Big Questions For Milwaukee Bucks In Wake Of Jabari Parker Injury

Dec 20, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 20, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks learned Thursday that Jabari Parker will be sidelined for 12 months with another ACL tear. How does the team move forward this season and how does the future change for both the team and Parker?

Wednesday, Feb. 8, began brightly for the Milwaukee Bucks. After five months without a core rotation player, last season’s leading scorer Khris Middleton was returning to the court ahead of schedule.

His season debut was Wednesday night against the Miami Heat, the first step towards a healthy Milwaukee team coming together for the stretch run.

The Bucks have been floundering recently, losing 10 of their last 12 games, but were only a couple of games back of the eighth and final playoff spot.

No other team was adding a player of Middleton’s caliber for the stretch run, and with 10 of 14 games at home after Wednesday the road to the postseason was paved before them.

That road was blocked almost immediately, as Jabari Parker‘s knee buckled on a drive to the basket during the third quarter of Milwaukee’s loss to the Heat. What was initially announced as a sprained knee was later confirmed to be an ACL tear.

The injury occurred to Parker’s left knee, the same knee in which he tore his ACL during his rookie season with the Bucks. Parker will not only miss the remainder of the season, but early estimates have him out for 12 months — cutting off the first half of next season as well.

Where the road ahead was paved with high hopes, it is now paved in questions and uncertainty. How does the team move forward this season without Parker? And what does Parker’s injury do to the future of his career and the Bucks’ exciting core?

Oct 8, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker (7) gets past a Dallas Mavericks defender at the Kohl Center. Milwaukee defeated Dallas 88-74. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 8, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker (7) gets past a Dallas Mavericks defender at the Kohl Center. Milwaukee defeated Dallas 88-74. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Who Replaces Jabari Parker In The Rotation?

Jabari Parker has started every game thus far this season except one, which he missed due to team discipline. He was in the midst of a breakout season, averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals per game.

After making just 13 three-pointers over the first 101 games of his career, Parker was stepping out with confidence this season, draining 65 in just 51 games thus far.

There is no easy replacement for Parker’s role and minutes on the roster, as there wouldn’t be for any team that loses one of its stars. Milwaukee is more limited than many by its collection of big men, as it has five players on the roster best deployed at the 5 and not the 4.

Parker has spent the season backed up by Mirza Teletovic, and he is the only natural four remaining on the roster.

The simplest option would be raising Teletovic to the starting lineup, and relying on a combination of Michael Beasley or Spencer Hawes to ineffectually fill in those minutes.

Two other more creative options present themselves, however. The first is to give rookie Thon Maker increased minutes, perhaps even as a small-minute starter at the 4 to keep intact the remainder of Milwaukee’s rotation.

While Maker is thin and raw, he has shown flashes in his limited minutes on the court. The Bucks could better see what they have in Maker and whether he is a 4 or a 5 long-term.

The second option, mentioned by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, would see Khris Middleton return to the starting lineup as a 3, not his usual shooting guard position.

This would slide Giannis Antetokounmpo to the 4, something the All-Star is used to as head coach Jason Kidd often had Giannis defend 4s and Parker take the opponent’s small forward.

If Kidd slots Middleton at his normal position at the 2, it would decrease minutes for either Tony Snell or Jason Terry. If he keeps Snell in the starting lineup and shifts down Antetokounmpo, it would mean limiting the minutes for Beasley or Teletovic.

The Milwaukee coaching staff will need to decide which route maximizes their team’s value.

Feb 8, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton (22) passes the ball around Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 8, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton (22) passes the ball around Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Who Replaces Jabari Parker’s Role On Offense?

Not only must Jason Kidd find a replacement for Parker’s 33.9 minutes per game, he must also find a replacement for Parker’s combined 20 shots from the field and free throw line per game.

That void may be more difficult to fill for a Milwaukee offense that wasn’t lighting the league on fire even with Parker healthy.

Khris Middleton is the most obvious recipient for an increased load on offense, as his return would have necessitated touches heading his direction anyway. Last season he took a combined 18.5 shots, not far off from Parker’s total this season.

The difference is that Middleton is coming off of a serious hamstring tear, and immediately giving him 20 shots per game in addition to defensive responsibilities seems like too much too fast for an organization that can’t afford to lose him again and still make a playoff push.

Giving extra shots to Giannis Antetokounmpo is the other easy answer, although the All-Star starter was already putting up a team-high 23 combined shots per game.

