When Jabari Parker was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks with the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, it appeared he would be the foundation of a rising power in the Eastern Conference. Paired with another promising young forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker felt like a perfect fit for Milwaukee, which is just a short drive up Interstate 94 from Parker’s home town of Chicago.
Then Parker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee twice in his first three seasons in the NBA, while Antetokounmpo made the massive leap from intriguing-but-unknown international prospect to MVP candidate and center of Milwaukee’s sports universe.
The Parker-Antetokounmpo pairing is no longer looked at as the foundation upon which the Bucks are being built, and after a slow season in which he is averaging just 11.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, Parker may soon find himself as not part of Milwaukee’s future at all.
“Honestly, it’s uncertain,” Parker said after a recent practice, in regards to his future in Milwaukee and his restricted free agency this summer. “I know that, just looking from afar, [the Bucks] will be fine.
“But I just have to see what’s going to happen with my future, and that’s uncertain. But I know for them, they’ll be fine regardless. They’ve been doing well.”
While it’s unusual to hear a player talk about his current team in such a detached way, Parker isn’t shy about speaking his mind. He is also right.
Milwaukee made an opening bid to keep Parker in October before the season began, but the team’s offer (around three years and $54 million) was a non-starter for Parker’s camp. The first and third picks in the same draft class — Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid — both signed contracts worth three times that much in total money.
Recovering from his second ACL tear in February 2017, Parker chose to bet on a healthy comeback netting him more money this summer. He returned to the Bucks in February and has played fewer minutes than any previous season of his career, leading to the steep drop in his scoring average. Still, it’s clear he is ready for a contentious round of negotiations — and a potential change of address.
“You just have to be prepared,” he said. “Prepare for the worst.
“Anything can happen. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. So I just would like to keep that mentality because you never want to be comfortable in this business.”
The knee injuries are obviously going to be a sticking point in negotiations. His fit in an evolving NBA, however, also makes judging his market difficult.
Even after his injuries, Parker is capable of filling it up, as he showed by scoring 35 points on 14-for-23 shooting in a Sunday loss to Denver. But Parker has never been a high volume three-point shooter — his career high is 3.5 attempts per game — and he has only taken 42 free throws in his 26 games since returning to action this season.
While he deserves time to prove he can develop his game and regain his explosion, he needs both his three-point shot and free throw rate to improve to be an efficient scorer. Becoming one is imperative if Parker is going to be an impact player, as his defense will always be an issue.
Still, players with Parker’s pedigree don’t often become free at 23 — which is why he could still wind up with a superior offer to the one he received from the Bucks in October. Several of the bad teams with cap space this summer — the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns — all make sense, to varying degrees. And unlike the Brooklyn Nets’ pursuit of Otto Porter Jr. last summer, when the Washington Wizards matched the offer sheet he signed, Parker could be the rare restricted free agent who changes teams.
The Bucks must explore every avenue to try to upgrade the talent around Antetokounmpo. Despite the all-star starter being in the first year of a four-year contract extension, he is already on the clock in terms of figuring out what his future will look like beyond that.
“Right now, I’m just trying to focus on basketball and getting better, and helping my team win,” Antetokounmpo said. “But of course, the front office, whenever they’re about to make a move, [they let me know] so I can feel comfortable.
“They know one of my characteristics is being loyal to my teammates, to my coaching staff. They always try to inform me. That’s pretty much it.”
Antetokounmpo said the Bucks are on “the right path” and cited the team’s impending playoff berth as proof. But it won’t be long before competing for a championship — or, at the very least, a conference title — will become the measuring stick for Milwaukee. A potential rich offer to Parker — perhaps something in the four-year, $80 million range or higher — would force the Bucks to think long and hard before committing to him.
If Parker gets back to the form he was showing before his injury last year, he would either be a key cog for a hopeful contender or good enough that such an extension could be flipped for such a player. But if he fails to regain that form — or, even worse, gets hurt again? Suddenly the Bucks would be saddled with an albatross of a contract.
More importantly, such an extension for Parker would wall off the other avenue the Bucks have to build a contender: making a splash in free agency in 2019. Milwaukee is moving into a new arena this fall and already has a state-of-the-art practice facility. Those amenities, combined with the presence of Antetokounmpo, have the Bucks confident they can be a viable option for free agents in a summer when several stars (including Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love) will be available.
The Bucks are slated to have around $30 million in cap space next summer and another $19 million in expiring contracts (John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova) that they could probably move if further room is necessary.
Those are the choices ahead for the Bucks, not to mention the search for a permanent head coach to replace the fired Jason Kidd. Because of the presence of Antetokounmpo on the roster, it’s a job that is considered the most desirable of any of the head coaching vacancies likely to emerge over the next month.
In many ways, it will be a precursor to the chase for talent that is to come over the next 18 months: Can one of the league’s best players prove to be the flame that lures other talent to one of the league’s smaller markets?
It wasn’t long ago that Parker was supposed to be a key part of that recruiting pitch. Now, he could out of the plan altogether.