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Shooting Guard Shuffle: Comparing John Salmons and Stephen Jackson

On a roster brimming with disappointment, was there any Buck who fell as flat in 2010/11 as John Salmons? It's not that anyone expected Salmons to be the Bucks' star or even match his terrific form down the stretch in the spring of 2010, but after inking a deal that would guarantee the 31-year-old at least $33 million over four years, there was every expectation that he would once again be a crucial component of an up-and-coming team desperate to build on a surprising 46 wins in 2010.

Alas, it didn't happen. Salmons missed camp with a bum knee and started the season slowly, shooting under 40% in October, November and December as the Bucks stumbled out of the gate. And as much as everyone talked about not wanting to rely on Salmons as the Bucks' go-to guy, the simple reality was that Scott Skiles never seemed to trust anyone else with the job. Salmons' usage rate rose to a career-high 19.7, but overall he was an odd mix of unwilling and ineffective. He ranked just fifth on the team in usage rate and took fewer shots than Jennings, disappearing for stretches and finding it increasingly difficult to get to the rim and finish.

But with Bogut struggling offensively and Jennings streaky at best, the ball invariably ended up in Salmons' hands when it mattered most, which only seemed to magnify his inability to recapture the 20 ppg form of the prior spring. Though his defense remained solid, the veteran notched an eFG% of just 37% in clutch situations and seemed to cough the ball up at the worst times--somewhat uncharacteristic for a guy who turned it over at a fairly modest rate all other times. He played his best ball over the final months of the season, but his 51.0% true shooting was his worst since 2005, a worrying sign for a player already on the wrong side of 30.

And now he's gone, with the Bucks hoping that 33-year-old Stephen Jackson can deliver what Salmons could not a year ago. 

Salmons' lost season

Most everyone seemed to agree that Skiles was far too patient with Salmons, but I have to say that I also understood it to a large extent. I didn't agree with it, but I get it. Skiles wants predictability, guys whose game he knows and who bring the same approach every night. As we saw with Salmons and Carlos Delfino, Skiles doesn't demand consistent offensive producers, but if you defend and you've gotten him wins in the past then you're 75% there. Salmons also could be trusted to create shots, initiate offense and hit open threes, a combination that none of the other wings were particularly capable of providing. And while Salmons was never going to be mistaken for a point guard, we all know Skiles wants guys who can move and handle the ball--hence all the two point guard looks over the past two years. My guess is that's also a statement about Jennings' ability to keep the entire team involved on his own, but that's another story altogether.  

The problem of course was that Salmons was given all that money because he was supposed to help the Bucks win now. Everyone knew his contract was destined to be an albatross by 2013 or 2014, but most of us took a deep breath and hoped the near-term wins would outweigh the long-term dead weight. Just as importantly, having Salmons' Bird rights meant the Bucks wouldn't have been able to offer the same dollars to a replacement (OK, so that might have been a blessing). So while it's not clear if anyone would have offered Salmons anything close to what the Bucks ended up paying, the circumstances at least made offering a big deal defensible. Not smart as it turned out, but it was a calculated risk. 

Trader John strikes again

And as it turns out, the deal didn't end up haunting the Bucks for too long. This summer should have been the worst possible time to deal Salmons, yet John Hammond once again showed that he was both willing to admit a mistake and capable of turning fairly toxic assets into something far more palatable. Along with Salmons, Hammond managed to also dump the misplaced Corey Maggette for Jackson while adding the productive Beno Udrih and intriguing Shaun Livingston, all for the price of moving down nine spots in the draft. The true cost of that won't be known for some time, but suffice to say the Bucks saved money and added players who make more sense on the team as currently configured. They still have to hope that players like Alec Burks and Klay Thompson don't develop into stars, but that's part of the territory with trading down.  

Despite the deal's many moving parts, in a basic sense the Bucks have rewound the clock to a rotation more similar to what they had down the stretch in 09/10. Though Maggette's per minute numbers were decent to good--especially on a team of inept offensive performers--his impact as a sixth man never came close to matching his nearly $10 million paycheck, and Skiles never seemed sold on his ball-dominating approach either. That came in stark contrast to a year earlier when Luke Ridnour was the Bucks' steadying influence off the bench, a role that Udrih seems perfectly suited to after a pair of highly productive offensive seasons in Sacramento.

Livingston's size and creativity add further dynamism to the backcourt, but the big remaining question is how Jackson fits in as Salmons' replacement. The predominant narrative after the trade was that the Bucks' thought they had improved their offense, but there's obviously a lot more to improving a team that finding guys with higher scoring averages. Each of the moving parts deserve their own look, but given I've spent close to a thousand words already on exposition, let's start with Jackson and Salmons.

Like Salmons, Jackson would be miscast as a first option

Jackson's been bouncing around the league long enough for most NBA fans to have a solid handle on what the intense, swashbuckling gunner brings to the table. But I thought it'd be interesting to compare him with Salmons using Synergy Sports' play-by-play data, if only to test whether our perceptions of both players match the data.

Bucks fans grew tired accustomed to seeing Salmons run off middle screens early in the shot clock to catch the ball on the wings and initiate offense, using iso (23.4%) or P&R (22.7%) sets for nearly half of his plays (a "play" in this context includes shots, a foul drawn or a turnover). A further 19.6% of his plays came on spot up opportunities, 11.2% off screens, and 7% in transition. Synergy's numbers are limited in that we don't see what happens when a guy passes, but it's a good start and a useful data point for understanding how a guy does his work and the relative value of players in different scenarios.

