The Cavs' curious four-week Larry Sanders experiment

CLEVELAND -- Larry Sanders announced his flirtation with the Cavaliers via an Instagram story on Feb. 22, posting a video of his first-person view of the “Welcome to Cleveland” sign that greets visitors at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport as they take the escalator down from the gate level to baggage claim.

On Tuesday -- four days before Cleveland was to begin its championship defense in the postseason -- Sanders took to Twitter to announce his departure from the Cavs in consecutive tweets.

After going 27 months between his last game with the Milwaukee Bucks and his first court time with the Cavaliers, Sanders’ comeback lasted barely four weeks.

He played in a grand total of five games with the Cavs, registering 13 minutes, five fouls, four points, one block and one steal. He fared better in four games with Cleveland’s D-League affiliate, the Canton Charge, but not overwhelmingly better -- averaging 6 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting just 37 percent from the field.

How did Sanders go from being brought in with open arms -- LeBron James even said, “I think this will be a perfect locker room for him to try to help him,” on March 11 -- to being waived a month later?

“I think it was pretty clear Larry was really far away in ways that we didn’t think that he was really far away,” Cavs general manager David Griffin said Wednesday before Cleveland played its regular-season finale against the Toronto Raptors.

Part of the failure was circumstantial. Sanders joined the Cavs in the middle of March -- a month when Cleveland played 12 of its 17 games on the road and held just two team practices in the time the backup center was a part of the squad. He didn’t attend either of them, as he was on D-League assignment.

So that locker room environment that James thought would be so perfect for the center’s career rehabilitation never really factored into his Cavs experience.

After battling anxiety and depression and subsequently getting into trouble with the league for self-medicating with marijuana, Sanders walked away from $27 million in guaranteed money in 2015.

The timing of Sanders’ release from the Cavaliers -- the day after the team spent its second consecutive night in the temptation trap that is Miami -- raised eyebrows, but Griffin insists it was not a reactionary move by the Cavs based on Sanders going off track.

“He didn’t have an incident,” Griffin said. “He didn’t have any kind of a setback relative to any of the demons he had or any of those things. He’s an NBA player. He’s kind of flaky. So sometimes you’re late. You’re this. You’re that. None of those things were incidents.

"But I have to take you in totality as a player, and if I know you’re not going to play, then what I’m going to get is everything else. And if I didn’t even feel confident that he’d be a benefit to the group in practice, then it was hard to me to tell coaches, like, ‘This is a guy you got to keep.’ So they had the conversation on the plane [back from Miami]; what else can we do? And we talked about it and we landed, and we talked to all the rest of our staff and made a decision.”

Still, whether it was an "incident" or not, The Athletic's Jason Lloyd reported that Sanders missed the team's bus to the Miami airport on Tuesday morning before being cut later that evening.

The staff settled on 7-foot-3, 265-pound Edy Tavares, the center who was baptized by Richard Jefferson in Tavares’ first NBA game in October 2015 and Jefferson’s first game with the Cavs, who made a better second impression on Cleveland’s scouts when he blocked 11 shots in two D-League playoff games against the Charge.

The Cavs signed Tavares on Wednesday.

He reportedly has an 8-foot wingspan and can dunk flat-footed. He showed a glimpse of his potential in the season finale, posting six points, 10 rebounds, six blocks and an assist in 24 minutes against the Raptors.

While that production seemed to immediately validate the Cavs’ choice to release Sanders, it was still jarring to see Sanders go so quickly.

When Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson suffered a sprained thumb late in the season, missing four games, Sanders got only two minutes of non-garbage time action in that span. Part of it was because he wasn’t in the requisite shape, and part of it was that with the Cavs in a fight for the No. 1 seed, Sanders wasn’t about to suddenly leapfrog more trusted players in coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation.

“He was having a hard time from a conditioning standpoint,” Griffin said. “But it was really the fact that they didn’t want to play him more. So it’s more the fact of Tristan is out, you’re not going to play Kevin [Love] all that much, how are we not playing him? Why won’t you play this guy? When we got to the point where it became clear that even in the situation where we had no other bigs, he wasn’t going to play, then what are we doing here?

“Larry, every day is a struggle for Larry. Larry is not one of those guys that’s bulletproof. And so if I know he’s not going to play, I’m going to take the guy that I have the most faith in, in totality, than somebody that may or may not play. So that’s kind of what I did.”

Lue was asked, after the team went through its first practice with Tavares -- an experience Sanders was never afforded -- whether Tavares or the Cavs’ other late addition, Dahntay Jones, would play in the playoffs.

“You never know,” Lue said. “We talked about it today before we watched film. If you play 30 minutes or 30 seconds, it’s important in the playoffs. Every possession counts. You never know when you got to use one of those guys. So they have to be ready and be prepared.”

Tavares, by the coaching staff’s estimation, has a better chance of being subbed into a must-win game and protecting the rim for a couple minutes than Sanders would have had. Or even if Tavares doesn’t get in a game, he’s ready to challenge guys in practice since Cleveland will actually have a chance to practice during off days in the playoffs.

When you’re shepherding the biggest payroll in NBA history and it’s a championship-or-bust decree, these types of uncomfortable decisions -- i.e., releasing Sanders -- must be made.

Sanders was never the Cavs’ first choice, anyway. He became an option only after Andrew Bogut, signed by the Cavs in early March, suffered a season-ending leg injury after just 58 seconds on the court. Sanders wouldn’t have been available to join the Cavs if either Boston or the L.A. Lakers, teams he also met with, had made the choice to sign him.

Perhaps he just needs better timing.

“You take a guy whose whole thing is shot-blocking, which is the timing function,” Griffin said. “When he’s right, he’s special good. To not have the timing of that, for not playing for two years, we didn’t have enough time here for him to get enough time to get comfortable.”

Is this it for Sanders’ comeback attempt? The Cavs aren’t closing the door completely.

“We’re not signing off from the Larry experience,” Griffin said. “We like Larry, so yeah, absolutely, if it worked out and he was in game shape, we would certainly entertain that.”