Larry Sanders celebrated his four-year contract extension last week by holding his news conference at a Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee. And strangely, Sanders is probably the only Bucks player these youngsters recognize after a stunning roster overhaul.
Sanders, who finished his third season in 2012-13, is now one of the senior Bucks along with Ersan Ilyasova. Under the radar — as things are usually done in Milwaukee — general manager John Hammond drastically changed the complexion of the roster. He’s made the Bucks one of the league’s more intriguing teams entering training camp, which begins in four weeks.
Hammond dumped coach Jim Boylan and hired Larry Drew from Atlanta. Guard Monta Ellis opted out of his contract and bolted for the Dallas Mavericks. Former cornerstone point guard Brandon Jennings was shipped to Detroit. J.J. Redick was sent to the Clippers, and Luc Mbah a Moute was sent to Sacramento. Hammond mercifully amnestied Drew Gooden, while Mike Dunleavy signed with the Chicago Bulls, and Samuel Dalembert left for Dallas.
The Bucks responded by signing free agent O.J. Mayo to a three-year deal after his uneven season with the Mavericks. Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino were brought back after previous stints in Milwaukee, Zaza Pachulia was signed from Atlanta, and Gary Neal, who was surprisingly dumped by the San Antonio Spurs, was signed quickly by the Bucks.
The unhappy Jennings was sent to Detroit for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, and center Viacheslav Kravtsov, who was used in a later deal for Racine, Wis., native Caron Butler.
Also, the Bucks drafted intriguing Greek product Giannis Adetokunbo and high-scoring South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters, and signed Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica.
So, let’s try to organize this. The Bucks would feature a competitive starting five of Knight, Mayo, Butler, Ilyasova, and Sanders. In an Eastern Conference that is almost certain to shift with the Celtics and Hawks in rebuilding mode, and the Magic, 76ers, and Bobcats headed for the lottery, there are opportunities for rising teams such as the Cavaliers, Pistons, Wizards, Raptors, and Bucks to compete for the postseason.
Sanders has suddenly become the Bucks’ cornerstone after a breakout defensive season. He languished during his first two NBA seasons but found himself as an impact rebounder and shot-blocker in his third year, nearly averaging a double-double with 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocked shots.
“He’s one of the key, if not the key, piece for us moving forward,” Hammond said. “Larry is one of the top shot-blockers in our business. And I think he’s only going to get better defensively. We’re really excited to have him part of our organization, moving forward long term.”
Sanders’s work in the paint has not gone unnoticed. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers lauded Sanders after he nearly single-handedly led the Bucks to a rally win over Boston last December. Despite playing in one of the NBA’s smaller markets and in an antiquated arena that is next on David Stern’s hit list, Sanders has become a force. It was no surprise that the Bucks responded to his improvement by offering the extension, as they try to gain stability following Andrew Bogut’s failure to become a franchise-caliber player.
“This organization has put so much faith and trust in me, and I put that on myself also,” said Sanders. “Since I got there the organization has done nothing but push me and help me in that direction. We’ve been working in this direction for a long time.”
The No. 1 goal for Drew, who enjoyed moderate success with Hawks before he was allowed to search for jobs by new general manager Danny Ferry, is to generate chemistry quickly. Sanders said the team needs to improve its cohesion, which hasn’t been easy with Ellis and Jennings playing with separate agendas, and the coaching uncertainty.
“A big team goal for me is undeniable unity; the brotherhood that’s kind of been missing for a couple of years that’s a key part of winning,” Sanders said. “I feel like knowing each other off the court directly relates to knowing each other on the court. Feeling comfortable with each other, holding each other accountable. Everyone communicating how they feel about things, I think support is going to be awesome.
“It starts with me. I have to be that guy, and I embrace that. That work doesn’t stop now. This is the beginning.”
Knight was playing decently for the Pistons last season, but the club was uncertain whether he was a point guard or shooting guard. In Milwaukee, he will have every opportunity to start at the point, while Mayo will finally have a chance to show he’s a frontline player following some difficult years in Memphis and Dallas.
The Bucks will again enter this season under the radar but have enough talent to make an impact in the Eastern Conference. Sanders should have garnered more votes for Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-13, but he will not go unnoticed this season.
ON THE MEND
Wilcox seeks another shot
Chris Wilcox wants to return to the NBA this season, but his right hand is in a cast following offseason thumb surgery to repair a torn ligament. The injury was the result of Wilcox getting his hand caught in a jersey during a game in Chicago. After a season with the Celtics that included returning from surgery to repair an enlarged aorta and not being able to get into premium basketball shape, ultimately losing his minutes to Shavlik Randolph, Wilcox is determined to prove he has something left.
Wilcox, who will host a golf tournament in Wake Forest, N.C., next week to benefit the American Heart Association and Lupus Foundation of America, is hoping for another chance in the NBA, but jobs for aging veterans are drying up. And Wilcox has not been able to avoid injuries the past few seasons.
“At this point I’m just trying to get right, just trying to be ready, I don’t know what’s going to happen this year,” he said. “Last season [coming off heart surgery] was tough because I didn’t know what to expect. I was kind of preparing myself like, well if Jeff [Green] can do it, then I can do it. Jeff was further along than me [in his recovery] and it kind of messed with me mentally because I’m like, ‘Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do that?’ I was just trying to come back and I came back as soon as I could.”