Somewhat surprisingly, Salmons' highest relative ranking in points per play came in transition, where he ranked 32nd in the NBA at 1.44. With his sleepy demeanor and rope-a-dope game, Salmons generally isn't thought of as an open court player, but that comes across more in his lack of attempts rather than his productivity; when he did get in the open court he was rather lethal. Salmons' other above average ability was hitting spot up threes, which he knocked down at a 42% clip (1.06 PPP on all spot ups). 

Jackson's distribution last season was quite similar with one notable exception--he rarely shot the ball out of P&R (6.8% of possessions), instead seeing almost three times as many post opportunities (10.7%, 0.89 PPP) as Salmons and 40% more transition plays (10.1%, 1.12 PPP). Watching film in Synergy, Jackson's go-to play usually involved catching the ball with his back to the basket on the wing, 16-20 feet out. From there he could face up in an iso or back his man down for a post opportunity. He was better than Salmons off screens (0.84 vs. 0.70 PPP) and in isolation (0.85 vs. 0.81), but overall he lagged behind Salmons' mediocre numbers in most regards, including in overall PPP (0.89 vs. 0.87). Note that his transition efficiency was way below Salmons', but that can be attributed largely to the much higher volume of jumpers he launched in those scenarios. 

Overall, there's little statistical evidence that Jackson will be a more effective offensive player than Salmons, especially given he's also 17 months older. The main difference is that Jackson--for better or worse--has always known how to get his shots. His 25.3 usage rate a year ago was a career high, and while Salmons has never cracked the 20 possessions/40 minutes mark, Jackson's never averaged less than 20 in his career. As we've learned from watching Brandon Jennings, high usage + low efficiency is an often problematic combination, and putting Jennings and Jackson in the same backcourt could have some interesting results. By definition it can't get any worse than last year, but pairing the two Oak Hill grads together isn't a statistical match made in heaven.

On the positive side, Jackson and Jennings seem excited about the prospect of playing together, which along with Jackson's reputation as a leader on and off the court will hopefully mean a more mature approach from Jennings. In the days after the trade, Jackson was vocal about the Bucks being Jennings' team, and he also noted with appreciation that Andrew Bogut texted him as soon as the deal was announced. So far so good, but I'd say it's naive to think Jackson could have a long-term future in Milwaukee. He'll be 35 when his current deal expires, and it's anybody's guess if his fiery temperament will wear out its welcome before then. In contrast to the quieter Salmons, Jackson's ability to lead could be as important as his ability to make shots, especially for a Bucks team that didn't cope well with the departures of veteran leaders Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse. 

The myth of Jackson's defense?

I wouldn't characterize Salmons as a lock-down defender, but it's hard to say he wasn't a steady, positive contributor to the Bucks' excellent defense over the past two seasons. Skiles frequently had Salmons defend top shooting guards even when Luc Mbah a Moute started at small forward, and in general he held his own. The Bucks allowed 2.6 fewer pts/100 when he was on the court a year ago, and his opponent stats were also solid at both the 2 and 3 spots. 

Meanwhile, Jackson has long had a reputation as a good defender, but it's difficult to make the case statistically. His opponent stats are OK, but the Bobcats were 4.0 pts/100 worse with Jackson on the court, which isn't saying much since the Bobs were only 16th in the league defensively. Moreover, they were 3.4 pts/100 worse with Jackson on the court in 09/10, though they also had high standards as the best defensive team in the league that season. It's only fair to note that the Bobcats were also clearly better offensively with Jackson on the court in both seasons, but it doesn't support the notion of Jackson being a plus defender, a reputation that seemed to really take hold while playing for the defense-optional Warriors (and when he was a few years younger).  

Personally, I never thought Jackson's defense stood out for the wrong reasons while watching Bobs games over the past two years, but it's also not like I was specifically scouting him either. Whatever the case, I'm not terribly concerned about Jackson fitting in defensively, as he's been around the block and is known to work hard. Even if his defense is a bit overrated, the Bucks have the kind of system that tends to make guys look better anyway.

Bottom line: Change is good, but don't expect a miracle

Though Salmons' decline was a major storyline a year ago, the big issues for the Bucks remain the same as ever. Can Andrew Bogut get healthy and return to the form he showed before his arm injury?  Can Jennings take the major leap needed to become a top ten point guard? Getting the most from guys like Jackson, Udrih and Drew Gooden is no doubt important, but the reality is that it's all secondary to getting the most out of the Bucks' de facto young building blocks. Without Bogut at close to full strength, the Bucks aren't likely to come close to matching their good-but-not-great 46 wins of two years ago, and they're unlikely to improve on that figure unless Jennings gets substantially better.  

In that sense, all the moves the Bucks make this offseason should on some level be compatible with getting the most out of Bogut and Jennings--the two guys who might have the transcendent abilities teams need to be relevant come April, May and June. An intense, versatile swingman who'll bring a much needed shot in the arm to the locker room should help. An efficient, scoring point guard in the Luke Ridnour mold should help. And saving a bunch of money without downgrading the roster always helps. But make no mistake, players like Jackson and Udrih are means to a modest end. That's not meant as an insult; it's true for the vast majority of NBA players. But their greatest value will likely be in how they complement the talent already in Milwaukee, not by transcending it themselves.