Jabari Parker's homecoming must fit into grand design Chicago Bulls have
Former No. 2 overall pick has to carve out, but not force, a role in Bulls' mix
CHICAGO — The money was there to spend, so from a financial standpoint, the Chicago Bulls’ decision to sign free-agent forward Jabari Parker was a gamble worth taking.
And if Chicago didn’t spend its cap space this summer, well, that doesn’t stack up in a corner to be added to what it can spend in 2019.
So even with Parker’s serious injury history (two ACL ruptures and rehabs), and the likelihood that Chicago mostly bid against itself for the restricted free agent flexing minimal leverage, the two-year deal with the team option after Year 1 isn’t unreasonable. If the talent and untapped production of a former No. 2 overall pick still resides within Parker, the Bulls are paying for the mining rights on a very short-term lease.
No, the investment that people should wonder about is everything around Parker this season. That is, the players and real progress that must not slip as priorities just because the 6-foot-8 forward from Simeon High School will be hitting his reset button at United Center.
The Bulls invested heavily in the rebuild they began 13 months ago when they traded All-Star Jimmy Butler for a bundle of potential: springy wing Zach LaVine, combo guard Kris Dunn and rookie forward Lauri Markkanen — who promptly displayed an upside beyond early expectations.
But don’t get it twisted: Last season was awful. The Bulls threw themselves into what was, never mind the euphemisms, a shameless rebuild. It took time, it tested folks’ patience and was terribly embarrassing.
* Blogtable: How does Parker fit into Bulls’ plans?
With that bit of ugliness behind them, the Bulls will head to training camp with a lengthy to-do list. On it: sorting out LaVine’s and Dunn’s offense-initiating, plugging their sieve-like defense, plumbing the depths of Markkanen’s talents, advancing rookie Wendell Carter Jr.’s precocious game, boosting their 3-point proficiency and finding another 10 victories at least.
All of which sits apart from Parker’s individual agenda.
The South Side native is nearly six years removed from the excited gathering as many breathlessly awaited the high school all-American’s college choice. It’s been four years since he and Andrew Wiggins were considered a veritable coin flip for No. 1 overall in the 2014 Draft.
That teenager is gone now. He has been replaced at 23 by a veteran, if not of all that many NBA games (183 of a possible 328), at least of some of the league’s and the game’s hurdles, slights and disappointments. Blowing out his left ACL twice and laboring through the lengthy, lonely recoveries was a physical and mental challenge. Coping with the effects that’s had on his impact and career has been more emotional. And ongoing.
It wasn’t Parker’s fault that he suffered such devastating injuries. Nor was it the Milwaukee Bucks’ fault. They had hoped to plant Parker on a front line alongside All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo as pillars of a new Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Plan B for the Bucks meant pushing forward with Antetokounmpo, but with players such as Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe slotting in behind him in the pecking order. Parker was going to be a bonus when he got off his alternate track, his role to be determined.
Only, he didn’t approach it that way. Whether antsy after so much time in dry dock or nervous about its effect on his looming free agency, Parker pushed for playing time and opportunities. He didn’t slot in.
For a team that had fired its coach — Jason Kidd, with whom Parker chafed — at midseason and was aching to exhibit tangible progress over 2016-17, Parker pushed on his own behalf. He carped two games into Milwaukee’s first-round playoffs series against the Boston Celtics about his touches. There was a report out of Yahoo! Sports that he was jealous of Antetokounmpo’s primacy with the franchise.
Not. Good. Looks.
It wasn’t helped, either, by Parker’s play in his third NBA incarnation. When Parker returned the first time, in 2015-16, he was encouragingly solid. Then he got better the next fall, appearing more fit and quick than ever. He averaged 20.1 points in 51 games and generated some All-Star talk before his re-injury.
When Parker came last season, he didn’t look as lithe. He averaged 19.5 points in April, but 12.6 points overall in 2017-18. His turnovers were up, his trips to the line were down and his defensive analytics were as shaky as ever.
If Parker’s actions were an emotional shield against the self-doubt a player inevitably faces after two serious injuries, that’s understandable.
But if it’s a sense of entitlement and fading status that he brings into Chicago’s locker room, unsupported by his performances and out of sync with the work the Bulls already have begun, that will be a problem.
Parker said a few right things about fitting in with his young teammates who have earned their Year 2 in the Bulls’ blueprint. “Being a part of this new unit is something I admire,” he said at his news conference Wednesday. “Just because we’re the same age, we’re going to build friendships on and off the court. … Once we grow closer, we get better as a team.
“It’s a relationship, and a relationship is 50-50. So I’m going to learn as much from them as they learn from me.”
Parker veered in the wrong direction minutes later, though. He cut himself inappropriate slack — and possibly set a bad example — when asked on a midday Chicago sports radio show about his capabilities and responsibilities on defense.
“I just stick to my strengths,” he told the hosts at 670 AM The Score. “Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. … I’m not going to say that I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s [weakness]. Because I’ve scored in the 30s, the 20s on a lot of guys who say they play defense.”
Might Parker get on board with coach Fred Hoiberg’s revamped system — the Bulls began their work in a pre-Vegas minicamp — built on the current trend of switching assignments?
Said Parker: “You know that certain guys have [a scoring] average. No matter what you do, they still get that average. So they pay people to score the ball. I would hope that somebody would score the ball on me if they paid them that much. I’m not saying that’s a copout or nothing, but it’s the NBA.”
His comments make one curious how he’ll react in to Hoiberg’s competition for jobs, formulation of roles and hierarchy for taking last shots. This, on a roster with only one proven veteran, 30-year-old Robin Lopez, to impart lessons and keep the kids in line.
This move to the Bulls is swell for Parker: coming home, getting paid, snagging a do-over and stepping onto a bigger stage for his fledgling social activism.
The move by the Bulls, though, will turn on Parker’s basketball (more) and bravado (less). It’s on him to fit them.
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