When playing well, Wilcox blended with Rajon Rondo, and was often the recipient of a gorgeous alley-oop pass for a thunderous dunk. Wilcox would also add toughness in the paint and rebounding.
But his production was too inconsistent for coach Doc Rivers, who tried Randolph at center. Randolph responded by sparking the club with offensive rebounding. Wilcox, who missed 19 games with the thumb injury over December and January, never gained quality minutes after Randolph’s arrival, and logged just six minutes in the playoff series loss to the New York Knicks, his first postseason appearance in 10 years.
“It definitely didn’t help me at all because of the things I was going through, and by the time we got to the playoffs, we had five players who were with us at the beginning of the season,” he said. “We can’t do nothing with that. I wish I could have been more healthy for a longer period of time during the season, but it just didn’t happen that way. Last year kind of hurt me because after the heart surgery, the whole body was trying to come back and I was basically starting over from scratch and trying to get everything back together.”
This summer, Wilcox said he has been biking and has trimmed down. He is just 30 years old despite having played 11 NBA seasons. As a backup center, he could be an asset for another five years, but Wilcox’s motor and basketball IQ have come into question in recent years.
Add to that a market that may only allow Wilcox to join a team on a training camp invitation and a return may be difficult.
“I am open to going overseas,” he said. “At the same time, I would love to stay here in the NBA. If it’s something that I have to do, then I’ll do it.”
Perhaps last season was an aberration for Wilcox because of the thumb injury. Spending a month away helped reduce the pain, but it was a bothersome injury throughout the season. In May, when Wilcox said he could barely make a fist, he had the thumb reexamined, and the tear was discovered. It was originally diagnosed as a sprain.
“It was bothering me because it was still messed up and I kept playing and kept playing,” he said. “It was nagging. And I thought to myself in the summertime, I’ve got plenty of time to let it heal up and it would on its own. But it never did. I had already missed the whole [2011-12] season, so I didn’t want to miss any more time because of my thumb.”
It’s unlikely Wilcox would return to the Celtics, but he said he was indebted to the organization after it re-signed him following aorta surgery. He also developed a strong bond with Green, who underwent surgery to repair and aortic root in January 2012. With nearly identical surgical scars and similar aortic issues, Green and Wilcox became close friends.
“He’s a great guy off the court, and I think [the Celtics] have a great player in Jeff,” Wilcox said. “I think it’s great for him to open up, and now he’s getting his opportunity to play. He’s been waiting for his chance.”
The Celtics are in rebuilding mode, having traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, and allowing Rivers to depart to take the Clippers’ coaching position.
Green and Rondo should be allowed to flourish and will be relied upon as team leaders.
“In the trade they did get a couple of good players, and with the tempo and style they run, I think they’ve got a great group of guys to start off with in rebuilding,” Wilcox said. “I think they have some good players to depend on in that process.”
Wilcox will continue to wait for perhaps his final chance. He realizes it’s becoming a young man’s game and players with injury histories aren’t free agent priorities. So, he is rehabilitating his thumb, trying to get back to full health, and hoping for that call.
“I want to be able to come in and help a team definitely any way I can. All these teams are going young, but I’m young too,” he said with laugh. “You guys haven’t seen [a healthy] me in a long time. I’m working on that.”
Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving recently visited South Africa, where he participated in UNICEF educational programs along with former All-Star and long-time NBA African ambassador Dikembe Mutombo. Irving visited secondary and primary schools in Soweto and Randfontein, and worked with children on physical education skills. “Even with the challenges they face, it was inspiring to see how much the kids want to learn and how hard these teachers are working,” Irving said in a statement. “I saw firsthand how early childhood education and school sports activities are making a difference in these kids’ lives.” . . . Perhaps his first step to being an NBA general manager was taken by former Sacramento standout Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who was named by the Kings as GM of their Development League affiliate in Reno. Abdur-Rahim has been in the Sacramento front office the past three seasons and has been considered a rising executive. Despite the team’s ownership and coaching change, Abdur-Rahim was retained, and could be a GM candidate in coming years . . . The fact that former Hawks forward Ivan Johnson was unable to get the mini mid-level contract of $3 million — despite being a productive, physical rebounding presence, and being just 29 — is an indication that it will be a tough market for those remaining free agents looking for anything more than the veteran minimum. Teams with salary-cap space would much rather invest money in younger players and prospects than veterans. First- and second-round picks who are under control of their respective teams will get more of an opportunity to contribute, especially for teams without title aspirations. Several championship-contending teams have filled their rosters, meaning the lone option for many free agents will be a training camp invitation. There was also speculation that teams would be more wary of approaching the luxury-tax threshold with the penalties of eclipsing that limit more stringent in Year 2 of the new collective bargaining agreement. Teams such as the Celtics are clearing salary-cap space, piece by piece, to avoid the threshold. Minor salaries such as the ones earned by Shavlik Randolph and Terrence Williams were lopped off to avoid any luxury taxes . . . While most of the league’s 30 teams have packed rosters entering training camp next month, the 76ers, who have been behind the pack the entire summer (not hiring Brett Brown as coach until August), have as many as four open roster spots entering camp. Philadelphia has 11 players under contract and is likely to go young because of another rebuilding plan.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.