“What John brought to our team was almost unbelievable.” – Scott Skiles, July 8, 2010.
Turns out, it was unbelievable for a reason.
After carrying the Bucks through one game after the next from the months of February through May last season, John Salmons received a four year extension to stay with the team this past off-season. The extension was skeptically received, and the Bucks acknowledged they may take a bit of a hit on the back end of the contract, but after how well Salmons had worked out in Coach Skiles offense, the feeling was that he would be the steadying hand the Bucks needed to progress forward this season.
Most of us came into this season looking at Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings. How would Bogut recover from his gruesome injury that ended his 2009-10 season and how would Jennings progress after his rookie year? Those were common questions back in October. Reliable scoring was hardly what anyone worried about.
If Salmons wasn’t enough, the Bucks had added Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts to share the scoring load from the wing. While the organization didn’t expect Salmons to average 19.9 points per game like he did to end last season, Milwaukee figured Salmons could average 15-17 points a night and Maggette and company could make up the rest on the bench. But the real key to Salmons was that he would provide the Bucks with a reliable scoring option down the stretch in games.
At least based on his work last season, it seemed he would. But like the rest of his teammates, Salmons hasn’t produced in the fourth quarter this season. As a team, the Bucks are averaging just 21.9 points per fourth quarter, last in the NBA. Against the Bobcats and Bulls, Salmons late game struggles have especially stood out. He missed all eight shots he attempted in the two games as Milwaukee scored just 14 and 13 points respectively and blew fourth quarter leads in both games. But, just like it hasn’t been for the Bucks, this hasn’t just been a two game problem for Salmons.
Over the Bucks past 10 games with a margin of victory of fewer than 10 points (wins and losses included), Salmons has averaged 3.9 fourth quarter points on 33% shooting (1.3/3.9). For a first option in the clutch, those aren’t the numbers any team is looking for. Especially after the numbers Salmons produced last season.
Over the Bucks final 10 single digit contests last season, Salmons averaged 7.0 points per fourth quarter on 48% shooting (2.1/4.4). He was the man for the Bucks down the stretch.
Remember Milwaukee’s dramatic late March win over the Hawks? Salmons dropped 16 on Joe Johnson’s head and gave the Bucks exactly what they had been lacking all season. Last season’s Bucks had very little size and even less athleticism on the wing before Salmons arrived. Charlie Bell, Jodie Meeks and Carlos Delfino all struggled to initiate much offense. Each of them thrived off another player slashing and kicking out, but they were in a position to have to do that slashing themselves. That’s why the Bucks offense sputtered so badly before Salmons arrived last season.
He took the pressure off, created offense, found shooters and closed out games. He seemed a perfect fit. The party would never end.
But the cops have come, they’ve turned down the noise and broken up the party. Salmons now dribbles endlessly to nowhere, struggling to create much else aside from pull-up jumpers in traffic. Jumpers that fell more often than not last season, but this season have rimmed out time and again. Coach Skiles has said at different times this season that Salmons must “lead the league in rim outs”, but can anyone’s luck really be that bad or is it something more? Has decline begun to set in on Salmons sooner than anyone would have imagined? It’s too early to tell now. By this time next season, we should have a better handle on whether or not Salmons was just incredibly unlucky this season or if he’s started a fairly serious decline.
Maybe his luck will even out after so many almosts this season. Maybe he’ll be back to the Salmons of last season or maybe Jennings or a new acquisition will step up and be the man in future four quarters for the Bucks. Jennings does offer the occasional glimmer of hope, like his 13-point fourth quarter, 37-point total game against the Knicks. It was another night in which Salmons struggled down the stretch (zero for three in the fourth), but Jennings relieved his teammate of the pressure by stepping up.
What’s scary though, is that Milwaukee could bring back virtually the same roster, cite the injuries as the reason this season went awry and go through another year without a number one, hoping every night that someone new will have it going and will lift the team up upon their shoulders in the fourth quarter. Maybe that will work. There is still probably enough talent on this team that, injury free, it could win better than 40 games. But don’t think too hard about a deep playoff run. Not without That Dude that steps up at the end of games and takes care of everything. They need that star.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Become a fan on Facebook (right sidebar).