The news of Jabari Parker's torn anterior cruciate ligament wasn't surprising to those that saw it happen on Monday night, but that didn't make the official news that Parker would miss the remainder of the season any less of a crushing disappointment. So where do Jabari and the Bucks go from here? And why do the Basketball Gods despise Milwaukee so much? Let's count down the immediate conclusions -- and key questions -- facing both Parker and the Bucks going forward.
1) Yes, Jabari Parker can come back from this and be the same player he would have been. But there are no guarantees.
There is ample history of young players recovering fully from ACL tears, so there's no reason for Bucks fans to jump off a cliff. Among others, Baron Davis, Kyle Lowry and Nerlens Noel all suffered torn ACLs while in college, and all of them ultimately returned looking just as athletic as before. History suggests that younger players tend to recover more fully, though the reality is that ACL injuries remain fairly rare among NBA players and some players may be more predisposed to ACL injuries than others. Moreover, a study by ESPN's Kevin Pelton suggests that even young players suffer some drop-off in projected productivity (5.7%) in the season immediately after their injury.
Grantland wrote an interesting story on the rash of ACL injuries across major sports in late 2013, and among its many takeaways is that the long-term challenge for athletes returning from ACL tears is as much mental as physical. There's also some belief that the nature of ACL rehab allows players to focus on and improve their shooting while working their way back to full fitness, though a study of that data is rather inconclusive.
As for Parker himself, he's faced a long injury layoff before. Jabari fractured his foot in July of 2012 while representing Team USA at the FIBA U17 World Championships, an injury that shelved him until late December of his senior year. So the job of rehabbing a leg injury and coping with the frustration that comes with it isn't a new thing, even if his new injury is more serious in nature.
It's also not a bad thing that he counts fellow Simeon High School alum Derrick Rose among his best friends. Rose unfortunately knows all about knee injuries, having torn his ACL in April 2012 and subsequently suffering a meniscus injury in the fall of 2013. Rose's long rehab and subsequent re-injury isn't exactly a model for what we hope to see with Jabari, but being able to lean on someone who's been through it can only help.
2) He could be back by the start of next season...or he might not.
Because Parker apparently didn't tear anything else in the knee, he should also be able to have reconstructive surgery sooner rather than later, and the injury occurring in the first half of the season also provides more time to rehab ahead of next season. Among recent examples, Ricky Rubio suffered a torn ACL and lateral collateral ligament in March of 2012 and returned nine months later, though Rose and Noel each missed over a year after their initial injuries. Where Parker and the Bucks fit in that spectrum is unclear; keep in mind that Rose was medically cleared to play 10 months after his initially surgery, while the Sixers opted to sit Noel for all of last season out of an abundance of caution. You wouldn't expect the Bucks to take any chances with Parker, but history would suggest Jabari could return to the court by the start of next season if everything went well.
A complete tear may also not be the worst thing in the world, simply because it makes the options for recovery more straight-forward. Danilo Gallinari missed around 18 months after partially tearing his ACL in the spring of 2013, in large part because he initially had a less invasive procedure that didn't work. That delayed a full reconstruction to January of 2014, and he's yet to return to form so far this season. Which underscores that getting back on the court isn't necessarily the same as being back to 100%.
The specifics of Jabari's planned surgery have not been disclosed, but presumably it will involve the now-common practice of grafting a portion of either the patellar tendon or hamstring to repair the ACL. Some recent research suggests patellar tendon grafts have lower overall likelihoods of failure than hamstrings, though both have proven very successful overall in the general population.
3) The Bucks just got a lot less fun to watch, but they might not be much worse on the court without Jabari in the short term.
For most of us, the development of Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo was the single most important barometer of the Bucks' long-term potential. As a result, losing either one for a significant time -- much less endangering their long-term potential -- is a huge blow. No matter what happens over the next few months, a cloud will hang over the Bucks' otherwise promising 14/15 season because of it.
