Bucks to benefit even more from Salmons trade

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big believer in Milwaukee’s decision to trade for John Salmons, but after his terrific play has ignited the Bucks’ recent run — 16-4 since the trade, with Salmons leading the teams in scoring 10 times — it doesn’t bother me that the Bulls will have enough cap space this summer to sign a max free agent. Salmons’ positive impact already outweighs whatever might happen this summer.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the aforementioned Bulls, because as a throw-in to the Salmons trade, the Bucks have the right to swap picks if Chicago picks outside of the top 10. The Bulls have won two straight, and are now sitting at 35-38, just a half game back of the Raptors for the #8 spot in the East. More importantly for the Bucks, Chicago is sitting in the #12 spot in terms of the draft, and outside of the Hornets (34-40), no one is going to slip past them.

What does this mean? Well, barring a complete meltdown by the Bulls, the Bucks will be able to swap picks, meaning that they’ll move up from their current position (#18) into the #11-#15 range. Per the mock draft at DraftExpress, that’s the difference between Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh and Marshall’s Hassan Whiteside.

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John Salmons’ impact on the Bucks

Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recaps John Salmons near-super human effort against the Kings and Nuggets last weekend.

John Salmons had to be a tired man after playing 92 minutes on back-to-back nights during the weekend.

But all Salmons’ work and perspiration was worth it as he helped the Milwaukee Bucks to a pair of satisfying victories, a double-overtime thriller at Sacramento on Friday night and a gritty decision in Denver on Saturday night.

Salmons’ impact on the Bucks’ fortunes is nothing short of amazing. Since his arrival at the trade deadline in February, Milwaukee has rolled to a 14-2 record and vaulted into the fifth playoff position in the Eastern Conference with a 38-30 overall mark.

The 6-foot-6 veteran provided more evidence of the “Salmons effect” with his play in the crucial stages against the Kings and Nuggets.

In the final minute of regulation in Sacramento, he sank 2 three-point shots, one coming off a double screen that the Bucks executed perfectly following a timeout. Then he grabbed two offensive rebounds and converted baskets in the first overtime period, and he finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and five assists while playing a game-high 53 minutes in the Bucks’ 114-108 victory.

What to do for an encore?

Well, how about taking a defensive turn on Denver all-star Carmelo Anthony and getting to the free throw line in the fourth quarter to help the Bucks seal a 102-97 victory, snapping the Nuggets’ seven-game home winning streak.

Salmons ended with 26 points, four assists and three rebounds, and he was 9 of 9 at the foul line, including 6 of 6 in the fourth quarter.

As I’ve written before, Andrew Bogut deserves a lot of credit for the Bucks’ recent run, but there’s no denying that Salmons has brought a dimension to the team that has been lacking for some time.

The seven-year vet is averaging 20-3-3, while shooting better than 45% from the field and 38% from long range. With Michael Redd hobbled (and now injured), the Bucks were lacking a wing that could score consistently. Salmons has filled that void perfectly and has exceeded even the highest of expectations after the Bucks pulled the trigger to acquire him at the trade deadline.

It’s funny — watching him play, you wouldn’t think he’d be a Scott Skiles kind of a player. His expression rarely changes, and his constant blank look could be perceived as apathy. But he plays hard, so who cares what kind of face he makes? He is seemingly unflappable, and that’s a trait that makes him a dependable crunch time scorer.

Monday night update: Salmons had another great night scoring the ball, dropping 32 points against the Hawks on 12 of 19 shooting from the field. He also hit two free throws with under 30 seconds to play to give the Bucks the lead for good.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

How good are the Bucks?

On the heels of my feature about Andrew Bogut that I posted a couple of weeks ago, the Bucks have won five of six — and 10 of their last 11 — to rise to the #5 slot in the Eastern Conference. Even SLAM has taken notice, as evidenced by Colin Powers’ piece, “How good are the Bucks?

The biggest factor, though, in the Bucks upward trajectory has definitively been Andrew Bogut. I saw the Bucks play live a couple weeks ago at the Garden, and was really struck by Bogut’s play. First of all, he is a massive, massive human being, completely dwarfing any of the Knicks players as he dominated all the traffic in the paint. For the season, his intensity and commitment on the defensive end has jumped far beyond what we have seen in the past, manifest in his 2.5 blocks per game, nearly double his career average up until this point. Bogut’s strength as a one-on-one defender as well as his presence in the lane as a bulwark against perimeter players attacking the rim have been fundamental to Milwaukee’s greatly improved team defensive (they rank 10th in the League in FG% allowed at 45%). Meanwhile, Coach Skiles’ credentials as a gifted defensive coach has only been reinforced by Bogut’s transformation.

On the offensive end, Bogut has great hands and is very active around the bucket, comfortable finishing with both hands, apt at using the glass and shooting the jumphook in addition to knocking down an occasional J from 15 feet or so. Since his Utah days, he has always been a gifted passer, whether downlow or from the high post, and he has continued to display that ability this season. His name doesn’t often come up in discussing the best young big men in the NBA, but it should.

Granted, the Bucks have had a nice schedule of late, with wins at Detroit, Charlotte, at New York, New Orleans (w/o Chris Paul), at Indiana, at Miami (w/o D-Wade), a home-and-home against Washington, Cleveland (w/o LeBron), and last night’s win against the relatively healthy Boston Celtics. But still, winning 10 of 11 is impressive, and their sole setback was a four-point OT loss to a talented Atlanta Hawks team.

