NBA injury culture and what Milwaukee will look like without Jabari Parker

Just last week on one of my favorite basketball podcasts, NBA After DarkDeMarDeRozanRaptors_Nets042214, the Grantland co-hosts brought up media coverage of NBA injuries and the spectacle of mourning for wounded players. The discussion centered around DeMar DeRozan and the torn tendon in his groin — an injury that will keep him out for about a month — and how NBA Twitter treated the injury with a combination of devastation and an uncontrollable rage over the imperfections of the human body.f

Echoing their point, injuries happen all the time in sports, and particularly in the NBA — a sport where, by design, grown men are running and colliding into one another like fleshy race cars. Feeling badly for DeRozan is absolutely OK — even with his desirable annual salary and lifestyle, hearing the words “torn” and “groin” in the same sentence brings a tear to my eye. But with all due respect, DeRozan is probably going to play again for Toronto relatively soon, and Toronto is playing well enough to maintain their good standing while he is out.

The larger question here is why are injuries treated with such perplexity, and when did fans start expecting their favorite athletes to be impenetrable? Is this a byproduct of Derrick Rose’s tumultuous past few seasons — where once an athlete reveals a vulnerability to injury every play for the rest of their careers comes with a “hold your breath” warning? Is it because NBA Twitter never turns off, thus it always needs something to be talking about? Certainly the NBA itself is a factor in all of this too — the coverage of this sport has become synonymous with legacy chatter and player branding, so much so that perhaps the fans no longer see athletes on the court, instead walking “Hall of Fame resumes” and “Good or Great” debates. And add in the influence of gambling and fantasy sports, too, of course.

The answer is all of these things are factors. But the truth is that players aren’t getting injured any more often than before, it’s just that we are interpreting everything differently. In this information age, we prefer trade rumors to basketball coverage, we invent legacy conversations and Game of Thrones adaptations and ignore player development and the necessary patience of team-building. And it’s why we can’t stop speculating if Derrick Rose will ever be the same player because the average NBA consumer is more interested in their own fan-fiction version of the sport than the game itself.

Milwaukee's attempts to box Antetokounmpo as a point guard may back fire. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

 

The Milwaukee Bucks learned this week that they will be without forward and No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker for the remainder of the season after he tore his ACL against the Phoenix Suns on Monday. This news is very much real for the Bucks, as this injury throws a wrench into the early success of both Parker and the team during his rookie season. The Bucks were 13-12 in 25 games with Parker, good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, and the thought of Milwaukee catapulting from worst to the post-season in a single season was very much in play.

And, of course, they are still in the hunt to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, where their lengthy turnover-proking defense and microwave guards would give a potential playoff opponent a lot to think about. But the conversation you are seeing play out online and in the headlines is failing to consider Milwaukee has the majority of its season left to play — the Bucks have 56 regular games remaining after battling the Trailblazers for three-and-a-half quarters and running out of steam — and that can be easily tied to the NBA fan-fic culture.

When you hear that Jabari Parker is out for the season, it is intrinsically difficult to discern what type of team they will be without him. In many ways, none of us really know if Milwaukee will be far worse or about the same or if they will somehow be better without Parker. With so much season left, its not impossible that head coach Jason Kidd tinkers with the roster in such a grandiose way that Milwaukee discovers a version of basketball none of its opponents see coming — you know, like, exactly what he did with the Brooklyn Nets last season.

Unfortunately, it is easier to write the Bucks off without Parker because it so neatly fits within the assigned narrative. Milwaukee drafts franchise savior Jabari Parker, future Hall-of-Famer. But in his first season, Parker tears his ACL, derailing a promising season and potential playoff birth. (Spoiler alert: These narratives all end with … and they signed with the Lakers.) The truth is that Milwaukee making the playoffs this season with or without Parker has nothing to do with Parker’s legacy in the Association — it doesn’t even fit the Ewing Theory!

So, allow me to write a little bit about the actual Milwaukee Bucks: what they have done this season, what I saw in their game against Portland, and what we might see moving forward as the calendar flips to 2015.

Parker toggled between small- and power-forward for the Bucks this year, averaging 12.3 points (2nd on team, 1st among rookies) and 5.5 rebounds (3rd on team, 2nd among rookies) in 29.5 minutes per game. While those numbers weren’t setting the world on fire, Parker looked as competent on the court as we expected coming out of Duke, offering an exclusive combination of size/speed/tangibles no other wing for Milwaukee has.

Parker is a hustler, something you don’t get just by looking at his box scores and reading about his comparisons to Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay. Watch him protect the basket on one end, then sprint ahead of the ball and correctly fill his lane on a fastbreak.

Here is another play where Parker just outworks his opponent, creating a 2-on-1 with his speed and earning a dunk.

And there’s also what we already knew about Parker — the dude is a problem for any defender, one on one. Even Tony Allen.

Parker times his spin so well, in fact, that even help from a former Defensive Player of the Year cannot affect his shot in time. He was making plays like this as a rookie; another couple seasons and there is truly no telling where he might be.

