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Jabari Parker presents Bucks with short- and long-term dilemmas

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DETROIT – Jabari Parker reportedly wanted a max contract extension last offseason. The Bucks reportedly offered him $18 million annually.

Without getting into specific numbers, Parker said he was never close to signing and called the situation out of his hands.

Out of his hands? If Milwaukee made an offer, that put it in his hands, right?

“No, it’s not,” Parker said. “Because they can offer me a dollar, am I supposed to take it?

“So, that’s what it is.”

Parker was still rehabbing from his second left ACL tear while negotiating his extension. Some players in that situation would take the security rather than the chance.

“It’s not my chance,” Parker said.

In an alternate universe, a perfectly healthy Parker is locked into a max contract extension, capitalizing on the promise that made him the No. 2 pick in 2014 and playing Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Batman on a team drawing consideration for Eastern Conference favorite.

In our reality, Parker has twice torn his left ACL, is headed toward restricted free agency and is trying to find his groove on a second-rate Eastern Conference challenger.

Given how Parker has immersed himself in the work necessary to come back, it’s easy to see how he could lose site of the difference.

“I don’t have to prove myself at all,” Parker said. “People know my résumé.”

The number of times he says he’s taking it “day by day” during a short interview is impressive. He stayed in Milwaukee to train during the All-Star break, a time most players vacation and unwind. He is clearly zeroed in, maybe to the point of delusion.

Parker maintaining that confidence and focus is almost certainly good for him. But it’s not so simple for the Bucks, who face two major questions, the first of which will influence the second:

1. What role will Parker hold in this year’s playoffs?

2. How much is Parker worth long-term?

Parker in the postseason

Parker has looked fine since returning last month. He has played just 20 minutes per game in 13 games, so the sample is small. But he mostly appears comfortable on the court, an important first step.

The Bucks (34-30, tied for seventh in the East) are comfortably in playoff position. Though they’re just 6-7 with Parker, they can afford to ride out his acclimation.

Heck, they might be better off staying seventh or eighth, avoiding LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who will probably finish between third and fifth. Getting into the non-Cleveland, 3-6 or 4-5 first-round series would be ideal – especially if it’s with home-court advantage. But opening with the Raptors or Celtics, who’ve both looked vulnerable in previous playoffs, wouldn’t be so bad.

Whomever Milwaukee faces in the postseason, determining Parker’s role will be key. The Bucks can beat any Eastern Conference team. They can’t waste minutes on Parker if he isn’t ready to contribute.

At least there appear to be clear distinctions of when Parker will and won’t help.

Milwaukee has unsurprisingly excelled with Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate, on the floor this season. But Parker and Antetokounmpo, both nominal power forwards, didn’t seamlessly mesh before. Now that Antetokounmpo has seized an even bigger share of the offense and Parker – whose main skill is scoring, primarily on the ball – isn’t fully operational, the fit is even more difficult.

With Antetokounmpo and without Parker, the Bucks have played like a 52-win team. With Antetokounmpo and Parker, the Bucks have played like a 33-win team.

But that doesn’t render Parker useless.

Milwaukee has cratered whenever Antetokounmpo sits. Parker can provide a scoring punch in those minutes without worrying about redundancies.

With neither Antetokounmpo nor Parker, the Bucks have played like a 15-win team. Without Antetokounmpo and with Parker, the Bucks have played like a 26-win team.

That’s not great, but it’s a marked improvement. It’s the type of difference that could swing a playoff game or two.

“We need him,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said of Parker.

Of course, such a narrow role wouldn’t leave much playing time for Parker. Antetokounmpo is already averaging an NBA-high 37.3 minutes per game. He played 40.5 minutes per game in last year’s playoffs, up from 35.6 that regular season. How little time will he sit this postseason?

Maybe Parker will have hit his stride by then. He developed a 3-pointer last year that made him far more dangerous off the ball and workable next to Antetokounmpo. Parker’s improved passing, which we haven’t seen much of yet this season, also contributed to his newfound play-with-anyone flexibility.

But the Bucks don’t need to assess the Parker-Antetokounmpo pairing just for the spring. They also must look much further.

Parker in future seasons

Parker’s injuries are scary. I was surprised the Bucks offered him $18 million annually – and not the way he’d be surprised. The list of NBA players to suffer two ACL tears is short and depressing. Josh Howard and Michael Redd washed out quickly after theirs, though Parker – just 23 – is far younger than either was. That’s the main reason we’re even having this discussion rather than writing off Parker as a high-level contributor.

Is Parker at greater risk of getting hurt again? Will his performance suffer? Athleticism is integral to making each facet of his all-around offensive game work together.

