Good Cop/Bad Cop: John Salmons Edition

I love player evaluation, but at times I can admittedly be a bit tough on players. This good cop/bad cop series is meant to drop all pretenses and provide a transparent discussion about the reasons for hope and pessimism about each player on the roster. By giving insight into the competing arguments on various players on the roster, we can hopefully arrive at more reasonable overall assessments and expectations. In this initial post I play the role of both the good cop and the bad cop, but going forward the series will expand to include other members of the Brew Hoop gang to provide a true adversarial debate. Enjoy!

*Also, for anyone wondering what the heck TS% and other odd-looking metrics refer to, or frankly even for people who know exactly what they mean but hope these stats become a fundamental aspect of basketball discussions everywhere, please check out my FanPost on advanced stat basics here.

Good Stat: In 2010-11, the Bucks were 9-6 when John Salmons scored 20+ points, and 12-7 when he had 5+ assists.

Bad Stat: 51.0 TS% (Ranks 71st out of 84 qualifying SGs/SFs with 40+ games played and 20+ min/gm in the 2010-11 season).

After the jump, our Bad Cop gets the first word because John Salmons was, well, pretty bad this past season.

Bad Cop: Just a year removed from leading the Bucks’ surprise turnaround a year ago, John Salmons was arguably the most disappointing player on the league’s most disappointing team. After inking a five-year, $39 million deal in the offseason, Salmons became the poster boy of the Bucks’ offensive struggles, posting his lowest FG% since 2004-2005, his lowest TS% since 2005-06, his lowest eFG% since 2005-06, his lowest number of attempts at the rim since at least 2007 (shot location data not available prior to 2007), and his lowest FG% on shots at the rim since at least 2007. Yuck.

Though he’s never been particularly explosive, it was apparent that Salmons lacked the first step off the dribble that made him a special player during the second half of last season. Not that it should surprise anyone that he has lost quickness…let’s remember that he’s 31 years old. Aside from his fundamental inability to make shots, he also drove Bucks Nation nuts with untimely turnovers, as his normally better-than-average turnover rate more than doubled in clutch situations. Among NBA players with at least 100 minutes of clutch play (with "clutch" being defined as: 4th quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, and neither team ahead by more than five points), Salmons had the 8th highest turnover rate and the 15th lowest FG%, a brutal combination when you consider that he was more often than not Scott Skiles’ go-to guy down the stretch.  In theory, veteran players like Salmons should be steady performers and good decision makers, but neither was the case with the 2010-11 version of Salmons. He will turn 32 before the end of the calendar year, the Bucks have him under contract for three more seasons (and a largely unguaranteed option in 2014-15) at an average of roughly $8 million per season, and frankly I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Good Cop: For starters, thanks for at least having the basic human decency to avoid accusing Salmons of getting his money and quitting on the team. His demeanor may not always scream high energy or max effort, but Salmons clearly worked hard all season and you could often see the disappointment on his face.  Maybe he just had an off year—missing the entirety of camp with a knee injury certainly didn’t help—and it’s worth noting that we did see some flashes of what he did during that magical run to the playoffs that got him paid in the first place. Namely, the last 16 games saw the Bucks go 9-7 with Salmons finally putting up the kind of numbers Bucks fans had hoped for: 16.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.9 apg, and 1.9 to on .498/.364/.854 shooting (59.3% true shooting). It might have been too little, too late, but at least it was something.

Salmons did seem to settle for more pull-up 10-foot jumpers over the course of the season, but without shooting threats to space the defense, he also didn’t have as many driving lanes as help defenders routinely collapsed hard on him. Alas, these are the perils of playing on a team full of guys who can’t score. Furthermore, I feel like the nature of the offense changed a bit from the end of last season. During last season's run to the playoffs, Salmons had many wing-isolation opportunities where he could pump-fake and jab step his opponent to his heart’s content until he became comfortable enough to make a drive to the rim, launch a three, or break his man down off the dribble for a mid-range jumper. According to Synergy Sports, 31% of Salmons’ possessions were isolation plays in 09/10, ranking 26th in the league with 0.97 points per possession. This season Skiles didn’t give him as many true isolation chances, because on most wing catches they initiated that weave action where a big man set a pick on Salmons’ man forcing him to put the ball on the floor without the opportunity to size up his defender and get comfortable with his options. Salmons’ iso possessions dropped to 23% of all his plays—essentially the same as his P&R plays—and his PPP dropped to around 0.8 in both.

