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In Limbo: The Unresolved Jabari Parker Question

It’s July 5th. Do you know where your restricted free agent is?

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Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As recently as 2014, the Milwaukee Bucks were a team in limbo. They had no stars to speak of, a handful of long-shot prospects, a payroll to match their small-market mindset, and the lingering fear that an unresolved arena situation would result in relocation.

Enter Jabari Parker. A top-flight forward prospect out of Duke University, Jabari was a big-time player with big bounce and bigger talent. Between him, Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Embiid, a trio of NBA teams were lined up to draft their new franchise cornerstone. When Parker was selected at #2 overall for Milwaukee, there was no doubt that he was prepared to be an impact player for the Bucks.

Since then, Parker has been the manifestation of duality. He became a 20 ppg scorer in his third season, including innumerable highlight plays, and despite coaching issues he transformed his game to include a highly-credible three-point shot. He also tore his left ACL – twice – and despite his prowess on offense, his defense ranged from nonexistent to egregious. Beyond his performance on the court, Jabari’s mere existence in Milwaukee is a contradiction. He is, simultaneously, the star that the Bucks need to develop in order to contend, and firmly (and rightfully) planted below Giannis Antetokounmpo in the team’s hierarchy.

The summer of 2017 came and went, and while the team was willing to offer a multi-year extension (which Parker disputes), Parker was most interested in a max extension offer that would never come. After all, his 2014 draft peers earned max extensions; Wiggins’ deal was widely panned as being an overpay, while Embiid’s contract was justifiable and despite significant injury protections, carries enormous risk. For whatever reason (probably something related to that left knee), the Bucks were not buying what Parker was selling, and he entered July 1st as a restricted free agent.

It is now July 5th, and Parker’s status is still up in the air. Assuredly, he would have liked to have his status resolved by now. The reality is that, thanks to the consequences from the Summer of 2016, the league doesn’t have a ton of money or cap space to swing around. So at this point, what are his options?

Sign a contract with Milwaukee

This is the solution that everybody says they want. Jabari wants to be in Milwaukee. The Bucks want him to be in Milwaukee. A large portion (though not all) of fans want him to be in Milwaukee. And it’s not like Parker hasn’t been around:

So why hasn’t it happened yet?

Applying Occam’s Razor would suggest that the issue is what it always has been: money. Jabari wants more of it, and the Bucks want to offer less. Whether or not they were prepared to offer Parker a deal worth $18 million annually last summer is moot; After five days of (official) free agency, the league buzz around Jabari is more like a solitary bumblebee and less like an entire hive. Draft trade snafu aside, Bucks general manager Jon Horst has been running a tight ship, which could explain why things have been so quiet thus far.

(As an aside, signing with the Bucks would also be a requirement for a sign-and-trade transaction, but obviously would necessitate that a deal has been worked out in advance and that Jabari gives his consent through his signature.)

If Parker was looking for what his current market might look like, he might find it with a fellow 2014 draftee: Dante Exum. Exum has a similar amount of natural talent as Parker, and comes with significant injury concerns as well. He also signed a 3 year/$33 million deal to stay with the Utah Jazz, which is far lower than Parker’s (reported) expectations.

Then again, Parker and his agent (Mark Bartelstein) might be willing to sign for a lower figure in order to secure Parker’s future, and that offer simply hasn’t materialized. Though unlikely, it is entirely possible that the Bucks *gasp* actually don’t want to retain Parker long-term (despite their public stance), and the only reasons I can think of are related to either his lack of defensive aptitude or the health of his knee. To be clear, this is pure speculation...but it’s July, so what else is left to do until more news comes out?

In any case, it’s safe to presume that negotiations are ongoing. Should Jabari swallow the bitter pill of his evaporated market and lock in the security of a contract that extends beyond next summer? That might mean that he ends up leaving a ton of green on the table, and the only way to get both is to...