Milwaukee has not been a great offensive team this season, posting an OffRtg of 101.6 through 25 games, a bottom 10 rate. Prominent lineups with Parker mostly struggled in terms of offensive efficiency, but a lot of that is playing alongside Larry Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo for much of the game, two players who don’t exactly light it up from the field — no matter how badly Sanders wants to best Marc Gasol here:

The success Milwaukee has had so far this season comes on the defensive end, and in particular, how they use their long arms and healthy hands to disrupt passing lanes. The Bucks have posted a top 10 defensive efficiency this year in large part because they have been top 5 in opponent turnovers and points off those turnovers. Through 25 games, only Philadelphia was scoring a larger percentage of its points off turnovers, as Milwaukee was scoring 18.8 points a night off steals and subsequent fastbreaks. (The Bucks are seventh in the NBA in fastbreak points.)

The Bucks are most successful when they start jumping passing lanes with double teams and gigantic limbs. Watch these two possessions from Wednesday night’s game against Portland when Milwaukee frantically got in the way of Portland’s offensive plans.

In December, Milwaukee has been playing its best basketball yet. Despite a 3-5 record, the Bucks are scoring 105.7 points per 100 possessions and have strung together some very impressive showings against West teams with a lot more talent: a 2-point loss against Dallas, a home win against the Clippers, coming back to beat Phoenix on the road without Parker and Wednesday’s hard-fought effort against Portland. (The Bucks also took Cleveland within three points and demolished the Miami Heat.) Milwaukee is running at a pace of 98.35, per NBA.com, which would be seventh-fastest in the league, and forcing their opponents to turn the ball over 17 times per 100 possessions.

The good news? All of this is possible to maintain without Parker this season. The bad news? Milwaukee is a bad offensive team as it is, and suddenly they have to find enough points to win games without its best natural scorer. But I have some ideas as to where they can get their points from.

When it rains it monsoons for Bucks fans, as Frank Madden put it, as Antetokounmpo did something gnarly to his ankle against Portland and may or may not miss additional time. Assuming he will be back sooner rather than later — he did walk to the locker room under his own power — Giannis was doing typical Giannis things throughout the first half of that game: scoring 10 points, grabbing six rebounds and waving his hands all over the place.

The Greek Freak plays a lot of guard for Milwaukee which perfectly embodies what Kidd likes to do with lineups over his first two seasons as an NBA coach — create physical mismatches all over the place. I’m in the camp of people who think Giannis should eventually be playing a LeBron James-style point forward position for this team; anybody who saw his no look pass to Parker last week knows what I’m talking about.

But I also really love the potential of Antetokounmpo post-ups on smaller guards. Wes Matthews, a phenomenal post-up in his own right, has no chance of defending a near 7-footer by himself. The Greek Freak discovers gravity a couple times on Matthews in the first quarter before Portland made an adjustment.

And he’s having tiny eureka moments all season, like this personal favorite of mine against Memphis earlier this season, when he unleashes a lethal, no-looker to a cutter from the block.

I’m sure management wants to be careful with how quickly they delegate shots and possessions to The Greek Freak, who is far from a perfect player right now, but their offense is generally boring when he isn’t involved and he is capable of making enough big plays on either end to negate most of his mistakes.

So far this season, Milwaukee has been a bottom 10 team in terms of attempted three-pointers, taking just 22.5 percent of their shots from long-range. That number works for teams like Memphis and Washington because they have steady weapons who operate near the basket, but Milwaukee doesn’t have the same type of personnel (Sanders is no Gasol or Z-Bo). The Bucks have had success in recent games shooting the 3-ball, including an inspired Khris Middleton performance Wednesday against the Trail Blazers. Milwaukee was 8 for 16 in its win against Phoenix; O.J. Mayo is much closer to the player he was in Minnesota than whatever he was a year ago for the Bucks.

Milwaukee needs its collection of scoring guards — starters Brandon Knight and Mayo, and Jerryd Bayless off the bench — to create shots in the absence of Parker. Swingman Jared Dudley was a dud in Los Angeles, but he can payoff in Milwaukee if he finds his shot. Kidd started him against Portland which appears to be a vote of confidence. If the Bucks can incorporate the 3-ball into their plans, it could go a long way to making up for Parker’s absence.

And in general, this team has packed more offensive punch off the bench, with funky hybrid lineups featuring Middleton and Ersan Ilyasova as “bigs” and Zaza Pachulia surrounded by four guards. Duel point guard lineups with Bayless and Kendall Marshall have mostly performed well, with higher OffRtg, eFG% and true-shooting percentages than Milwaukee’s more prominent lineups.

I think Kidd is going to have to think back to last season in Brooklyn, get creative with his rotations and be inventive on both ends. The Bucks already run an Oklahoma City-style defense full of trapping and betting on their length to smother passes. If Milwaukee can find enough points, they should make the playoffs in the lowly East.

Losing Jabari Parker for the rest of the season is absolutely disappointing, but it isn’t a death sentence for the 2014-15 Bucks. Who knows? A playoff birth for this young roster could be the best thing for Parker when he comes back next season — it gives the promising forward something fun to return to. For now, only the Bucks will decide what their season will look like in 2015.

 

 

About Joe Mags

The next Sherlock Holmes just as soon as someone points me to my train and asks how I'm feeling. I highly recommend following me @thatjoemags, and you can read my work on Tumblr (thatjoemags.tumblr.com). I am the Senior NBA Writer at Crossover Chronicles. I'm also a contributor for The Comeback, Awful Announcing and USA Today Sports Weekly.

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