Two years removed from the end of Derrick Rose’s last season in Chicago and one year after Jimmy Butler was traded, the new-look Bulls have laid a foundation for their next era. Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen, the no. 7 pick in 2017, shined as a rookie. Then last month, with the no. 7 pick, the Bulls added Duke big man Wendell Carter Jr., who has been arguably the most impressive center in summer league. Factor in a host of other young players and it’s easy to feel optimistic about a franchise that just recently seemed headed downhill.
The Bulls made another frontcourt addition over the weekend by signing forward Jabari Parker to a two-year deal potentially worth $40 million with a team option for the second season. Chicago’s puzzle pieces don’t all fit perfectly, but Parker’s contract is beneficial to both him and the Bulls.
A $20 million cap hit for the 2018–19 season is significant considering Parker’s uneven development in Milwaukee and the fact he’s missed nearly half of his possible games through four NBA seasons. Even when it’s been good for Parker, it has tended to turn bad. Following his last healthy summer in 2016, he averaged 20.1 points per game with a 56.3 true shooting percentage. But that 2016–17 campaign ended in February when he tore his left ACL for the second time over a span of 28 months. He hasn’t been the same since, even after returning in February of this past season. But his new deal with Chicago, his hometown team, is guaranteed for just one year. If Parker gets hurt again or struggles, the Bulls can let him go. If Parker gets back on a positive track, though, the no. 2 pick from the 2014 draft could become a core part of their future. Bringing Parker back for the 2019–20 season would cost another $20 million, but the Bulls control that decision, which allows them to retain cap flexibility. It’s not like the Timberwolves’ situation with Andrew Wiggins, who is locked up through the 2022–23 season for nearly $150 million. In signing Parker, there is zero long-term risk for the Bulls.
Parker will receive an opportunity to revitalize his career on a team with a handful of talented, young teammates. The Bulls are now built around top-seven picks (Parker, Carter, Markkanen, Kris Dunn), two mid-firsts (Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine), and two late-firsts (Bobby Portis and Chandler Hutchison). Sure, that’s not the most talented young core in the NBA, but it’s certainly not the worst. The Bulls have upside, and if a few of their young players pan out, they’ll have a foundation to build on.
Parker adds a versatile scoring element. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Parker is nimble from the perimeter yet also a powerful, big-body interior finisher who can finish with touch using either hand. He can post up, run pick-and-roll, or set screens and pop or roll. Parker has also come along as a spot-up 3-point shooter, hitting at 38.7 percent over the past two seasons. Ex-Bucks head coach Jason Kidd unfathomably didn’t even want Parker shooting 3s earlier in his career, whereas Fred Hoiberg runs a motion-based offense that shot the 11th-highest share of 3s last season. Parker wasn’t able to maximize his blend of size, burst, and ballhandling skills at Duke because the college floor is clogged by zone defenses, a shorter 3-point line, and subpar shooters. The Bucks haven’t been any better at spacing; it’s even been a struggle for them to create space for Giannis Antetokounmpo, never mind for Parker. But now under Hoiberg, with a wide variety of potential five-out lineups, it’s possible that Parker’s strengths will be better highlighted, leading to more high-scoring outbursts.
While Parker hasn’t become the Carmelo Anthony– or Paul Pierce–level scorer many were anticipating when he was a top high school recruit, he’s still pretty solid despite suffering two major injuries that have derailed his development. Some may assume Parker’s presence will take the ball away from Markkanen, thus hindering his own progress. But I’d bet that Parker will have a positive effect. There’s a perception that Parker needs the ball, but he can be used in a multitude of ways on the floor, just like Markkanen.
Hoiberg ran offense through Markkanen in the ways you’d expect: in pick-and-pops, post-ups, and spot-up situations and by running him through screens. But Hoiberg also used the 7-foot Markkanen as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
Now the Finnish big man has a frontcourt partner who can also handle or screen and pop for 3s or rumble down the lane.
Considering how frequently defenses freely switch screens on high pick-and-rolls, their interchangeability could lead to preferable mismatches for the Bulls’ offense with either player in space against a slower or smaller opponent.
