Jabari Parker and the search for a small-market superstar

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Bucks at Wizards 11/01/14

The current landscape of the NBA is one that is both constantly evolving and alarmingly stagnate.

The former can be explained by anyone who paid any semblance of attention to this 2017 off-season. Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, players all once considered franchise cornerstones, will be playing in new jerseys this upcoming season.

The stagnation is defined by one single dominant force: The Golden State Warriors. No matter what any team does, the Warriors cannot and will not be stopped (barring any substantial injuries).

This leaves teams with few options.The easiest is to build for the future: teams like the 76ers realized this years ago and have accumulated two No. 1 overall picks, and another potential superstar in Joel Embiid. Other teams are seemingly following suit — the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, etc.

However, some teams are firmly in the middle, neither contending nor rebuilding. Many think of this as the worst possible state to be in, but the Milwaukee Bucks have seemed to make it work. They feature one of the youngest rosters in the NBA and still produce playoff quality play.

This does, however, raise one question: what next? Do they keep their roster and hope it grows into a contender, or do they attempt to trade some of their promising young pieces for established stars?

This is where Jabari Parker comes in. The Bucks already struck gold with the drafting of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but as we’ve seen in this modern NBA, one star is not nearly enough to win a championship. So finding the secondary pieces is where it gets tricky with the Bucks. Do they bet on Parker and offer him a max contract extension, or do they trade him in hopes of landing another superstar?

Small-market teams do not easily win championships. This is evidenced by the fact that the past 20 years, the list of teams to have won championships are the Bulls, the Spurs, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Pistons, the Heat, the Mavericks, the Cavaliers, and the Warriors.

The Spurs, Pistons, and Cavaliers stick out as the exceptions. The Spurs, however, had the benefit of drafting arguably the greatest power forward to ever play in Tim Duncan as well as probably the best NBA front office and coach ever. The Pistons were able to create one of the most dominant defensive forces ever, centered around Ben Wallace who they acquired in a rather lucky trade. And the Cavaliers won due to two key reasons: 1. Lebron James is from Ohio and felt a need to return to his hometown team and 2. extremely unlucky injuries and suspensions hampering the Golden State Warriors. These three teams are the exceptions, not the rule, and they all needed lucky breaks.

If the Lakers (like they have the past 2-3 years) tank to get a high draft pick, they will still pull in a large profit. If a smaller team like the Bucks tanks, they lose substantial amounts of revenue—something many owners are not willing to do.

The Bucks are also hurt by their salary cap situation.  If they do offer Parker the max extension that he is reportedly seeking, they will have little to no cap space to work with for the next 3-4 years. Khris Middleton is locked in, Giannis is locked in, Maker and Brogdon are still on rookie deals and will eventually command larger contracts, and the rest of the roster does not make much impact on the cap.

But first we have to ask the question: has Jabari done anything to deserve a “superstar potential” rating? Well looking at stats among players under 25, he ranks sixth in scoring, fourth in field goal percentage, and fourth in three-point percentage. Jabari doesn’t stand out from the true young stars of the league —Karl Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis, Anthony Davis. However, Jabari is playing right with them. It helps that he does not necessarily have become a primary option like many of these players are/will become, he just needs to develop enough to become the second option behind Giannis.

If the Bucks were to offer Parker the max, they are betting that Parker will become that suitable second option to Giannis, but after his now second ACL tear that is a huge risk to take.

Other teams like the Lakers, Heat, and Celtics don’t have these issues. They have the benefit of being located in large high-profile areas where free agents want to sign. Milwaukee’s only option is to draft and trade for their talent.

The worst possible case scenario for Milwaukee is that they offer Jabari the max, he never returns to his former level of play or he simply plateaus as a player, and they have no cap space for the next four years. If this were to happen, Giannis would have the perfect excuse to leave in 2021 when he becomes a free agent, and Milwaukee will have lost their chance of relevancy in the NBA once again.

But on the other hand, what else can they do? If they don’t offer Jabari the max now, they can either wait until his restricted free agency where some team with cap space will assuredly offer him a max contract and make the decision then, or they can trade him now while he’s still on a rookie deal. Finding a taker for Jabari may seem a bit challenging as a player of his caliber will demand at least a lottery pick and some other asset—something not a lot of teams have or are willing to part with.

But to bring it back to the key question. Should the Bucks bet on Jabari? Yes, they should. They don’t have the key pieces (other than Giannis of course) necessary to make a blockbuster trade and they lack the appeal as a free agent destination. And for all we know, this past ACL tear could be the last of Jabari’s major injuries and he could still develop into a star. Giving Jabari the max is a huge risk, but honestly what choice do they have?

Harshil Desai covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected].