There are several things that worry me about the 2009-10 Bulls season. The first-half schedule. Vinny Del Negro’s coaching. Luol Deng’s ability to return from injury and regain his 2006-07 form. Tyrus Thomas’ maturity, decision-making and proclivity for jump-shooting. The continuing lack of an inside scoring threat. Defensive rebounding. Team defense in general.
One thing I’m not all that worried about is the loss of Ben Gordon. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll miss BG, and so (at times) will the Bulls. He was a warrior, a fearless scorer, and a true joy to watch…when he wasn’t forcing up bad shots and getting backed down by bigger guards on defense. But the reason I’m not sweating his exodus to Detroit is because I believe in his replacement. I believe in John Salmons.
(Quick segue: I hate the fact that many so-called experts have claimed either that the Bulls didn’t replace Gordon or they replaced him with Jannero Pargo. The Bulls brought in Ben’s replacement last season when they traded for Salmons. Management had, for years, been searching for a bigger guard who could both score and play defense. That is, after all, why they drafted Thabo Sefolosha. So if you think about it, replacing Gordon with a player like Salmons was part of the long-term game plan all along.)
Last season, Salmons set new personal bests in several categories: Minutes Per Game (37.5), Points Per Game (18.3), Three-Point Percentage (41.7), Free Throw Percentage (83.0), Effective Field Goal Percentage (53.0), Offensive Rating (113), Win Shares (5.6) and Player Efficiency Rating (16.0). He also tied or nearly tied his career marks in Field Goal Percentage (47.2), Rebounds Per Game (4.2), Assists Per Game (3.2) and Steals Per Game (1.1). Clearly, even though he struggled at the end and in the playoffs due to a lingering groin injury, it was a career season for Salmons.
However, the general consensus seems to be that he can’t possibly repeat the performance, that he will inevitably take a step back. Maybe even a big step back. Why? Why is that such a sure thing? Most people point to the fact that some of his numbers took such a sharp step up (such as PPG, which went from 12.5 in 2007-08 to 18.3 in 2008-09). But was Salmons’ improvement really that much of a surprise? It shouldn’t have been.
Last season was Salmons’ first as a full-time starter. It was the first time he received a starter’s minutes and starter’s shot attempts…for a full season. However, you should check out the splits for his 2007-08 season with the Kings. Due to a variety of injuries to his teammates, Salmons started a then-career-high 41 games that season. As a starter, he put up numbers quite similar to last season’s career-year: 38.1 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.6 SPG, 49.7 FG%, 38.5 3P%. Unfortunately for Salmons, when his teammates returned from injury, he returned to the bench. Obviously, his numbers dropped like a stone.
The point is, last season’s seemingly out-of-nowhere performance wasn’t as out-of-nowhere as it seemed. Salmons had already shown what he could do as a featured player, but he did it for only half a season on a pretty awful Kings team that nobody outside of Sacramento was watching. I guess it’s not too surprising that few people noticed or even cared.
If you look at the numbers and his skill set — good shooter, capable of penetration, can finish or draw the foul, solid on defense — then you can see it’s not really a foregone conclusion that Salmons is going to regress this season. He is, after all, only 29 years old, which means he’s still in his athletic prime. He has to help fill the void created by a guy who scored 20+ PPG, which means he’s going to get minutes and shots. And if the second half of last season is any indication, the Bulls will probably be an up-tempo team this season, which is always good for stats. Furthermore, Salmons is going to be a key component of the defensive game plan (and I say that hoping there actually will be a defensive game plan).
Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that Salmons will probably opt out of his contract after this season. If that’s the case, he has pretty strong incentive to play at his absolute best in order to maximize any potential payday he’ll receive next summer. He’ll be 30 years old by then, which means this is most likely his last and best chance for a fat contract.
So yeah, I believe in John Salmons. I bet that, soon, you’ll believe in him too.