Parker also shouldn’t negatively impact Carter on offense. In the half court, Parker can serve as another target for the rookie’s playmaking skills. Hoiberg could run Carter through a ton of high screens and feed him on the short roll, where he’s skilled and savvy enough to score, pull up, or make a pass. Parker likes to cut, and it’s easy to envision him playing well off of Carter.
Parker, Markkanen, and Carter can also all rip down rebounds then take the ball up the floor and score in transition or initiate the offense. It’s a very modern team. But when you add a traditional center like Robin Lopez into the mix, the frontcourt suddenly gets crowded. There are only so many minutes to go around. Parker is better suited as a 4, but if he shares the court with two bigs — Lopez and Markkanen, or Markkanen and Carter, or Carter and Portis — it’ll put Parker at the 3. I’m not concerned about how Parker impacts his teammates, but I’d be worried if Hoiberg plays Lopez as much as he has the past two seasons (27.3 minutes per game). Now that Carter is on the squad, Lopez should take a backseat so he doesn’t chop into Carter’s time at the 5 and Parker’s time at the 4.
Lopez is on an expiring contract, so he isn’t part of the future equation. Portis will also be a restricted free agent next season. Hoiberg can find rotational workarounds so that Markkanen and Carter will receive plenty of minutes, and Parker can spell at the 4 when he’s not using his size to his advantage at the 3. But there is a frontcourt logjam to sort through.
While it’ll be interesting to see how Parker impacts the offense, he could be exploited on the other end. Parker is a human turnstile on defense. He moves slowly laterally, loses focus, and is too often out of position. Parker won’t help the Bulls’ defense, which bled points last season (28th in defensive efficiency). If there is any reason the Bulls wouldn’t want to keep Parker long term, it’s defense. But there’s a difference between what Parker can become and what he is now. The Bulls are young, and most young teams are horrific on defense. That’s OK for the time being. Finishing with a poor record will mean having higher odds of landing a top prospect like Duke playmaker R.J. Barrett or North Carolina wing Nassir Little in next year’s draft. The Bulls’ core isn’t complete by any means. They need to add more young stars all while retaining the future flexibility to become a potential free-agent destination.
Even if the Bulls offense starts clicking and they accidentally win games — much like last season, when Nikola Mirotic returned from injury to shoot like the spirit of Steph Curry took over his body — the impact won’t be quite as “negative” this season, when the new draft lottery rules will come into effect. If the Bulls have the sixth-best lottery odds again next year, those would only be five percentage points worse than the three worst teams, rather than more than double the percentage points worse like they were in the past. Teams don’t need to be horrible anymore to have good lottery odds, which helps the Bulls: They are still in asset-accumulation mode, and Parker is another young player to add to the equation.
In addition to Carter and Markkanen, the Bulls still have Dunn, a point guard who is already an impact defender and has untapped upside on offense — sort of the opposite of Parker. And they’ll be paying LaVine, a score-first player, $19.5 million a year for the next four years after matching his offer sheet from the Kings last week. With Parker now in the mix, the touches for both players could, in theory, diminish. But the truth is that none of these players are certainties to blossom into good players, never mind great ones. Markkanen and Carter are stabilizers, but they have a lot to prove. Parker is simply another lottery ticket to add to their stash for one, maybe two seasons — or longer, if he’s a success and re-signs long term. The Bulls are maximizing their chances of finding a star. All it takes is for one to pop for their franchise to change.
Trading Butler last summer meant the Bulls picked a path, and now they’re sticking to it. No longer are they wasting time and money on washed-up veterans who don’t fit in the name of maintaining a middling spot in the playoffs. Now they’re focused on the future, and that means dealing with growing pains. The Bulls would be bad this season with or without Parker. But by trying to bring out the best in a former no. 2 pick who’s 23 and has shown flashes, they can get more than another high draft slot for their troubles.
Maybe Parker’s limitations on defense and his health mean he has no place in their future. Maybe he performs just well enough to become a tradable asset. Or maybe returning home to Chicago propels his career and he becomes the star scorer that many expected him to be. No one can know for sure, but the Bulls and Parker will get at least one season to find out whether they’re made for each other.