Milwaukee’s luxury-tax situation makes this even more complex.

The Bucks already have $104,034,259 committed to 10 players next season. Add Malcolm Brogdon (unguaranteed but sure to be kept) and three minimum-salary players, and Milwaukee would be about just $11 million below the projected tax line.

Parker’s max salary projects to be about $25 million.

The crunch doesn’t get any easier the following year – at least if the Bucks want to keep Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brogdon. Bledsoe (unrestricted) and Brogdon (restricted) will be free agents and Middleton holds a $13 million player option in 2019.

Milwaukee will probably look to dump at least one of its marginal players with significant money left on their contracts – John Henson (two years, $20,309,862), Matthew Dellavedova (two years, $19,215,000) and Mirza Teletovic (one year, $10,500,000).

Getting Teletovic deemed medically unfit to play could go a long way, as that would remove his still-due salary from cap and tax calculations. However, the earliest that could happen is November, and he might not go along willingly. Would the Bucks really risk starting the season above the tax line and banking on a fitness-to-play panel ruling in their favor?

Unloading Henson, Dellavedova and/or Teletovic in a trade would likely require a sweetener. Milwaukee already traded a first-round pick for Bledsoe. It’ll convey to the Suns if it lands 11-16 this year. Otherwise, the Bucks won’t be able to trade a future first-rounder this summer before their 2023 pick.

Could Milwaukee deal Bledsoe or Middleton, who hold positive trade value, instead? Tony Snell might also factor into that discussion, which could stretch to next trade deadline. The luxury tax is assessed on team salary the final day of the regular season.

Again, all this time lost for Parker and Antetokounmpo to build chemistry – and the Bucks to evaluate the pairing – really stings. It’s not the only consideration, though. Milwaukee doesn’t want to squander an asset. On the right deal, Parker could be signed then eventually traded. Players who can create their own shot are still among the most highly coveted league-wide.

How is Parker perceived now?

He’s a versatile scorer, capable of attacking bigger and smaller defenders in a variety of ways. His improved 3-point shooting and passing make him such a better fit in a team offense. He was even showing small strides defensively, his major weakness, before getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, he works famously hard.

It’s difficult not to wonder where Parker would be if he focused all his time on basketball development rather than knee rehab. Not that Parker is dwelling on it.

“You don’t put yourself in other peoples’ shoes,” Parker said. “Your life and your situation is what you’ve got to live with, because that’s all that’s going to matter at the end of the day when we die.”

Parker isn’t feeling sorry for himself – not about the injuries, not about the lost development time, not about his contract. Whatever the case during extension negotiations, all those things are definitely out of his hands now.

“It’s just a matter of what you do in response,” Parker said.

Celtics play themselves with Al Horford tweets

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The Celtics eventually deleted the first one, but these two Al Horford tweets back-to-back are a masterpiece:

screenshot-twitter.com-2019.01.22-15-54-57

Russell Westbrook beefs with Damian Lillard, Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic (video)

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Russell Westbrook neared peak Russell Westbrook last night.

During the Thunder’s win over the Trail Blazers, he talked trash to Damian Lillard and exchanged pointed laughs and words with Jusuf Nurkic. Westbrook also scored 29 points, dished 14 assists and grabbed 10 rebounds. After the game, he mocked Evan Turner for stealing his trademark rock-the-baby celebration and called Nurkic a “clown” (to which Nurkic responded online by calling the Oklahoma City star “Westbrick”).

For better or worse – mostly better last night – Westbrook always brings that same energy to everything he does.

Frustrated Luka Doncic tears jersey (video)

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Luka Doncic has been showing his anger lately – kicking a ball into the stands and, last night, tearing his jersey entering halftime. At least that last outburst didn’t get him ejected.

Doncic got a fresh jersey for the second half and helped the Mavericks beat the Clippers, 106-98.

Three Things to Know: Grizzlies finally ready to hear Gasol, Conley trades, but is there a deal?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Grizzlies finally ready to hear Marc Gasol, Mike Conley trades, but is there a deal to be had? Last July, there would have been trades to be made, but the Grizzlies wanted no part of it. Rumors circulated during the summer that the Memphis Grizzlies might finally decide it was time to move on from the “grit ’n grind” era and trade their stars, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, while their value was still fairly high. But then owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners and with full control pushed back against a rebuild, saying he thought this team could win 50 games.

Not so much. The Grizzlies are 19-28, 14th in the West, and have gone 1-12 in their last 13. One of the fears of rebuilding was alienating the fan base of a smaller market, one that loved the grit ‘n grind era and filled the arena to see it. But the fans have already started to move on, the Grizzlies are bottom six in the league now in both attendance and percentage of the arena filled. The market already is unimpressed with the product.

