next season when he's making about $134,000 per game.
Why did the NBA go along with this?
It turns out there's a process by which players are physically cleared to play by the team and an independent league-appointed doctor before suspensions can be served. What happened in this case, according to a league official: the Bucks' team doctor cleared Sanders, and sent his evaluation to the NBA. League officials reviewed and accepted the team doctor's conclusion. Then an independent physician contracted by the league examined Sanders and confirmed the team doctor's conclusion that Sanders is physically able to play.
After all of that, the NBA agreed that Sanders could be activated and begin serving his suspension. When Sanders' suspension ends, the Bucks' season will be over. And the whole episode is wrapped up neatly.
The NBA's process on determining fitness before allowing injured players to begin suspensions is sound. You can't do much more than review the team's conclusion and assign an independent review. The problem in this situation is that the Bucks basically admit that Sanders is fit to play, but they have been choosing to sit him as they close in on guaranteeing the max number of draft lottery combinations.
The Bucks had no interest in activating Sanders until it meant essentially erasing his suspension. When fans are paying to attend games, that priority structure seems pretty messed up. At this point, fans are no doubt glad that Sanders won't miss the first five games next year. But plenty of them probably would have enjoyed watching him over the past few weeks.
It's part and parcel with the whole "tanking" debate. It's just that this time a team at the bottom got stuck in its own logic mess. There's nothing the NBA can really do to prevent teams from sitting healthy players -- that's way too intrusive into franchise and player independence. But when something like this happens, it reminds the paying audience that some teams at this point in the season really are not trying to win at all.