Bogut has been the key. The Aussie averaged 16-11 with 2.8 blocks in February, and is off to a 19-10-4.3 start in four games in March. Moreover, he’s hitting better than 54% from the field and is finding his groove at the free throw line. (He’s shooting 85% in March.) Credit should also go to John Salmons (19-3-3 since the trade) and Carlos Delfino (13-7-3, 40% 3PT in Feb & March), who have given the Bucks legitimate threats on the wing. And let’s not forget the 22-year-old Ersan Ilyasova (10-6, 35% from 3PT on the season) who has played well all year, whether he starts or not.

But back to Bogut. His post-All-Star play has me wondering if he’s making a run at an All-NBA nod despite being passed over for the All-Star Game. Dwight Howard is a shoe-in for 1st Team honors, but who is the second-best center in the league? Tim Duncan is considered a forward, so Amare Stoudemire seems like the next logical option, but his defense pales in comparison to Bogut’s. If the Bucks end up with 45+ wins and the #5 or #6 playoff spot in the East, it will be interesting to see if Bogut earns an All-NBA nod. He faces a steep climb seeing that he has to shrug off the unbelievably high expectations of being a former #1 overall pick and that he plays in a small market for a team that few seem to care about around the league.

But first things first — the Bucks need to keep up their fine play. The road gets a little tougher as they host a hot Utah team on Friday and face the Nuggets, Hawks, Heat, Grizzlies and Cavs before the month is out. There are very winnable games intermixed — the Clippers twice, the Pacers, the Kings and the Sixers — and there are just two back-to-backs remaining in March.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Here’s the problem with the Salmons deal…

As a long-time (and sometimes-proud) Bucks fan, my NBA objectivity goes out the window whenever my favorite team makes a big transaction. I start to look at it from the perspective of “my Bucks” and don’t really care what kind of an effect the move has on the other team.

But in this John Salmons-for-Elson/Thomas (or Warrick/Alexander) deal, the Bulls’ new-found financial freedom might come back to haunt the Bucks. Without Salmons’ salary ($5.8 million) on the books for next season, the Bulls would project to have more than $18 million in cap space heading into this summer’s free agency. That’s enough to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Without this trade, the Bulls would have a tough time signing a “max” player.

So by taking on Salmons and his contract, the Bucks may have increased their chances of becoming first round fodder in the postseason, but they also increased the chances of a top 5 player joining their bitter rival. They already have LeBron in the division — now they may have to deal with D-Wade, too?

While I can understand the deal that includes Kurt Thomas and Francisco Elson, I don’t get why the Bucks would include Warrick in the trade, seeing as how he has been a valuable rotation player — 10-4 in 21 minutes per game — throughout the season. In other words, I’m not sure how a Salmons-for-Warrick swap gets the Bucks that much closer to the postseason that it would justify the added expense next season and the increased likelihood that Dwyane Wade will land in Chicago.

After a shaky start — trading for Richard Jefferson, drafting Joe Alexander, trading away Mo Williams — GM John Hammond has had a nice year, unloading Jefferson’s huge contact, acquiring Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, and most importantly, drafting Brandon Jennings. Unlike most teams, the Bucks are stockpiling cap space for the summer of 2011, when they currently project to have $25 million (or more) in cap space and only seven players under contract. He has the Bucks in position to bounce back over the next couple of seasons, but it won’t matter if Cleveland and Chicago are dominating the division.

The top 10 first round steals of the last 10 years

Everyone loves to focus on the lottery, but there are good players to be had in the late first round as well. A while back, I put together a list of the top second round picks of the modern era, so now I’m going to focus on those players that were drafted between pick #21 and pick #30 in the first round. (Note: If a player was drafted in the second round, even if they were taken with the #29 or #30 pick overall, they are ineligible to make the list. Sorry, Gilbert.) Since there are more star-quality players available in the 20’s, I’m limiting this list to the last ten drafts (i.e. 1999 through 2008).

It is sometimes tough to rank older players with newer players, but even if a younger player holds more trade value right now, I am going to take into account each player’s entire career. For the young guys, I have to project a little bit, so keep that in mind as you read and react. I feel great about the top eight guys, but there are a few players that missed the list that are pretty interchangeable with #9 and #10.

On with the list…

10. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
26th pick in 2007
I had to decide between Brooks and Nate Robinson here and went with Brooks given his fine performance in the playoffs this season (16.8 ppg, 3.4 apg, 42% from 3PT) and how Robinson’s numbers are a little inflated playing for Mike D’Antoni. Brooks is not a natural point guard, but his sharpshooting is a good fit given Houston’s inside-out attack. He’s small, but he’s quick and is able to score at the rim when given some daylight. The Rockets feel good enough about Brooks to trade Rafer Alston away midseason, so you have to like his upside.

9. Kendrick Perkins, Celtics
27th pick in 2003 (drafted by the Grizzlies)
In the world of “big” guys, I also considered Boris Diaw here, but it’s tough to pass on a 6’10” 24-year-old who averaged 8.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game on a team loaded with vets. Without Kevin Garnett in the playoffs, the C’s needed Perkins to step up his game and he responded with 11.9 points, 11.6 boards and 2.6 blocks per contest. He also did a pretty good job on Dwight Howard, who had his worst numbers of the playoffs against the Celtics.

8. David Lee, Knicks
30th pick in 2005
Isiah Thomas couldn’t make a good trade to save his life, but he could spot talent in the draft. Lee has turned out to be a steal with the last pick in the 2005 draft. He’s an athletic lefty whose best traits are his hustle and smarts. In just his fourth season, Lee averaged 16.0 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, which made him one of the most consistent double-double guys in the league. His stock is so high right now that the Knicks might be able to use him as trade bait in order to land Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. Maybe they’d be better off sticking with Lee…

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