Milwaukee Bucks: What Led to the Departure of Jabari Parker?

A shift away from his skillset meant Jabari Parker's days with the Bucks were coming to an unavoidable end.

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks and Jabari Parker were headed for divorce, but you probably knew that. The Bucks had just signed Ersan Ilyasova and were banking on a leap in production from third-year forward Thon Maker, rendering Parker somewhat of a luxury.

When his hometown Chicago Bulls come knocking with a $20 million a season offer sheet, the Bucks were more than happy to let their once prised asset walk without receiving much more than a fax in return. So the question is, where did it all go wrong for the former second overall pick in the Cream City?

Milwaukee’s Movement for Length

For the last few years, the Bucks have been trending towards one of the more apparent identities in the entire NBA. With a collection of young talent to make the league sweat, length was the modus operandi. Giannis Antetokounmpo, DJ Wilson, John Henson and Thon Maker formed the foundations of this lengthy blitzkrieg.

This was supplemented by aggressive market watching, and the Bucks weren’t shy in the pursuit of elasticity, acquiring the likes of Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. The odd man out in all this appears to be Jabari Parker, and while he certainly was no physical dunce, his name is not one that springs to the forefront of the mind when you think about the Bucks assortment of hyper-athletic, multi-positional antelopes wreaking terror on the wings.

Parker’s Troubling Injury History

The other obvious reason that the Bucks and Parker were heading for an obvious split is the concurrent injury issues. Two knee reconstructions before the age of 23 is never ideal, especially when both occur in the same knee. Parker only managed to play over 70 games once for the Bucks, in 2015-16 and ended up only appearing in 183 of a possible 328 regular season games.

With all that being said, isolating the cause of Parker and the Bucks’ separation to simply athleticism and injury issues would be lazy analysis, and that’s not what we’re here for, because the seeds of divorce have been growing for quite a while, apparently with some of the aforementioned factors acting as catalysts.

Parker is a Defensive Liability

Let’s start with the remaining elephant in the room. Jabari Parker has never been, and probably will never be, an elite defender in the NBA. We’re not talking average, either, though, no we’re talking routinely getting burned by players out on the perimeter. The biggest question mark with Parker ever since he entered the league was what would be his best position, small forward or power forward?

Parker has a strong body at 6’8″ and 250 lbs but is somewhat undersized to handle bigger guys in the post. Holding position is one thing, but contesting shots is another, and with the decline of traditional post play in the NBA, only a handful remains, players like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake Griffin, all of whom have strength and size advantages over a player like Parker.

However, if you put him at the three spot and ask him to cover athletic wings, then you have a whole different issue, with Parker’s lack of footspeed highly evident when left on an island outside. Teams routinely place him in a pick and roll, with Parker’s defensive decision making also a sore spot in his game, often making bad choices regarding when to hedge, show, go under a screen and switch.

The Arrival of Mike Budenholzer

With the appointment of Mike Budenholzer, a new era was ushered in. After being given the run around by Boston, Milwaukee needed the ultimate shakeup. The hope with Budenholzer is that there will finally be a coherent vision to match the plethora of talent available.

Bucks fans immediately began salivating at the thought of Budenholzer bringing his patented style of play to Milwaukee, a system that had great success in Atlanta. Budenholzer is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, spending numerous years under him as an assistant in San Antonio. Budenholzer’s system leans heavily on passing and perimeter play. How does Jabari Parker fit that mold?

When analyzing what a power forward would look like to Coach Budenholzer, look no further than Paul Millsap. The now-Denver big man was a crucial part of Atlanta’s offensive juggernaut and the things he did open up several avenues to score. In short, a Budenholzer checklist for the ideal power forward would contain the following items, in order of importance:

  1. Good passer
  2. Perimeter shooting
  3. Ability to switch on defense
  4. Can play small ball center

Parker has, confidently, one of these ideal traits, his perimeter shooting has improved since entering the league, and although his career 35% from three mark still isn’t lethal, he did shoot 38% last season (smaller sample size due to injury recovery) in his largest volume of attempts per game.

Still, as a whole, Parker isn’t the ideal four-man for a Budenholzer system. In all honesty, he doesn’t even start in this Milwaukee team, with Giannis and one of John Henson or Brook Lopez likely occupying the four and five slots.

We’ve already analyzed Parker’s defensive deficiencies, so we don’t need to go there, but Parker’s passing is a crucial point of issue in a system reliant on crisp movement. What made Paul Millsap extremely effective was his ability to pass out of the post and hit open spot-up shooters like Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and Demarre Carroll.

Parker’s tendencies gravitate more towards iso-ball and tunnel vision when inside. This is encapsulated by his low assist numbers, with a career average of a paltry two per game. Millsap, by comparison, averaged 3.3 during his Hawks tenure.

As for Jabari’s potential as a small ball center, well, good luck and all the power in the world to you. Teams go small when they want to run and pass the opponent to death (see Warriors, Golden State). While Parker isn’t a plodder by any stretch, he’s out of place in a Bucks stable of track and field athletes like Giannis, Thon Maker, Tony Snell, Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton.

Parker certainly isn’t a strong enough rebounder to shoulder any considerable load as a small center. Parker’s career defensive rebounding percentage (DRB%) is 14.3%. To compare, that’s barely better than the likes of Khris Middleton (13%) and Eric Bledsoe (12.3%). For comparable players, Parker’s mark registers far lower than Tobias Harris (17.5%), Aaron Gordon (18.5%) and Paul Millsap (20.2%).

Jabari Parker and the Milwaukee Bucks had a glorious yet tumultuous four years together, from the highs of meeting each other at the 2014 NBA Draft to multiple serious knee injuries, playoff losses, and coaching uncertainty, it was a cursed marriage. Parker was one of the most talented young players in the league, and there’ll always be a “what-if” surrounding his Milwaukee tenure, but for now, they don’t need him, and he doesn’t need them.