These days, Larry Sanders is everywhere. Literally and figuratively. Not only does the Milwaukee Bucks 6’11” gazelle fly all over the floor, wreaking defensive havoc with his seemingly endless wingspan and quickness that belies his size to lead the NBA in blocks. But he’s getting recognition for all that now, too, his name finally a household one after the MIT Sloan Sports Athletic Conference in Boston last weekend.
Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, maestro of league analysis through spacial analytics, presented a research paper at SSAC called “The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Interior Defense Analytics for the NBA.” Title not withstanding, Howard isn’t the standard-bearer of Goldsberry and Eric Weiss’ innovative research; that’s Sanders, the newest bundle of length, anticipation and athleticism to take the league by defensive storm.
Using super-advanced player tracking cameras developed by SportVU, Goldsberry and Weiss create a new way to value the defensive impact of the NBA’s big men. As with all exploratory exercises, there are limitations – sample size and the cameras’ inability to account for context related to momentum, direction and the like. But that’s no fun here, and does little to diminish Sanders’ ever-obvious imprint on the game. “The Dwight Effect” or not, he’s worthy of being mentioned among basketball’s best defenders as the blogosphere’s been shouting and exclaiming for months.
But it sure is nice when the most progressive, nuanced numbers confirm the eye-test, raw per game averages and advanced statistics. And by god, do they.
This isn’t a summary or breakdown of the work by Goldsberry and Weiss. Read the article here; it’s fantastic from every conceivable angle. For our purpose, though, what’s important is the paper’s final line and biggest revelation: “…Larry Sanders is the best interior defender in the NBA.”
Sanders is as valuable for those “Oh my god! WTF!” moments as he is the much smaller ones it takes a semi-trained eye to see. He’s the league’s preeminent shot-blocker but – given Goldsberry’s analysis and confirming observations of the naked eye – he also affects, altars and even prevents more paint attempts than any other player in the NBA. The latter isn’t obvious in the above; these are just highlights that convey how dynamic Sanders is as an all-court force. How many centers are capable of completing LeBron-ish chase-down rejections at all, let alone with such a sense of ease and commonplace? It’s a one-man list. Now, that’s not to say Sanders casually sprints 80-plus feet behind a ballhandler and gets to the opposing rim/backboard before the ball does on a nightly basis. Even for him, that’s a rarity. But it sure is breathtaking to watch, and indicative of the kind of razor-sharp tools in his shed that combine to make him such an intimidating presence.
We’ll stick with the flashy stuff for now. It’s not discussed often, but Sanders’ length and quickness makes him an effective thief of dribbles, too. Few if any players can stretch to Armstrong-like proportions while cutting off penetrators to their dribble, or do the same in post-up situations. It’s actually surprising, then, that he “only” ranks 15th among centers in steals per 40 minutes. But in terms of solely swiping the opposition’s handle, it’s likely Sanders is close to leading the center pack. That’s an assumption, obviously, but based on the visuals it’s a safe one to make.
Now we’re getting to the awesome nitty-gritty, the stuff you have to look for to see. The above are defensive plays in which it takes more than a box score to convey their worth. Sanders serves as an intimidator and rim-deterrent in all six instances (five clips) here, albeit in very different ways. The first two sequences are marked by a Sanders steal and block at the end, but that’s not what makes them special. In the initial clip, Landry Fields dribbles along the right baseline toward the basket after receiving a screen. He’s pretty well defended by Luc Richard Mbah Moute, but Fields has enough momentum and the proper angle to get a fairly good shot attempt. As long as Sanders is out of the play, that is. And he should be! Sanders doesn’t make his initial move towards the action until Fields is already planting to explode; by all other human standards, Sanders is late on the weak-side help and not a factor. But Sanders is a different animal or alien, and the slightest hesitation by Fields in the air gives him enough time to leap from one side of the basket to the other and block the shot. The final result makes it all look routine – a creator forcing a shot while knowing a premier shot-blocker lurks – but the sequence is anything but. Ordinary or even good defenders aren’t supposed to close and cover ground this quickly. Larry Sanders, though, is something else.
