Things were just starting to look up.
Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks came into that Wednesday game having lost 10 of their last 12, and had slipped to the bottom of the ill-fated “playoff bubble” tier of NBA teams. The offense looked lost, the defense looked broken, and nobody seemed to have the answers that fans felt they may have deserved.
Then again, this season was not necessarily about this season. Before training camp kicked off, the Bucks had already lost one of their foundational players, and the uncertainty of whether or not the Bucks’ other cornerstone players were for real swirled around the team like cream stirred into coffee. It was to be a developmental year, whether we liked it or not, despite the early success that gave way to the Bucks current skid (2-11 in their last thirteen games).
Things were definitely trending downward lately, but the future was undeniably bright. Giannis Antetokounmpo became an All Star starter, the first for the Bucks in over three decades. Jabari Parker may not have reached All Star status, but was regularly mentioned as a player “on the rise” and some in the media even gave him time in the conversation for that annual honor. These two things, by themselves, were enough to give fans a glimmer of hope about the days ahead.
But there was more to be positive about! That foundational player that we talked about losing before the season? Yeah, he actually rehabbed ahead of schedule and made his debut on Wednesday. Khris Middleton wasn’t anywhere near 100% of what we’re accustomed to him being, but playing an NBA game so soon after a complete hamstring tear is remarkable in and of itself. He didn’t look too bad, either!
Want more positivity? Look no further than Milwaukee’s 7’1” rookie Thon Maker, who has logged very few minutes but has never failed to leave an impression, and was featured by the always-great Howard Beck on Wednesday. Sure, he can barely play now, but what about two years from now, when Giannis is in the MVP conversation, and Middleton and Jabari are making their own cases for All Star status?
Things were starting to look up. Until they weren’t anymore.
On the same day as Middleton’s return, and on the same day that people learn about Thon Maker’s story, on the same day Milwaukee officially announced its foray into the D-League, Jabari Parker’s injury overshadowed all of that positivity, leaving Bucks fans in a haze of despondency and desolation.
Of all the reactions I had to Jabari’s injury, the one thought that stuck out in my mind was this: It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that a team that has been starved for scoring loses one of their best scorers. It isn’t fair that a young player has so much of his formative time in the league dedicated to rehab. It isn’t fair that Jabari Parker, a model citizen and all-around good guy, has already gone through this exact injury once...and is expected to start that journey over from the beginning, and we know how harrowing that journey can be.
Jabari’s story has always paled in comparison to that of his Greek teammate, but his story is just as remarkable. Jordan Ritter Conn of The Ringer published a feature on Parker this morning, and his piece paints a fuller portrait of Milwaukee’s mild-mannered forward. In it, we can read about a player who has prepared for the NBA since elementary school, and how getting back to what he loved about basketball was the primary focus of his offseason training.
But now, his story has to be rewritten on the fly. No amount of preparation could have ever foreseen this, and no amount of positive spin can un-ask the questions that now surround Parker’s NBA future. The last time this sort of thing happened to a Milwaukee player, it launched a years-long free fall that ended in early retirement. Michael Redd was a star for the Bucks, but after a second knee injury, he was just never the same.
Jabari Parker is much younger than Michael Redd was at the point of the second knee injury, but Parker also depends upon his athleticism and explosiveness much more than Redd ever did. I cringed at typing this out, but the questions are going to be raised anyway, so here goes:
Can Jabari Parker be a part of the Bucks core anymore? Will he ever come back fully and improve, or at least be the same? What does this mean for his contract extension talks this summer? What will Milwaukee’s front office do in response, after so much was invested in making Jabari a major face of the franchise? How does this affect the team’s window for contention, and will John Hammond and Jason Kidd act now and make changes, or stay the course for the time being? Was the Bucks’ window slammed shut before it even started to open?
This is not a full list of the questions that will be circulating throughout Bucks Nation in the coming days and weeks (and months...), but it’s already apparent that negativity has washed over any positive vibes that fans were feeling about the team. This is a completely natural reaction to have, given the gravity of Parker’s injury and his prominence with the team. It’s hard to take comfort in Giannis’ ascendance, or Middleton’s comeback, or Thon Maker’s development. They all just lost a teammate for a very long time.
Of course, some fans will find silver linings. This could mean more minutes for Thon, and a higher draft pick come June. It could force the front office to make moves without prioritizing Jabari’s place on the team, which some fans believe is the best path forward anyway. It may or may not have an impact on Jason Kidd’s much-maligned offensive strategy and defensive schemes. These are things that may happen, and they may be a net-positive for the Bucks in the long run.
At this point, though, I’m still wallowing. I’m still majorly bummed out that Jabari’s knee gave out on him, and that he has to deal with all of this again. I can only hope that he finds comfort in his privacy while he works to get himself healed up and back to the court, since the conversations around Jabari Parker are going to take a much different tone than they have recently.
The Bucks’ slogan has been “Own The Future” for some time now. What do you do when a part of that future is robbed from you?