INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — There was one time when free-agent center Larry Sanders was an upper-echelon defender, capable of swatting shots, protecting the paint and keeping up with smaller guards in the pick-and-roll. He was a defensive linchpin, worthy of getting a $40 million contract, becoming part of the Milwaukee Bucks’ nucleus.
That was a long time ago. Before he got suspended for using marijuana. Before he walked away from nearly $30 million remaining on his contract during the 2014-15 season, electing to deal with his internal demons — anxiety and depression.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to find out if the guy who finished third in Most Improved Player voting in 2013 and boasts 1.8 blocks per game in his career still exists.
“I just think it’s his mindset,” head coach Tyronn Lue said when asked whether Sanders can ever get back to being that player. “I don’t think his talents went anywhere. Being able to block shots, run the floor, being athletic. I don’t think that’s going to change. It’s just a mindset of, ‘Does he really want to play the game and does he still love it?’ If his mindset is right, he can definitely still play.”
Sanders is attempting an NBA comeback, his second chapter in a checkered career. After an earlier workout with the Boston Celtics, one that has been termed underwhelming, Sanders was in Cleveland Wednesday, interviewing with the Cavaliers while they also try to gauge where he is physically.
“It was good. It was good,” Lue said. “He’s a good dude. I know he has some negative things said about him, but just meeting him for the first time, just talking to him one on one, I mean, he’s a great guy.
“You never know, you never understand until you’re around that person and you’re able to talk to that person. With me, everybody I meet always has a clean slate. You have a clean slate until you do something wrong, so he was a great dude just talking to him.”
The 28-year old former first-round pick hasn’t played since the 2014-15 season, when he walked away from the game.
Lue admitted Wednesday that it’s hard to know in one face-to-face gathering whether that passion has returned, the same fire that helped Sanders finish second in blocks per game (2.8) during the 2012-13 season. Lue also said he is “not sure” whether there’s a path to Sanders signing with the Cavs, who have one open roster spot.
“What I saw today I liked,” he said. “I like him as a person, like what I saw. We’ll see.”
Kyrie Irving returned to practice one day earlier than expected. He didn’t see Sanders at the facility and didn’t learn about the meeting until Tuesday.
“For playing against him for a few years like I did, definitely an athlete,” Irving said. “He’ll get rebounds, a defensive prowess down in the paint. He was getting extremely better. Then he signed that deal with Milwaukee, becoming one of the premier bigs in the league. He showed some good signs.”
Given the Cavs’ limited assets in trade scenarios, Sanders gives them another alternative in their non-stop quest to improve the roster.