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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.

Bucks pull away in second half behind 31 from Giannis Antetokounmpo, rout Sixers

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks turned a tight game with the Philadelphia 76ers into a mismatch immediately in the second half, led by the reigning league MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 17 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 25 points and the Bucks beat the 76ers 119-98 on Saturday night in a matchup of Eastern Conference rivals.

Antetokounmpo scored Milwaukee’s first 11 points in the third quarter as the Bucks took advantage of the absence of Philadelphia big man Joel Embiid, who went to the bench less a minute into the period after picking up his fourth foul, and quickly put the game out of reach.

“We came out the third quarter and played fast,” Antetokounmpo said. “We were able to rebound the ball and just attack them. Joel had four fouls. That worked in our favor. We tried to be aggressive in the third quarter and set the tone.”

Antetokounmpo added eight assists as Milwaukee won for the 16th time in its last 18 games to improve its NBA-best record to 48-8.

The Bucks led 56-50 at the half before Antetokounmpo’s scoring outburst put the Bucks in control. Milwaukee would go on to outscore the 76ers 37-23 in the period.

Embiid, coming off a 39-point performance on Thursday night, had 17 points and 11 rebounds but shot just 5 for 18. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton also scored 17 points apiece for the 76ers, who fell to 9-20 on the road.

“I liked what I was seeing in the first half, and the death knock was Joel sitting,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “We just didn’t respond well to Milwaukee playing their tails off, and they shot the heck out of the ball.”

Philadelphia lost All-Star point guard Ben Simmons early in the first quarter. Simmons, who missed the 76ers’ previous game with lower back tightness, headed to the locker room after making consecutive driving layups, the second with a little more than 7 minutes left in the opening quarter. He didn’t return after the injured flared up.

“We never got in a rhythm. Losing Ben, then foul trouble, not making shots and some calls that could have gone a different way,” Embiid said. “But it’s on us.”

The 76ers shot just 35%, while the Bucks connected on 53% of their shots.

The Bucks got off to a scorching start, taking a 12-2 lead sparked by seven points from Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee led by as many as 11 in the quarter and held a 31-21 lead at the end.

Philadelphia pulled within 37-36 in the second before the Bucks used a 10-2 spurt to push the lead back to double digits.

Watch Dwyane Wade have his number retired by Heat

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Dwyane Wade is the greatest Miami Heat player ever.

He was at the heart of every championship the Heat won, he was active and beloved in the community, he was the face of the franchise.

Now his legacy is forever part of the American Airlines Arena — the Heat have retired his number.

Wade is a three-time champion, and 8-time All-NBA player, a 13-time All-Star, and a Finals MVP who averaged 22 points a game over his 16 year NBA career.

Next stop: Hall of Fame.

Stephen Curry cleared for contact, goes through full scrimmage with Warriors

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Stephen Curry is not sitting out the rest of the season. He wants back on the court — he’s targeting the first week of March — and the Warriors are not holding him out.

That got a step closer on Saturday when Curry went through a full scrimmage with the Warriors. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said this after practice, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Yeah he scrimmaged today, first day of scrimmaging,” Kerr told reporters at the Chase Center practice facility. “We only had seven other healthy players, so there were two coaches out there scrimmaging too, it was not pretty, but Steph looked great.”

The March return for Curry seems on track. Klay Thompson will not return to the court this season.

The Warriors are not playoff bound, but there is no reason to sit out Curry and tank, either.

First, that’s not the kind of culture the Warriors have built, coming off three titles in five years. Second, the fan base could use the boost of watching Curry drain deep threes after a disheartening season to this point. Third, and maybe most important, what exactly would they need to tank for, better draft position? This is a down draft to begin with, so anyone the Warriors select likely can’t help them much next season anyway (which is why there’s a lot of speculation the Warriors may try to trade the pick). Also, with the flattened out lottery odds, they don’t gain much anyway. The Warriors have the worst record in the NBA, but the three worst teams all have a 14 percent chance at the top pick, and the fourth worst is at 12.5 percent, fifth is 10.5 percent. Curry’s return for a month isn’t lifting the Warriors to the point teams will not want the pick.

We could all use to be reminded just how special Curry is as a player. Hopefully, we get to see that in a couple of weeks.

Kings return to Staples Center, beat Clippers for second time in a month

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kent Bazemore scored a season-high 23 points, Bogdan Bogdanovic added 20 and the Sacramento Kings beat the Los Angeles Clippers on the road for the second time in less than a month, winning 112-103 on Saturday.

De’Aaron Fox had 20 points and eight assists for the surging Kings. They have won two straight out of the All-Star break and eight of 12 overall.

Sacramento blew a 14-point lead in the second half to a Clippers lineup missing injured stars Paul George and Patrick Beverley. But the Kings then shut out Kawhi Leonard and the Clips for more than five straight minutes down the stretch, making a decisive 10-0 run capped by Harry Giles’ percussive dunk with 58 seconds left.

Leonard scored 31 points in his return from his MVP performance in Chicago, but the Clippers returned from the All-Star break with their first three-game losing streak of the season. Lou Williams added 24 points, and Montrezl Harrell had 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Sacramento had a big lead late in the third quarter, but the Clippers took their first lead of the day on Harrell’s leap-and-lean bucket with 8:30 to play.

The Kings reclaimed the lead on Harry Giles’ putback score with 4:17 left, and Bogdanovic hit a clutch 3-pointer two minutes later.

With the Clippers comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, George and Beverley are both getting extra time off to rest persistent injuries.

Reggie Jackson scored eight points in his Clippers debut two days after the Pistons bought him out, while Marcus Morris had six points and five turnovers in 32 minutes in his home debut nearly two weeks after the Clippers acquired him in a three-way trade.

With George and Beverley sidelined, Clippers coach Doc Rivers used his 28th starting lineup in 56 games, putting newcomers Morris and Jackson in the mix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these unfamiliar Clippers returned from eight days off and missed 13 of their first 14 shots on their way to a 4-for-24 first quarter with five turnovers.

Sacramento wasn’t much better, but Bazemore scored 15 points in the first half. Los Angeles had more turnovers than field goals until late in the half, but Jackson’s first basket for the Clippers was a 3-pointer in the final second before halftime.