Chicago’s pursuit of Jabari Parker was both predictable and exasperating: How could the Bulls, fresh off Derrick Rose’s rapid decline and Dwyane Wade’s expensive misadventure, possibly resist a hometown star with surgically-repaired knees and significant fit issues?
Indeed, signing Parker to a two-year, $40 million contract with a team option on Saturday might qualify as peak Bulls. The 23-year-old forward arrives on a steep salary despite two ACL surgeries during his four-year career in Milwaukee. He steps into a Bulls roster that already includes numerous scorers who double as minus defenders. And he now epitomizes the murky nature of Chicago’s rebuild, with his short-term deal serving as the latest placeholder for whatever comes next.
This deal should produce some degree of surface-level optimism. Parker graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a prep star at Chicago’s Simeon High School, and he’s been linked with the Bulls in rumors since before the 2014 draft. Rebuilding teams like the Bulls are rarely in position to add a former No. 2 overall pick without sacrificing assets in a trade or committing to a long-term deal, and restricted free agents like Parker are rarely able to extricate themselves so cleanly from their incumbent teams. Together, team and player make a natural pair on a visceral level: Chicago needed to sell hope and Parker, who averaged 12.6 PPG and 4.9 RPG in an injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign, needed someone still willing to buy into his promise.
The longer one examines this marriage, though, the more potential friction points arise. Parker’s profile as a talented bucket-getter with severe defensive limitations makes him redundant with two other members of Chicago’s developing core: Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. While interchangeability is all the rage in the modern NBA, LaVine, Parker and Markkanen all struggle to defend a single position, let alone two or three. It’s also fair to wonder whether this trio’s offensive games will mesh. Parker, LaVine and Markkanen are all capable shooters, but they aren’t elite ball handlers, they aren’t natural playmakers for their teammates, and they don’t get to the foul line as often as they should.
Two years back, Chicago’s “Three Alphas” of Jimmy Butler, Wade and Rajon Rondo struggled with spacing, consistency and defensive intensity. Playing LaVine at the two, Parker at the three and Markkanen at the four together could wind up as a Three Alpha-like reboot, doomed this time by poor defense and my-turn, your-turn predictability. It sure would be nice to have a proven and unselfish point guard around to balance these potential competing interests, keep the ball moving, and make sure everyone gets fed. Instead, the Bulls will be relying on the underwhelming Kris Dunn and other cast-offs. That’s a recipe for a whole that produces less than the sum of its parts.
The Bulls can definitely play the “Why not?” card to defend the Parker signing: they had cap space to spend, they were headed for a mediocre season at best without him, and they can always wade back into the free-agency waters next summer if he doesn’t work out. Even so, it’s hard to fashion a best-case scenario that sparks genuine excitement. If Parker somehow gets back on the star track, he would immediately command an even larger contract in 2020. If he winds up sliding comfortably into a complementary role, he will be overpaid both this year and next.
On the other hand, it’s easy to envision how this might go sideways. Parker could become the next Rose, succumbing to re-injuries and forced to constantly reckon with his reduced capabilities post-surgery. Or he could become the next Wade, unable to deliver on a long-awaited homecoming dream due to the duplication of his talents and shortcomings with the Bulls’ other key pieces.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s willingness to let Parker walk for nothing is telling. The Bucks drafted him with high hopes, they desperately need supporting stars around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they are trying to build momentum heading into their new arena in 2019. While Parker’s exit was hastened by a series of overly generous deals to marginal rotation players, it was also influenced by his injury absences and his struggles to tailor his game around Antetokounmpo. The Bucks will regret how Parker’s unfortunate tenure played out and that they weren’t able to trade him last season, but they shouldn’t regret passing on him at this price.
Asking “Why bother?” is therefore a strong counter to Chicago’s “Why not?” logic. Parker doesn’t address the Bulls’ short-term needs because he’s not a lead playmaker or a plus frontcourt defender. He doesn’t address their long-term needs, as his health questions make it difficult for him to be a reliable face of the franchise or outperform his contract. And he doesn’t clarify their direction, as his individual success will almost certainly come at the expense of Chicago’s other core pieces. Put those factors together, and this signing, like so many other Bulls decisions in recent years, winds up being more sizzle than steak.