How will Bucks adjust without Jabari Parker?
Milwaukee has lost its star rookie for the rest of the season. What does that mean for the team’s chances of success this year and beyond?
Jabari Parker and the Milwaukee Bucks had been one of the most pleasant stories in the NBA this season, winning games and turning heads despite starting off with middling expectations. Just six weeks into his career, Parker looked like a favorite for Rookie of the Year on a team that was rising faster than anyone had imagined.
This week, all of that came crashing down with the news that Parker tore his ACL, an injury that will require surgery and keep the Chicago native sidelined for the remainder of the 2014-15 season. Suddenly, a major barrier has been placed on his development and the Bucks’ rosy outlook for the future.
Parker immediately became a cornerstone for Milwaukee after getting drafted No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, and was making good on that hype with his solid performance early this season. Now that’s all on delay as he prepares for surgery and rehab, leaving the Bucks to wait and hope there aren’t any more setbacks.
This season is far from over, though, which leaves Milwaukee to pick up the pieces and find a way to keep winning without its rising star. The Bucks are sixth in the East with a 13-12 record, four games ahead of the Orlando Magic for ninth place, and will try to finish that surprising run to the playoffs.
Can Milwaukee find success this season, and in the future, despite the adversity? Let’s take a look.
Who replaces Jabari?
For now, this is the most pressing question facing Jason Kidd and the Bucks’ leadership. Parker was playing 30 minutes a night before the injury — second on the team — and all that playing time will need to be distributed to others on the roster.
One of the positives here is the flexibility being afforded to Kidd since Parker played both small forward and power forward. Depending on whether he wants to go bigger or smaller from here will play a big role in which players see more playing time.
Two big men who should get more reps are Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson. The duo hasn’t played as much this season with Parker in the lineup and Kidd installing his schemes, but those two figure to be first in line unless the coach opts to go small and give more minutes to the likes of O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless.
Going small doesn’t seem likely given the number of intriguing frontcourt players Milwaukee has, though, so here’s to guessing that Ilyasova and Henson step in to fill most of the minutes. That gives the Bucks a similar group to last season’s cellar dwellers, but it’s clear Kidd has gotten the team better positioned to win than Larry Drew. We’ll see how the former star point guard lives up to his latest challenge on the bench.
Can the Bucks still reach the playoffs?
The injury to Parker seems like a major blow to Milwaukee’s postseason chances at first glance, but the short-term dropoff may not be as steep as expected. The Bucks are a pretty deep team up front, with the aforementioned Ilyasova and Henson being obvious candidates for more playing time, and the team’s stout defense should still hold up.
Parker, as brilliant a scorer as he might be, was always a work-in-progress on the defensive end like most rookies. On a team that’s established its identity on the that end of the floor, his absence may not have a large impact.
Milwaukee is 10th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions, and it still has long, athletic defenders like Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders playing in Kidd’s system. There’s little reason to think that the Bucks will take a big step back now.
Adjusting on the offensive end will be much more difficult, given Parker’s skill and the role he played. Only Brandon Knight took more shots per game, and now the team lacks an obvious offensive focal point in the frontcourt to attract attention from defenders. The Bucks already had a below-average offense, and now it’s going to take a step backwards.
With that said, considering they already have a four-game lead in the books, if the Bucks can figure out how to keep the bottom from falling out offensively, they figure to be in the postseason mix all year. In the East, an above-average defense may be enough to stick in the top eight.
What about Jabari’s future?
The biggest for Milwaukee concerns Parker’s long-term health. An ACL tear is a major injury that could signal further issues down the road, and ensuring his complete recovery has to be one of Milwaukee’s top priorities.
Parker isn’t the first star rookie to go down with a major injury, and that list of examples gives the Bucks an idea of where things can go from here. The reality is that Parker’s entire career has become uncertain, even with the astonishing advances in medicine of late. The track record for young players returning from major injuries is sketchy:
- Greg Oden, 2007: The Trail Blazers big man sat out his entire rookie season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. He returned to play 61 games in his second season, but suffered another major injury in December 2009 that effectively ended his career. Oden has played in just 105 NBA games.
- Blake Griffin, 2009: The Clippers forward missed his entire rookie season after suffering a broken kneecap during the team’s final preseason game. He went through rehab without a problem and is now one of the best players in the NBA, having missed just a handful of games in the past four-plus years.
- Nerlens Noel, 2013: The 76ers big man fell to No. 6 in the 2013 NBA Draft due to a torn ACL and ended up missing his entire rookie season. Now in his debut season with Philadelphia, Noel is averaging 8.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in 30.4 minutes per game.
- Joel Embiid and Julius Randle, 2014: Parker is the third big name from the 2014 draft class to suffer a major injury. Embiid fell to the Sixers at No. 3 because of foot problems that required surgery and will keep him out for the season. Randle suffered a broken leg just 14 minutes into his first game with the Lakers and is also sidelined for the year.
It’s hard not to notice the startling contrast between Oden and Griffin there. On one end, you have a superlative prospect who simply couldn’t handle the rigors of NBA basketball and earned the “bust” label. On the other end, you have one of the most productive and recognizable stars in the game.
For Milwaukee, that has to be both encouraging and totally horrifying. Parker could still become a legit all-star and franchise cornerstone, or he could join the likes of Oden on those “biggest busts in sports history” lists. At this point, we really have no idea which way that’ll go.
That uncertainty won’t sink the Bucks long-term, but it hamstrings the team’s ability to make decisions for now while casting doubt over Parker’s likelihood of becoming a star player. For a franchise that has struggled to break through over the past decade, this just adds another hurdle to Milwaukee becoming a contender.
That said, other players have made impressive recoveries from ACL tears, and it’s possible this is just a minor setback in an otherwise successful career. For Parker and the Bucks, hope is the name of the game right now.