Oh how quickly things change. As of last week Larry Sanders was still ruled out for the season as a result of an orbital fracture and tagged with a five-game, drug-related suspension to be served next season. In a matter of days he was medically cleared -- a miraculous recovery that, as confirmed by the team to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, allowed Sanders to begin serving his suspension immediately.
Tom Ziller of SB Nation clarified just how the process of Sanders' clearance unfolded:
...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.
That it is. The NBA is doing its part in validating Sanders' clearance through its own medical staff and through an independent, league-selected physician. It's just fairly evident that Milwaukee -- which was long ago ruled out for playoff qualification -- had opted to sit Sanders when he medically could have been playing. The Bucks really had no reason to bring Sanders back. But there's patience with injury and then there's plain efforts to keep a team down for the sake of lottery odds. How you classify the Bucks likely depends on what you believe to be true, and whether you find their actions nefarious likely depends on your level of distaste for the current draft system on the whole. At the least, though, this is a tacit admission of what basketball fans have long known: Even something as simple as player availability is flexible to team needs. And flexible, as it turns out, to Sanders' financial benefit. By serving his suspension this season instead of next, Sanders is set to save around $362,000. League suspensions come with a prorated forfeiture of salary for any games missed. This season a five-game seat would cost Sanders $138,000 -- an amount in direct proportion to his $3.1 million earnings for the year. After Sanders' lucrative extension kicks in next season, however, a suspension of the same length would come with a $500,000 tag in reflection of his change in season salary. By serving his suspension now, Sanders saves money and Milwaukee gets its starting center back for the 2014-15 season opener without any functional change to this season. Welcome to the end of the NBA's regular season, where the lottery-bound find new and exciting ways to create situations of convenience.