With the ball in his hands most possessions, increasing his scoring load may result in increased fatigue or decreased playmaking for teammates.

The reality will be that Giannis adds a shot or two per game, Middleton steps in with a dozen, and the last handful are spread out among the other rotation players.

Rookie Malcolm Brogdon has been a revelation this season and if he can shoot another few times a game at his current efficiency that will be a boon to the Bucks. A few minutes and an extra shot for Thon Maker would not be amiss either.

No player can replace Parker’s ability to create offense, and only Antetokounmpo can match his ferocity attacking the rim. There is no reality where the Bucks’ offense is better without Parker on the court.

But with Middleton returning they can open up the court more and try to hold serve in an Eastern Conference jockeying for position.

Jan 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls a ball against Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) during the first quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls a ball against Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) during the first quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Can Milwaukee Make The Playoffs?

As the standings are currently, the Milwaukee Bucks are just two games back of the Detroit Pistons for the eighth and final playoff berth. While that is not an insurmountable lead, the hope of a few days ago has all but flickered out.

If Milwaukee stays healthy over the final 30 games of the season, smoothly inserts Khris Middleton into the rotation and effectively spreads out Parker’s shots between the roster, they can reasonable expect to play at a similar level to the first 50  or so games.

And that level wasn’t going to be enough to make the postseason.

After Wednesday night’s loss to the Heat, Milwaukee has just a 19 percent chance to make the playoffs, 11th-best in the East, according to FiveThiryEight’s CARM-Elo rankings.

Their loss to the Heat also dropped them into a tie with the streaking South Beach squad, which has won 12 straight to leap into the playoff picture.

Not only do the Bucks have to gain 2.5 games on the Detroit Pistons, but they have to do so while beating the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat to the punch. All three of those teams made last season’s postseason, and all three are playing better basketball than the Bucks right now.

While the possibility of making the postseason still exists, it was going to be a fight with Middleton added to a healthy roster. Now it looks to be over before it truly began.

Feb 8, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) lays on the court surrounded by teammates after being injured during the third quarter against the Miami Heat at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 8, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) lays on the court surrounded by teammates after being injured during the third quarter against the Miami Heat at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

How Do The Bucks And Parker Move Forward?

This is a topic that will require more in depth analysis, but as a brief overview there are four major questions that need to be answered by the organization and Jabari Parker moving forward.

First, the team has to decide its priorities in the draft. With the breakout seasons that Antetokounmpo and Parker were having, their timetable for relevance was being swiftly accelerated. Now the organization has to decide if they are drafting for now or the future.

Often that difference is irrelevant, as the best players often fit the mold for both plans. But the Bucks have seen success the last few seasons taking players with a long-range path to meeting their potential, including Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker.

If another long-range prospect is available to them, whether that’s with the ninth or 15th pick, then Milwaukee has to decide if they are adding a piece for next season or a piece to slot in three or four years from now.

Secondly, the team has to decide if it’s replacing Parker’s fit in the rotation. If the team could look into a crystal ball and find out that Parker will return fully healthy and ready to continue his track upwards, then they wouldn’t need to draft or sign a replacement.

But the uncertainty makes things more difficult.

Third, Milwaukee and Parker will be able to engage in extension discussions starting in July. If the former Duke forward has finished out this season healthy and playing at the same level, a max or near-max contract was heading his way.

But with his second ACL tear in three seasons, his value to both the Bucks and on the open market is called into question.

Should Parker push for a max contract even with his injury concerns? That’s the best for his future, but most likely unrealistic.

Can the team afford to risk that much money — or conversely, risk Parker not signing an extension and then signing an offer sheet with another team for two seasons, such as Chandler Parsons did to the Houston Rockets?

Finally, the team and Parker have to decide when he should return. A 12-month timetable puts his return around the All-Star break of next season.

Much of that decision-making process will depend on Milwaukee’s place in the standings, although that may be a mistaken means of evaluation. Ideally the team and player will maximize his long-term health and give him the maximum amount of time to recover.

Joel Embiid is a shining example that patience with injuries can pay off.

In the end, this ACL tear has the potential to derail both Milwaukee’s season and Parker’s career. The hope for both sides is that he can return from this injury much as he did his first and continue his trajectory towards being a future All-Star.

If so, the Bucks can get back on the track towards championship contention.

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