Struggling Bucks, Jabari Parker facing tough road
A pre-season playoff candidate, now Milwaukee again looking towards an uncertain future with second season ending surgery for former No. 2 pick
“Own The Future?” That would be fine, as the marketing slogan for the Milwaukee Bucks and a legitimate outlook on their young, promising basketball team … if only so many inside and outside the organization weren’t bemoaning the present.
The news hit hard Thursday afternoon, even after witnessing it live or viewing video and having more than 15 hours to process and prepare for it: Jabari Parker indeed had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee – again – and would be lost to surgery and rehabilitation at least through what’s left of this 2016-17 season.
This was a blow that brought the hurt on multiple levels. It was cruel individually, given Parker’s laborious, lonely slog through rehab two years ago after he tore the same ligament, same knee, in December 2014 to spoil his rookie NBA season.
Collectively, it figures to be convulsive to the Bucks, not just for this season but well into 2017-18 and perhaps even beyond.
Let’s start with the now and the recent past.
A month ago, back when the Miami Heat still could be beaten, the Bucks were the ones doing it. With their 116-108 victory at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Jan. 13, with Parker scoring 24 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists, the sun was shining in January on the icy shores of Lake Michigan.
At 20-18, the Bucks sat in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind Atlanta. Milwaukee was out in front of the Pacers, the Hornets, the Bulls and even the Wizards. The Heat? Forget about ‘em, they were 11-30, barely staying above Brooklyn in the East basement.
Antetokounmpo was days away from being named an All-Star starter and Parker reasonably could expect consideration as a reserve based on his strong first half. Best of all, the Bucks already were planning for the return of wing Khris Middleton, their leading scorer from 2015-16 and their generally acknowledged best perimeter shooter.
Then Milwaukee because Miami’s 12th consecutive victim Wednesday. The air in the building wasn’t sucked out by Parker’s injury in the third quarter – it hadn’t been there at the opening tap. Milwaukee lost for the 11th time in 13 games, falling six spots in the standings to 11th in the East.
Middleton played for the first time this season, coming off the bench in restricted minutes to make two of five shots and chipping in a couple of rebounds and assists. But he might as well have handed Parker the keys to the training room in some sort of orthopedic baton-pass. One valuable Bucks player back, one gone.
Antetokounmpo will be going to the All-Star Game alone (rookie Malcolm Brogdon will tag along for the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday of the glittery weekend). Parker, meanwhile, will have surgery soon and then likely will experience a stultifying case of déjà vu, repeating on the same leg in the same facilities the same grinding regimen of his distant past.
The Bucks’ release Thursday on Parker’s MRI result did more than confirm the worst – it also estimated his recovery to require 12 months. Oh, Parker was back for the start of his second NBA season in October 2015 and managed to play 76 games, but the conventional wisdom around the league on such injuries proved true: It took him a year to really get back.
In the first three months of 2015-16, Parker averaged 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds, and he took only six 3-pointers in 43 games. From Feb. 1 through the end, the native of Chicago and product of Duke averaged 17.5 points and 5.9 rebounds, while launching 29 3-pointers in 33 games.
This season, the 21-year-old finally was flexing the game that earned him the No. 2 spot overall in the 2014 Draft. He averaged 20.1 points in Milwaukee’s 51 games to this point along with 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He looked to be in the best shape of his young life, showed remarkable explosiveness at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds to throw down a bevy of highlight dunks and fully embraced the 3-point game.
Compared to the 51 arc attempts he dared in his first 101 games as a pro, Parker took 178, hitting 65 for a solid 36.5 percent accuracy. Shooting is one thing that rehabbing knee patients can work on sooner than their overall games, so now — lame-silver-lining alert – the guy who wants no part of fellow Simeon High (Chicago) alum Derrick Rose’s health trajectory will have ample time to work alone on something else. Swell.
Parker’s resiliency in fighting back once more from what used to be a certain career-crippler might surpass that of Milwaukee fans reeling from the setback.
When Bucks coach Jason Kidd spoke to reporters Thursday, he said in part: “When you start asking yourself why, it becomes a negative. He never has said that or said, ‘Why me?’ When he came back from the first one, he came back stronger and he came back better.”
The short term might be the simplest challenge for the Bucks. Middleton will come off the bench for now but eventually will start again, while Michael Beasley and Mirza Teletovic could slot in for Parker. Antetokounmpo’s versatility can paper over a void, and John Henson, Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova and Brogdon can mix-and-match without moving Greg Monroe out of his reserve role.
As for the team’s ambitions in the coming weeks, a lottery dive – willful or not – seems inevitable. Milwaukee, despite Middleton’s absence, had no business sitting six games under .500 before Wednesday. The team was underachieving and Kidd rightly was starting to draw scrutiny, at least publicly if not from his private-equity pals who own the franchise.
Middleton’s return was supposed to help Parker, not make up for him. So even if the roster doesn’t cry out for more inexperience, the asset of a higher lottery pick can benefit the Bucks whether it’s used or traded.
Parker has much at stake too. He was a lock to get one of those $100 million contract extensions this summer, like Antetokounmpo signed last offseason. Now? The Bucks might believe in Parker’s work ethic and physical future based on how he came back from ACL blowout No. 1, but that would be a potential franchise-altering risk to offer such a deal until they see how he returns from ACL No. 2.
The whole sequencing of Milwaukee’s push toward contention could be thrown off now. Only six players on the current roster have guaranteed contracts for the start of 2018-19. The Bucks aren’t a destination club for free agents, typically, but playing without Parker – and then later, a still not quite 100 percent Parker – might not show enough on the court or in the standings to entice any.
And let’s be honest, every time you look at how coltish Antetokounmpo’s legs and ankles are, you dread that he might face some of the stress and torque injuries that have befallen Middleton and Parker.
In trying to, er, buck up through the lousy outcome Thursday, Kidd said: “Just going through the process of playing without Khris, we understand how to play without someone. Now we’ve got to learn how to play without Jabari.”
He should have said “remember,” which only make it worse.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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