Larry Sanders inked his reported 4-year, $44 million extension on Tuesday. That's right: $11 million per season for a guy who average 9.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last season. It's totally reasonable, and quite possibly a steal for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sanders is a excellent defender, especially when it comes to shot-blocking -- he led the league with a 7.6 percent block rate. (That means he blocked 7.6 percent of all opponent shots while on the floor.) The Bucks' defense was six points per 100 possessions better with Sanders on the floor than otherwise last season and he also finally turned out an exceptional performance on the defensive boards. He's not a scorer and may never be, but if you're going to pay for a big man, paying for one so solid on defense is a smart choice.
The real issue here is that true big men are expensive. It's a scarcity issue. If there were more good to very good 6'11 players to plug in at center, Nikola Pekovic, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan and Sanders wouldn't get eight-figure annual salaries. It's also a matter of having skills other types of players can't replicate. Protecting the rim is an obvious one -- if you don't get shot-blocking from your center, it's unlikely you'll be able to make up the difference with a shot-blocking small forward. (Josh Smith, vintage Andrei Kirilenko and Gar Heard are the exceptions.) More mundane defensive attributes the above-mentioned centers offer are also hard to replicate: shutting down the pick-and-roll can be done without an elite center, but it's a lot more difficult.
Center and power forward remain the most important defensive positions in the league. If you don't believe me, ask the top five defenses from 2012-13: Indiana (Roy Hibbert), Memphis (Marc Gasol), San Antonio (Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter), Oklahoma City (Serge Ibaka) and Washington (Nene, Emeka Okafor).
Signing Sanders at a sub-max level now instead of hoping another team doesn't toss a max offer at him next summer when he would have hit restricted free agent is smart. Our friends at BrewHoop consider Sanders to be the Bucks' best player and it's increasingly difficult to argue that. (Word up to Drew Gooden.) This is a smart deal precisely because what Sanders offers is fairly scarce among the 450 or so players in the NBA, and because everyone knows that which he offers is valuable.
The issue comes when players who are less obviously impactful in the right ways -- say, McGee -- get this money. We know Sanders can defend beyond the blocked shot, but we're still not sure McGee can.
Roger Mason, who is not currently an NBA player, is apparently running unopposed for the presidency of the National Basketball Players Association. This is a problem. I'm not willing to say that it perpetuates the existing problems the players' union has had because those problems seem to basically revolve around Billy Hunter being sketch, but this is a problem insomuch as in this time of great need, in a total void of leadership, not one current NBA player is stepping up to take the mantle of even a figurehead position. Instead, the membership is apparently willing to let a devoted union rep who may not sign a deal for the 2013-14 season and certainly won't be in the NBA in 2016 or 2017 take the job. The total void of leadership? Yeah, this only exacerbates that.
I don't think the players' union needs a star like LeBron James to be its president, but I do think it needs a current and future NBA player in that job. The executive board needs to reflect the diversity of the league with young players, veterans, stars and journeymen. Being full of bit players at or near retirement is not helpful in the central mission of the union (and any union): representing the interests of the membership.
Tuesday brought the news that perhaps the league's best beat writer, The Oregonian's Jason Quick, is no longer covering the Blazers on a daily basis. (The other members of my personal best-of club: Howard Beck of the New York Times, Marcus Thompson III of the Contra Costa Times, Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Michael Lee of the Washington Post and Eric Koreen of The National Post. And another couple I know I'm forgetting.)
The stunning thing is that Nicolas Batum is at least partly to blame. To be clear, Quick has wanted to transition off of the beat for an enterprise role. But in a weird on-the-record cum off-the-record situation, Batum clearly damaged Quick's belief in his work. From a fascinating interview with SB Nation's own Blazer's Edge:
"Nicolas Batum was probably one of my favorite players on this current team. I felt like we had a really good relationship. When he was going through all that crap, the Minnesota stuff. I ran into him downtown, right there at Director's Square, by the waterfalls and stuff.
"During the interview, his agent Bouna [Ndiaye] calls, what a piece of work he is. Bouna asks him what he's doing and he says, 'I'm talking to Quick.' Bouna tells him, 'Don't, stop talking to him, don't run anything.' Nic gets off the phone, he says, 'My agent doesn't want to run what I just told you.' It was basically the same thing that he told David Aldridge about a month or so later."
It goes on from there. Batum promised he'd give Quick the story first, but a national reporter ended up with it with no warning. And this was one of the guys Quick could trust.
It's easy to see how guys whose lives basically consist of following players and coaches around for seven to nine months would get burnt out on getting burned. It's not so much about having to deal with the Raymond Feltons, but the ones you trust who betray that. We'll all miss Quick's daily work, but I'm sure he's saying good riddance to the grind.
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