Sign an offer sheet with another team

When the home team doesn’t give what they want, restricted free agents can seek offers elsewhere to generate leverage, either to stay put at a salary they like or to leave altogether. Since the Bucks already submitted the qualifying offer, they have the ability to match any offer sheet that Jabari signs with another NBA team. Once Parker’s name is on the dotted line for someone else, the Bucks can only elect to match or not match. The trick is...who’s offering?

As mentioned earlier, the Summer of 2016 resulted in a number of high-dollar deals that are still on the books today. Bucks fans might cringe when they remember that this is when Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic were signed, but they can take some solace that the Bucks are not alone. So who does have cap space out there in the world, and who has enough that they might want to draft a sizable deal for Jabari?

  • Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are in a similar place now that the Bucks were back in 2014: no established stars, a handful of maybe/maybe not prospects, and no set direction for their franchise. Parker could be a home run swing for Atlanta, but a deal would tie up their cap space in 2019-20. Additionally, the Hawks are dealing with the long-term money tied to Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, and Miles Plumlee (remember him?), and would likely seek to offload one (or more) of those players before getting into the Jabari business.
  • Chicago Bulls. (Some of) the stars are aligned for Parker in a Bulls uni: he’s a Chicago native, they have space available, and they could presumably afford to take a major swing on a player with star-level upside. On the other hand, the Bulls are already dealing with the restricted free agency of Zach LaVine, have an up-and-comer at PF in Lauri Markkanen, and like Atlanta may not be interested in tying up long-term money before the Summer of 2019.
  • Sacramento Kings. The Kings are as listless as ever, and with about $17 million of space they could provide Jabari an offer that Milwaukee would consider refusing. However, sources indicate that they’re no longer in the market for Parker’s services.

...that’s it. That’s the list of teams that have room for an offer Jabari is reportedly interested in signing. The Lakers used up most of their space already, the Mavericks exited the market by signing DeAndre Jordan, the Pacers saw Thaddeus Young opt in to his final year and signed Tyreke Evans to a $12 million contract, and the Suns (inexplicably) threw $15 million at Trevor Ariza.

The money just isn’t there outside of Milwaukee, and it doesn’t seem to be coming from Milwaukee. In that case, he could...

Take the Bucks’ Qualifying Offer (1 year/$4.3 million)

This is the last resort for any restricted free agent who wants to cash in. The Bucks offered Jabari the QO as is customary, and since his second ACL injury limited his availability in 2017-18, the amount he can earn next season is half of what it would have been otherwise. With the qualifying offer, Jabari has veto power over any trade involving him, and would enter the summer of 2019 as an unrestricted free agent.

As time goes by, this previously inconceivable outcome seems more and more likely. Some restricted free agents have found success by betting on themselves (see: Greg Monroe), while some have failed to strike gold after their gamble (see: Nerlens Noel). Will Jabari take this risk?

On the one hand, getting into unrestricted free agency next summer would be a major boon for anybody looking for a big payday. But to get there, Parker will need to a) stay healthy, b) demonstrate the production he wants to be compensated for, and c) navigate the maze at his best position (power forward) between Giannis and free agent signing Ersan Ilyasova.

To be crystal clear, the amount of risk Jabari is taking on by taking the QO is unfathomable. If he regresses at all, he’ll no longer be viewed as a prospect but as a stagnant veteran. If he can’t get enough playing time, his market will be significantly depressed. And if there is an injury, his market is simply gone next summer. Parker would be betting the mortgage on having a breakout season in 2018-19, and by the way, playing under a new coach (Mike Budenholzer) who doesn’t seem to have much patience for defensive lapses. Will Coach Bud be more likely to pull Parker off-stage in the interest of chasing team success? He probably should be, but the consequences for Parker’s career would be enormous.

So there you have it, at least based on the circumstances in place on July 5th. Things change quickly in the NBA, so even though it feels like this has dragged on forever, it will be over before you know it.

What do you want to see happen? Should the Bucks work out an offer for Jabari to stay? Why haven’t they already? Can you see another team giving Parker an offer to leave? Is there a realistic sign-and-trade scenario available anywhere? And if Jabari simply takes the qualifying offer, what then? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll all be watching this story for as long as it plays out.