Now the Grizzlies are ready to listen to trade offers for Gasol and Conley. They are ready to rebuild around the promising Jaren Jackson Jr.

However, finding an actual trade in 17 days — before the Feb. 7 deadline — is going to be very difficult. (And despite the fun you can have in the trade machine, it’s not going to be one big three-/four-team trade that moves them both, these will be separate deals.)

There is more urgency for the Grizzlies to trade Gasol, who can opt out of his $25.6 million contract for next season — but that deal also complicates trades for him. How much are teams going to give up for an expensive half-season rental who has shown declining skills this season (father time is starting to win the race, his defense has faded)?

The other challenge: What playoff team needs a center and is willing to trade to take on his $24.1 million salary this season? Not many.

Both Los Angeles teams — the Lakers and Clippers — would see an upgrade at the five with Gasol, and both are pushing to make the playoffs in the crowded West. However, both are more focused on next July and big players in free agency (or, any potential Anthony Davis trades), they can’t risk Gasol looking at the market and picking up his player option for next season, eating up their cap space and spoiling their plans.

Dallas would see Gasol as an upgrade over DeAndre Jordan if they want to make a playoff push, and Jordan is an expiring contract so both sides would not be stuck long term. But if Memphis is taking on Jordan they would want a serious sweetener — a young player or a pick — and why would Dallas give that up? To make a playoff push? With J.J. Barea out and the Mavericks four games out of the playoffs and fading, it’s hard to see a deal getting done.

After that, the options get uglier. Detroit might be willing to swap bigs and move Andre Drummond (thinking Gasol fits better with Blake Griffin), but if you’re Memphis why make that move unless you’re getting young players and picks back? And why would Detroit give those up? Miami, Washington, San Antonio, there are other teams that maybe could throw their hat in the ring, but again why would those teams give up good future assets for at best a mild upgrade now?

If Gasol opts into that $25.6 million next season — and he may — then he could be traded come the summer. At the deadline it’s harder, a deal only gets done if Memphis takes pennies on the dollar back.

Mike Conley will have a lot of interested parties, he is an All-Star level player (he’d make it in the East easy, but in the West probably falls short again), but his contract is bigger than Gasol’s. Conley makes $30.5 million this season and has $67 million the two seasons after that (the second is an early termination option, but Conley isn’t opting out of that money, so consider that $67 million fully guaranteed).

There are a number of teams that would see Conley as an upgrade and believe he is better than what they will find on the free agent market come July. One popular idea is Orlando throwing in the towel on Aaron Gordon and constructing a deal around him — Conley would be the point guard Orlando needs, but they would be going young up front with Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba and even Conley can lift those two only so far right now.

Conley would be a massive upgrade for Detroit at the point as well. Dallas could use him next to Luka Doncic. Conley would be a great fit in Milwaukee at the point (with Eric Bledsoe and maybe George Hill, plus a pick/player, coming back). Phoenix has been involved in every point guard discussion out there. Would Utah take him on and move on from Ricky Rubio? Indiana can be an interesting fit.

All of those Conley trades make more sense than the Gasol ones — and they are all the kinds of trades more likely to happen in July than against the pressure of the trade deadline.

Maybe a deal gets done. It’s more likely, however, that we get a lot of smoke before Feb. 7 but no fire until next summer.

2) Paul George, Russell Westbrook get more help than Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Thunder win. Damian Lillard was looking every bit the All-Star he will be with 34 points on 24 shots.

C.J. McCollum scored 21 of his 31 points in the third quarter and tied his career high with seven three-pointers. Jusuf Nurkic continued his hot run of play with 22 points.

But after that the Blazers got very little — no other player scored in double digits and there was just one other made three.

Oklahoma City’s stars stepped up big. Paul George had a game-high 36, and Russell Westbrook racked up another triple-double with 29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds.

The Difference was five other Thunder players scored in double figures and the rest of the Thunder shot 7-of-13 from three. That was enough to get the Thunder a 123-114 win at home.

My favorite on the court move? Evan Turner scored over Russell Westbrook and went to the rock-the-baby taunt.

Westbrook was not impressed.

3) Gorgui Dieng and Devin Booker get ejected, try to meet in the hallway to finish “fight.” It was another NBA fight — a lot of posturing and jawing but no actual punches thrown — but it was one of the funniest of the season. Were Gorgui Dieng and Devin Booker really going to fight in the hallway?

Here are the close-ups.

There was going to be no fight, but I’ll take Dieng if there’s going to be money wagered on the outcome.

Also, Dieng had the best response to any of it.