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The Bulls May Not Pay Jabari Parker to Not Play Defense Much Longer

The former no. 2 overall pick will reportedly be dropped from Chicago’s rotation only 29 games after signing a lucrative free-agent deal

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When Jabari Parker signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Bulls this summer, it looked like a chance for the former no. 2 overall draft pick to relaunch his career after a frustrating and injury-ravaged four years in Milwaukee. Maybe Parker’s well-publicized defensive failings would rear their ugly head; maybe a homecoming would be just what he needed to get back on the path to stardom that seemed all but assured in his prep days at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy. The Bulls paid a premium for their lottery ticket, but they also covered themselves with a team option for 2019-20, essentially giving them and Parker one season to find out if it was the right fit.

Evidently, they didn’t need the whole season. Parker played just four minutes and 10 seconds of Chicago’s 97-91 loss to the Orlando Magic in Mexico City on Thursday night, the Bulls’ 10th loss in 11 games and their third straight amid the inauspicious start of new head coach Jim Boylen. All of that playing time came in the first half; Parker checked out with 10:40 to go in the second quarter, and never checked back in.

Boylen claimed after the game that he sat Parker because of “a matchup thing.” But a half-hour before tipoff, ESPN’s Malika Andrews reported that the former Duke standout had been informed he was being dropped from the Bulls’ rotation and “won’t see regular minutes going forward.” According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Boylen plans to divide Chicago’s power forward minutes between the now-healthy Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis, and to give rookie Chandler Hutchison a longer look as the backup to starting small forward Justin Holiday. (Zach LaVine also played some minutes at the 3 on Thursday, when Chicago skewed smaller.)

That decision might seem surprising at first blush. Parker ranks second on the Bulls in scoring and rebounding. He’s made 17 starts as Chicago has navigated some early-season frontcourt injuries, and reportedly took his recent demotion to the bench in stride. He’s also the Bulls’ highest-paid player after signing a two-year, $40 million contract—with, crucially, the aforementioned team option for Year 2—five months ago.

“It is a surprise, because I did everything I could in the time I was given,” Parker said after the game.

That time ran out, though, when Markkanen returned from a sprained right elbow and Portis came back from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

“I think it’s hard to play three power forwards,” Boylen told reporters.

That’s part of why so many took the glass-half-empty view of Chicago’s decision to sign Parker this summer. With Markkanen already entrenched as the power forward of the future after a very strong rookie season, and Portis a superior defender and rebounder with more versatility in the frontcourt, Parker seemed to be surplus to the Bulls’ requirements barring a sudden and newfound ability to effectively defend wings and lock in as a help defender. He showed some effort and aptitude on that end earlier in the season, but it waned in a major way:

There’s no doubt that Parker can score; Chicago’s terrible offense averages 3.8 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats. The problem: their terrible defense allows 3.8 more points per 100 possessions in his minutes, too.

Like Andrew Wiggins, the only player selected before him in the 2014 NBA draft, Parker entered the league expected to be a foundational piece for a rebuilding franchise. Parker was a high-level offensive player with the size, athleticism, and skill set to develop into an All-Star. Like Wiggins, that still hasn’t happened. (In fairness to Parker, he lost significant chunks of his first three seasons after twice tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.) Wiggins, who signed a max extension last year, will keep getting chances; Parker’s appear to be running out.

The difference between the draft classmates comes down to what today’s NBA values. Wiggins is a natural small forward who can at least theoretically guard multiple positions and has shown an improved 3-point shooting stroke this season. Parker’s a central-casting power forward—despite summertime rumblings about him sliding down to the 3 in jumbo lineups, he has played just 3 percent of his minutes at small forward, according to Cleaning the Glass. He can’t protect the rim, can’t consistently guard perimeter players in space, and is making only 29 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s (a steep drop-off from the past two seasons) while also posting the highest turnover rate of his career. In a different era, maybe Parker is an early-career Carmelo Anthony. Now, both are being pushed into irrelevance.

This is why Parker is now on his second team, and perhaps headed for a third sometime soon. Boylen called Parker “part of our team”—a truly stirring vote of confidence, that—and said he’d “see what his minutes are going forward,” perhaps leaving the door open to a return should Markkanen or Portis falter or once again get injured. Failing that, Chicago can trade Parker starting on December 15, the date when free agents who signed deals over the summer can be moved. But you’d imagine prospective suitors wouldn’t be too keen on giving up anything of value for the right to pay the rest of Parker’s $20 million salary when they might be able to scoop him up far cheaper soon enough; while the two sides reportedly haven’t broached the topic yet, ESPN suggested a buyout “could become an increasing possibility closer to the trade deadline.”

From the jump, Parker’s homecoming seemed like a spiritual successor to the Bulls’ 2016 signing of Dwyane Wade—a move that felt like an attempt by the perpetually rake-stepping front office of John Paxson and Gar Forman to stir the hearts of the local fan base, but one that made little on-court sense. Wade’s time in Chicago ended with a whimper. Just 29 games after it started, Parker’s already seems destined to follow suit.