Next, Chandler Parsons uses a shot-fake to blow by JJ Redick in secondary transition. That’s all great; Parsons is a good finisher at the rim and a skilled passer for a player his size, too. But he’s indecisive once he puts the ball on the floor, knowing – unlike Fields, apparently – Sanders’ unique capabilities. Instead of moving up to stop the ball once Parsons is by Redick and a reaching Mike Dunleavy, Sanders stays back with arms outstretched between the awaiting Omer Asik and Thomas Robinson. Most big men couldn’t get away with this seeming inaction; Parsons would simply attack the rim with a vengeance. But Sanders knows both of his reputation and rare combination of quick-jump ability and timing, and baits Parsons into a dump-off to Asik. Of course, he’s long enough to get a hand on it and eventually initiates a Milwaukee break after corralling the loose ball. Parsons was scared, Sanders was nuanced and it’s a potential four-point swing. Somewhere, Goldsberry and Weiss nod in approval.
The following action is pretty simple. Jeremy Lin comes off an Asik ball-screen, heading left towards the rim. Sanders barely moves once Lin uses the screen, instead idling what looks like absent-mindedly just above the block. The Rockets know their scouting report well, apparently, because Lin, like Parsons, has a clear path to the hoop as he turns the corner. But instead of aggressively attacking as Sanders recovers and contests, he opts for a floater from nine feet. That’s a difficult shot any way you slice it, and one Lin isn’t particularly good at – he’s shooting just 32.6% from that awkward area of the floor this season. But look at the high, high arc he puts on the shot, too, undoubtedly weary of Sanders’ range to contest or block it. Lin, predictably, misses badly, and the Bucks are off to the races again.
We’re still with the Rockets, this time back to Harden. After smoothly spinning away from Monta Ellis, Harden has Sanders stuck between a rock and a hard place – in the middle of a 2-on-1 with he and Parsons. Harden is one of the league’s most devastating and creative finishers, and normally attacks hard in this situation. But that scouting report looms too large in his head, and he immediately slows upon seeing Sanders and confuses his timing with Parsons. Not that it matters; Harden, wanting nothing to do with Sanders, was in PUJIT mode all the way from the beginning. Like Lin before him, he misses, but that isn’t what’s most important here. The disparity in efficiency between a Harden rim attempt and pull-up is huge; getting him to opt for the latter, whether it goes in or not, is a big win for Milwaukee.
Finally, a two possession sequence in which Sanders thwarts all Houston scoring opportunities. Harden uses a screen from Asik going right, away from his strong-hand. Sanders hedges harder than in previous clips and Harden retreats as a result, resetting the action. Once things progress and Sanders follows Asik to the weak side of the paint, Harden attacks right again, this time with a sense of finality. Sanders recovers in time to contest, jumping with his right arm outstretched toward the ball and Harden’s much-preferred finishing hand. Smart guy, this Sanders. Harden, without a shot, dumps off to the sometimes stone-handed Asik, who fails to collect the ball before it bounces out of bounds off Milwaukee. Win, Sanders. There’s only 2.3 seconds left on the shot clock after Harden’s initial indecision and subsequent near-turnover, putting Houston in a difficult spot. Why Harden’s the in-bounder is anyone’s guess, but he does well to find Asik several feet from the basket in the paint’s middle. Sanders stayed low late to protect from a cross-court pass to a cutting Lin, and gives Asik room as a result. But he knows the Rockets center’s limitations and of his own speedy recovery time, and is easily back to his man to effectively contest. It’s effectively over from here, with Sanders’ arms outstretched and Asik still fumbling with the ball as the shot clock expires. Two Houston possessions, one Sanders, no shots, no points. Let’s call it “The LARRY! Effect.”
Parsing through Sanders video is like examining Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. His game, like pointillism, offers endless and always-growing interpretations, subtleties best appreciated over time and intricacies one must strain to best see, appreciate and fully understand. But perhaps the most brilliant, unique aspect of both he and this masterpiece is they can be admired regardless; Sanders through all those highlight-reel blocks and A Sunday Afternoon in its broad totality. The combination of rare but acceptable rotations, shots missed or not taken and infinite number of miniature dots coupled with the big-picture aspects, though, are what give Sanders and Seurat their proper due. And in that vein, the NBA world has finally come around.