There has been some burgeoning sentiment that it'd be criminal to trade John Salmons for expiring contracts and a non-lottery first-round pick. Despite this, it seems rather apparent that John Salmons will in fact be traded for expiring contracts and a non-lottery first-round pick.
The most common argument would seem to be that Salmons is the team's second-best player, best perimeter defender, best dollar-for-dollar value, still young enough to matter in 2012, and that there is no replacement for him at the small forward.
To all of which I say, "Bullocks."
Salmons is having the best season of his career by far. He's been much better than we had right to expect, even though he is now in the throes of his prime. (He turned 29 in December.) And he is a good deal at $5 million. He makes less than Beno Udrih, Mikki Moore, Kenny Thomas, Brad Miller and Kevin Martin; Salmons has produced more than four of those fellows. Next season, Francisco Garcia will be paid more than Salmons; we'd expect Salmons to produce roughly the same or better than Garcia. He's a good value.
Now, at Salmons' absolute peak to date, he is averaging 17.6 points per 36 minutes. Among the 221 players who have played 800 minutes this season, Salmons ranks #57 in points per 36 minutes. This is OK, but not particularly good. (By comparison, Martin is #8.) Salmons is not an exceptional scorer.
Basketball-Reference classifies Salmons as a guard, since for the majority of his career he has played point guard and shooting guard. In Sacramento, he plays small forward. Typically, you expect more rebounding from your small forwards than your two-guards. But never mind that. Let's compare Salmons (a small forward for Sacramento so long as he is here) with all the guards who have played 800 minutes in the NBA. Thirty-six of them rebound better. Mike Conley, Luke Ridnour, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels -- all better per-opportunity rebounders. If Salmons played a guard position for the Kings, he'd only be considered average among all guards. As a small forward, he is a rebounding disaster. This is not his fault. But he should not be a small forward on a team without a elite rebounding frontcourt or two-guard. (No one on the Kings can be called an elite rebounder, though Jason Thompson is very good at the power forward position.)
We think of John Salmons as a great passer, a player who makes his teammates better with his playmaking abilities. Beno Udrih and Brad Miller both have higher assist rates. Salmons is not much better than Willie Green in this regard, actually. Assists are weird, and I feel weird arguing either way about Salmons' playmaking abilities. But I feel that this info should be mentioned. Salmons is not a point forward.
If you would argue keeping any person in this starting lineup because of their defense, you are on drugs. (But hey, we are all on drugs, right?)
This analysis is not meant to demean Salmons. I like him, he is a good dude and a fine player. But he's not nearly as good as some of us believe.
Salmons' value has never been higher. A not-old producer without baggage, with versatility, on a low-price contract, locked up for at least another year (and possible two). Two years ago, pundits ridiculed the signing of Salmons. He has turned it around, and he's highly desirable to a vast swath of teams.
Once upon a time, the same could be said of Mike Bibby. In 2005, the Kings could have gotten a lot more than cap space and a bust for Bibby. But the Kings didn't see a need or reason to trade Bibby in 2005. He stayed until 2008, his value destroyed and his price obliterated. The Kings ended up with almost nothing because they waited too long to trade Bibby, until his value to the league at-large became so minor and muted that it would have been just as well if Bibby ceased to exist beginning in, say, 2006.
When the Kings finally trade Bibby last February, he was about to turn 29. Salmons just turned 29. Bibby had bottomed out, while Salmons has peaked.
At some point, you need to make a move before it's too late. Geoff Petrie was able to do this with Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, and (arguably) Peja Stojakovic. He did not accomplish perfect timing with Ron Artest (though that's arguable), Bibby, Hedo Turkoglu (too early), or Brad Miller. Is it too early to trade Salmons?
Let's assume the Kings don't contend for a title next season. Thus, the value of Salmons the player cannot be terribly great, since it would be unlikely for the Kings to re-sign a 30-year-old Salmons long-term in 2010. Will the Kings be able to get more for Salmons next February, or this June? Is the risk that Salmons gets injured or begins to decline worth any potential increase in the return package?
No, no. This time, the time is right. Adios, my friend.