But while Jabari had been showing clear signs of improvement over the last month, we shouldn't confuse that with him becoming a major driver of the Bucks' early success. None of this should be surprising of course, as even the most talented 19-year-olds generally aren't equipped to help an NBA team actually win basketball games. Through 25 contests, Jabari ranked 78th out of 80 small forwards in ESPN's real plus-minus metric (-4.08 pts/100 possessions), which measures a player's impact on team offense and defense while controlling for quality of teammates and opposition (among other things). Similarly, the Bucks have been vastly better both offensively (+10.6 pts/100) and defensively (-3.9 pts/100) without Parker on the court.
It's not to say that Parker's been disappointing -- so far we've seen the sort of raw talent, scoring instincts, and physical abilities that suggest he has obvious star potential. But being individually productive (which he had been of late) is usually only the first step to becoming a true impact player. It's a process, and a year of learning on the court was supposed to be the first step in Jabari's progression to NBA stardom. Sadly that process is now on hold.
4) Everyone else in the forward rotation figures to benefit.
The obvious short-term question is whether the guys who will replace Jabari can help the Bucks more than he would have. Assuming he returns soon from the nasal fracture that sidelined him two weeks ago, Ersan Ilyasova would be the obvious guy to plug into Jabari's starting power forward slot, and on paper that would likely help the Bucks if Ilyasova can maintain the level of production he flashed in the weeks before his injury. But this is Ersan we're talking about, so the idea of "maintaining" anything is probably a bit ambitious. Beyond that, Jared Dudley, John Henson, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all figure to soak up some of Parker's 30 minutes per night, which may not hurt the Bucks for the rest of this season -- provided those guys stay reasonably healthy.
Parker's absence also means there's a greater likelihood of fellow rookies Johnny O'Bryant III and Damien Inglis seeing court time once they return from their own long-term injuries, though I have a much harder time seeing either of them being better than replacement-level types this season.
5) Losing Parker may lessen the likelihood of a veteran sell-off, which would further reinforce the Bucks' odds of staying in the playoff hunt.
Interestingly, I've seen a few suggestions on Twitter and elsewhere that Parker's injury might encourage the Bucks to "tank" the rest of the season -- presumably by trading guys like Ilyasova and Dudley. Personally I don't really see the logic in that, and if anything I'd guess the opposite would be true.
Without Parker as his starting power forward, Jason Kidd doesn't have much choice but to rely more on guys like Dudley and Ilyasova going forward, especially with the team's two injured second round picks yet to reach 100%. And that probably won't hurt the Bucks much in the very short term. Again, early data suggests Parker wasn't really helping the Bucks win in the first place, though it's quite possible he would have become more valuable as he grew in experience over the course of the season.
Now it's conceivable that the Bucks could piece together a workable rotation even if guys like Ilyasova and Dudley were shipped out for future assets, but it's unlikely to be pretty. All of which leaves the Bucks in a very difficult spot: They're rebuilding and developing a young roster on the fly, though their winning ways have played a major role in the team's return to relevance both locally and nationally. So while most hardcore fans would understand if the team moved some of its veteran rotation guys for marginal future assets (second rounders?), it would likely come at the price of near-term competitiveness -- and some of the good vibes and casual fan interest that have come with it. Is that a trade the Bucks are willing to make? Is it even something that will move the dial? We'll certainly be debating it plenty ahead of the February trade deadline.
6) On the bright side, we still have Giannis, right?
Yes, it's a dark day in Bucks Nation. But Jabari will (eventually) be back, and there are still 14 other players on the roster, most of whom are young guys with the potential to be part of something special going forward. So there's still plenty of bright side to be enjoyed, as well as fun plotlines to watch out for over the next few months. The referendum on Brandon Knight's future will continue, John Henson will likely see more time once he returns, and the improved play of Khris Middleton and Kendall Marshall will hopefully continue as well.
Of course, no storyline figures to be more enjoyable to watch than the ongoing growth of Giannis, whom our readers pegged as the Bucks' most valuable asset in the preseason and has only further exceeded sophomore expectations thus far. Parker's absence figures to mean even more opportunity for Giannis to play and become an offensive focal point, so if you're desperate for silver linings, that might be a small one.
And if Giannis were to also get hurt?
[Stares blankly at computer screen]
For the sake of our mental health, let's not even go there, OK?