Bad Cop: No Country For Old Men may have been a terrific movie, but it’s not a phrase you want to be reminded of every night while watching your team’s $40 million swingman. Isn’t it probable that Skiles went away from putting Salmons in wing-isolation sets because he’s lost a step and is no longer quick enough to beat his defender one-on-one? The man is 31 years old, and we know he isn’t going to get quicker or more athletic over time. For example, this season his defensive stunts left him at least a step too far out of position on three-point shooters night in and night out, leading to a multitude of back-breaking threes by his counterpart. Despite his ineffectiveness on offense most nights and the problems with covering the arc after his defensive stunts, Skiles apparently couldn’t help himself from giving Salmons big minutes while Corey Maggette rotted away on the bench, which likely robbed the Bucks of their best chance to win a number of games this season.

Good Cop: I see your bad movie reference joke and raise you a substantive theory. Have you ever heard of the Luol Deng Theory? Of course you haven’t, because I just made it up. But it goes as follows: most players have an optimum role on a team where they look extremely good on most nights. For example: Luol Deng is a great 3rd option on offense because he doesn’t have to create his own looks off the dribble and can set up in the corner for a three or a slashing drive to the hoop, with enough energy left over to play lock down perimeter defense. But sometimes players perform so well in their designated role that they get signed to a big contract that dictates they must raise a level in their role to justify the new contract. And unfortunately most players aren’t suited to being first or even second options, and they often look terrible trying to do so. Which brings us back to Deng: he often struggled trying to create his own shots as the 2nd option on the Bulls' offense before rediscovering himself as a supporting player this season. If the overpayment is recognized by management, a move is made that allows the player to return to his optimal role, allowing him to get back his best even he’s still overpaid. Thanks to the addition of Carlos Boozer and the further blossoming of Derrick Rose, that’s just what happened with Deng this season.

Let's apply the Luol Deng Theory to John Salmons. He is clearly a perfect 3rd option or 6th man scorer, because as a 3rd option he can slash off the ball and set up in the corner for open three-point looks (46% from that spot this past season), and as a 6th man scorer he can be given additional wing-isolation opportunities on nights where he has his game going. Seduced by his red-hot finish last spring and the knowledge that they wouldn’t have the cap room to sign a comparable replacement, the Bucks  paid Salmons and then tried to bump him up to a 2nd option play-maker and creator. Unfortunately, Salmons has never shown an ability to do this for extended stretches at any point during his career, and with both Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings struggling with consistency for much of the season, the ball more often than not ended up in Salmons’ hands late in games. Moreover, I think those clutch numbers you cited can also be explained under the Luol Deng Theory—which suggests Skiles’ insistence on force-feeding Salmons big minutes and important touches is as much to blame as Salmons himself. If he were just allowed to return to a 3rd option or to transition into a 6th man scorer, he would have a much better chance of looking like the player we came to love during the final 30 games of the 2009-2010 season.

Either way, there is still hope for next season, and you need to look no further than the monthly splits to find it. Take a look at how Salmons performed the last two months of the seasons: Salmons posted a FG% on par with his career highs for a single season, a TS% equal to his career average, an eFG% that would be the second highest of his career, and although he still kept his attempts at the rim low, he converted those shots at a higher rate than any point since at least 2007. If Salmons could bring anything like what we saw in the last two months, the Bucks will still be getting the player they wanted when they signed him to the long-term deal last offseason.

Furthermore, I feel like Salmons will start to use post-ups more as he continues to age, and his 0.98 PPP in post-ups last year (34th in the league) suggest he has the tools to do so successfully. Unlike guys who rely purely on athleticism, he has a rangy and crafty type of game that mixes in fade away jumpers, which along with his good size means he can probably develop a competent mid-range post package in the near future. Lastly, a very good Bucks defense was even better with Salmons on the court, suggesting that his age hasn’t robbed him of his value on the defensive end. All of this gives us some reasonable glimmer of hope heading into the remaining years on his deal. While the Bucks will never be a contender with Salmons as their first or second option, a more realistic role could help Salmons rediscover his mojo—and get disheartened Bucks fans feeling just a bit more optimistic.

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