What's wrong with John Salmons?
In a Bucks season that has asked more questions than it has answered, Salmons' struggles may be the biggest riddle of all. Not that there's any shortage of theories: he's too old, he's too unlucky, he's a slow starter, he just wasn't that good to begin with. Odds are that if you're a Bucks fan then you have some clear opinions on the matter. And considering that Salmons is almost 31 and signed a new five year contract over the summer, some of those explanations are much more worrying than others.
What does seem clear is Salmons' importance to the Bucks' bottom line. The former Miami star has averaged 17.0 ppg, 3.7 apg, and 3.9 rpg on .467/.435/.758 shooting in seven Bucks wins, but just 10.2 ppg, 2.7 apg, and 3.3 rpg on some seriously terrible .318/.306/.771 shooting in 12 losses. It's no surprise to see key players putting up better numbers when their team wins (fun fact: the opposite is true for Corey Maggette), but Salmons' splits are the most extreme on the team--which makes sense considering how much the Bucks have been leaning on him even when he's not producing. Scott Skiles didn't have many alternatives while Chris Douglas-Roberts was out with his eye injury, but as the Bucks get healthy they have more options and less excuses for riding Salmons while he struggles. Which begs two important questions: what's the real source of Salmons' struggles and can he get his game back?
Let's examine the evidence factor-or-fiction style with some of the most common explanations for Salmons' downturn:
"He's lost a step." With some guys you can just tell when they're not as explosive as they once were, but Salmons' style makes him a bit tougher to read in that sense. He's always been more smooth than explosive, relying on his length and body control to ease by, shoot over, and bounce off defenders rather than simply jump over them. Even a year ago, I liked to point out that Salmons probably finished more plays as he was coming down than anyone else in the league. Per 82games, 72% of his shots as a Buck last season were jumpers and just 1% were dunks, very similar to the numbers he put up in Chicago after being traded in 08/09.
So Salmons has never been an above the rim guy, but it figures that you can only play so far below the rim before you're no longer an $8 million per season player. Indeed, his shot selection has become even more jumper-biased than in previous years and his finishing at the rim has dipped considerably as well, though the latter is a trend that actually began last year. According to Hoop Data, Salmons was remarkably consistent from '07-'09, converting between 63% and 64% at the rim in each of three seasons. But that figure dropped to 57% and 58% with the Bulls and Bucks, respectively, in 09/10, still solid but hardly amazing, before cratering to a Brandon Jennings-like 42% thus far this year. And not only is Salmons not scoring, but he's getting blocked on 28% of his inside attempts, notably higher than the 16% figure from a year ago. Moreover, he's also getting less opportunities (1.9 fga per game at the rim this year vs. 4.2 with the Bucks last year)--suggesting he's beating his man less consistently than previously. That's also borne out by his lower free throw rate (3.6 fta in 34 mpg vs. 5.3 fta in 38 mpg last year).
All those numbers paint a troubling picture of Salmons suffering a sharp dropoff in physical ability, though there are at least a couple of mitigating factors to consider. For one, I think the Bucks have often been far too predictable in their play-calling, relying heavily on Salmons to create off the dribble (usually after a high screen to free him on the left wing) rather than playing in the flow of a more movement-oriented offense. That's somewhat reflected in his statistics as well: less than 30% of his "at rim" field goals are assisted, well below the 43% of a year ago and his lowest figure since 2007 (when the HoopData stats begin). Those figures are hardly surprising, as the Bucks have been awful at getting anyone easy buckets--whether in transition or by executing out of the halfcourt. Then again, the Bucks often relied on Salmons to initiate offense in a similar fashion a year ago, so it's probably inaccurate to place too much blame on Salmons' role in the offense.
Having space to operate is also a concern. Rather than having a capable three point threat like Carlos Delfino parked in the far corner when he drives, Salmons now has Luc Mbah a Moute. That means the weakside defender can stand about three to four feet closer to the lane than they might otherwise, giving them extra time to close when Salmons drives from his preferred left wing into the lane. In fairness to Mbah a Moute, the Bucks' offense has been better with him on the court than off, so that explanation is difficult to test in spite of its theoretical attractiveness. Mbah a Moute's on/off numbers are also slanted by the significant minutes Mbah a Moute gets at PF where his lack of consistent jumper isn't an issue. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's where Mbah a Moute was starting down the stretch last spring when Salmons was so on top of his game.
"He's still hurt." It's certainly worth noting that Salmons missed the entire preseason with a sprained knee, which obviously didn't help him early in the season. He played under 30 minutes in three of the first five games, cracking double-digits just once in that span. He's gotten slightly better since then, but that's not saying all that much. And despite a couple of decent games against Denver and Orlando, Salmons was back to struggling in a 2/11 night against Miami on Monday. Does he just need to get his rhythm back? Could be, though the concept of rhythm is so abstract that I'm not sure it explains much.
"His jumper has just been off." The easiest excuse when a guard is struggling? Oh, he's just in a shooting slump...give him some time! And it's true that Salmons' jumper hasn't been as consistent as a year ago. He's making just 36% of long twos after making better than 40% both of the previous two seasons, and his three point accuracy has fallen a fair bit as well (33.3% from 38.5%). But his biggest problem area is at the rim and his ability to get there, which runs contrary to the "shooter's luck" argument.
"He's always been a slow starter." This has been trotted a few times of late, and it might be easier to sell to Bucks fans since it jives with Salmons' strong finish last season after a forgettable first half in Chicago. But there's really no evidence of it in Salmons' career splits, and I'd argue his strong finish last year had more to do with a change in scenery than a predisposition for playing poorly early in the season. Over his career, his pre/post all-star stats are virtually identical and there's little trend to be deciphered in his monthly stats either:
Last season was a clear exception, as Salmons played the best ball of his career following his trade to Milwaukee. Often times people say the same about his trade to Chicago in 08/09, but in truth he was pretty damn good with Sacramento and just kept it up following the move to the Bulls.
"He wasn't that good to begin with." All of Salmons' 10/11 numbers are down relative to his career averages, but it's probably worth reminding everyone that Salmons has hardly been a consistent high-level guy over his career. He's generally been a good complementary scorer and wing defender, but he might also be miscast as a number one scoring option. It worked for a 30-game stretch last spring, but even then he struggled to replicate that success in the playoffs against Atlanta (17.0 ppg, .404/.174 shooting).
Conclusion: Salmons needs time...and a shorter leash
So what do the Bucks do? Salmons' contract makes him more or less untradeable at the moment, so they have little choice but to make the best of the situation and hope Salmons can get his game back together sooner rather than later. Considering just how poor he's been through 20 games, it seems almost inevitable that he would show some improvement from here on out, but mean reversion alone doesn't guarantee he'll come anywhere close to his performance last year. And in truth that's not the worst thing in the world--given the Bucks actually added offensive talent over the summer (funny to say that, isn't it?), he shouldn't have to score 20 ppg.
All told, the Bucks would also be well served re-examining Salmons' role in the offense and making sure they don't try to ride him when he's clearly off his game. Skiles seems to have too much invested in Salmons to bench him at the moment, particularly as Chris Douglas-Roberts works to get his legs and a grasp of the Bucks' offensive and defensive sets. And while Salmons isn't a true #1 offensive option, he's certainly not as bad as he's shown so far this year. The Bucks need him--they just can't afford to wait for him much longer.