In hindsight, it should’ve been obvious. Still without a home for next season, free agent forward Jabari Parker was always likely to receive a call from his hometown team. From first reports to the official signing, one day is all it took for Parker to return home, signing a two-year, $40 million deal, making the former No. 2 overall pick a Bull for at least next season — year two of the deal comes with a team option.
Only a week removed from matching a four-year, $78 million deal offer sheet put to Zach LaVine, the Bulls have now invested significant dollars in two players with a history of significant knee injuries.
Beyond the dollars and health concerns, adding a player like Parker to LaVine and the rest of the young core presents several other concerns which should be considered.
On the surface, adding a talented 23-year-old to an already-intriguing young group of players can always be painted as a good thing. Parker doesn’t fill a need if you believe his best position is power forward.
Through four years of development and trials in a range of positions and lineup constructions, the Bucks emerged with this that view. They utilized Parker as a power forward in 78 percent of his minutes, according to basketball-reference.com play-by-play data.
Unless the Bulls have new data, it’s hard to imagine why they saw Parker being better suited to chasing more nimble opponents on the perimeter. His 6-foot-8, 250 pound frame is much more suggesting of a modern day four-man.
The trouble is then the established personnel the Bulls already have at power forward. Lauri Markkanen is the centerpiece of this rebuild. Executive vice president John Paxson said as much at the end of season press conference.
He is a cornerstone. We loved him in the draft, obviously, but we didn’t know what we had. I’m incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself. And he has so much room to grow. That’s really what’s exciting about it.
Most would agree with Paxson’s sentiments. Markkanen was exceptional in his rookie season and will undoubtedly continue to improve in year two. If you believe all of this to be true, why potentially alter such progression by adding another high volume scorer who is best suited to play the position the young Finnish star has already made his own?
Behind Markkanen is Bobby Portis, another score-first forward who will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. Both team and player had reportedly shown interest in reaching a contract extension this summer. Do these plans now change with Parker involved?
Should Parker fail to transition to small forward, the Bulls could always shift either Markkanen or Portis up a position to center. Though not ideal, it’s certainly plausible. But what would that then mean for their most recent draft pick, Wendell Carter Jr.? The poise and advanced skill set shown by Carter through his four dominant Summer League performances suggest the Duke center is ready for minutes come opening night.
The Bulls certainly aren’t planning for this, instead going with the belief Parker can stay on the wing. Rotations and lineups will be shaped accordingly to fit this assumption. And if Parker proves he can stay with quicker perimeter players, despite succumbing to two significant knee injuries, it will ease the potential logjam in the front court.
Even so, there should also be concerns about the broader offensive hierarchy. Having Parker on the perimeter with the ball in hand, effectively playing on a one-year, make-good type of deal, alongside two other ball-dominant players in Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, makes you wonder where Markkanen is placed within this picture.
In limited playing time last season, the 3-man combination of Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen didn’t perform well. Only playing 255 minutes together, the fruits of the Jimmy Butler trade were outscored by 21.6 points per 100 possessions. This isn’t entirely surprising given LaVine’s rust during his return from injury and the team actively trying to lose games to close the final quarter of the season, but those numbers match the eye test. In these minutes, be it by design or natural tendencies of player and their respective position, Markkanen was often cast as the third option. When he shared minutes with both Dunn and LaVine, his numbers dropped off dramatically.
Related, especially with Parker now in the mix. pic.twitter.com/E7enomS00i— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) July 13, 2018
Through a healthy and uninterrupted preseason camp, there’s reason to believe these three can improve their cohesion together in the upcoming season. But does adding Parker negate this possibility? And perhaps more importantly, as witnessed last season, is it possible Markkanen — and Carter Jr. — continues to be lost in the offensive shuffle?
It’s easy to suggest taking a one-year flyer on a player like Parker carries no risk, but there will risk in what adding him may mean for the integral players already on the roster.
The Opportunity Cost
In the space of several days, the Bulls traded away Jerian Grant for minor cap relief, waived Sean Kilpatrick, and effectively parting ways with David Nwaba. These series of moves signaled something was in the works, and it’s clear now knowing all of this was done to not only set up a move for Parker but to give him the most 1st-year salary possible.
But at the time there was rumor that this was a precursor to a trade centered around taking on a bad contract or two for additional future assets. The Brooklyn Nets were doing exactly that, eating the contracts of a Denver team desperate to avoid the luxury tax and receiving a future first and second round pick. With an ability to open up a projected $20.6 million in cap space, the Bulls had enough room to do that or something similar.
This is the opportunity cost signing a player like Parker to an inflated two-year deal represents. Once in a position to be a team willing to take on bad deals for picks, that leverage is now lost. The onus now turns to Parker, who himself must prove worthy of this investment in order to recoup on the potential of lost assets.
With only one year guaranteed on his new deal, the Bulls will have ultimate control over Parker and his contract. If he’s playing well and remains injury free, the team can always exercise their right and retain him next season. Should he return to his pre-injury form, a $20 million expiring deal for Parker next season has the potential to be a good one. In time, his fit and chemistry with others and a clean bill of health will determine if this deal was a good one. As of now, though, like the LaVine signing, there are risks present which currently prevent this contract from being a good one.
Assuming initial fit concerns have been overstated and Parker indeed plays well without interrupting the development of those around him, particularly Markkanen and Carter Jr., Parker will still need to prove he can remain healthy if he’s to be considered an asset. Having already gone down with two serious knee injuries in four seasons, it’s not inconceivable to believe it could happen again. In such a scenario, given the team option on his deal, it would be far more devastating for the player than team. However, paying an injury-prone player the majority of your remaining cap space, in itself represents a risk. Sure, there’s no long-term cap issues in doing so. But with no way to recoup any other assets, be it via a salary dump or moving on from an injured Parker, it’s fair to question why the Bulls should be the team willing to trial Parker on a hefty, one-year flyer where few actual benefits exist.
The Bulls are in rebuild mode, and should be actively trying to collect as many future assets as possible. Once a former No. 2 overall pick, it can be parsed — and will be by management — Parker is adding exactly that. The narrative will now shift to the amount of former lottery picks accumulated in such short succession. Should Parker start at small forward alongside Dunn, LaVine, Markkanen, and Carter Jr., the Bulls can feature a lineup consisting entirely of them. It’s a nice thing to note, but it won’t matter if these players don’t live up to the lofty expectations placed on high draft picks, something Parker has yet to do in his injury-riddled career.
Whilst there are no financial long-term risks in adding Parker, there is a short-term opportunity cost. For this season, at least, this is your Chicago Bulls. Don’t expect any other notable free agent signings. It’s unlikely that future picks will be acquired through trade. Perhaps Parker overcoming his past injuries and fitting in on the perimeter can help negate such concerns. But as it stands, spending nearly 20 million each next season on Zach LaVine and now Jabari Parker is hardly an ideal use of cap space.