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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.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.

Karl-Anthony Towns has fractured wrist, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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Karl-Anthony Towns was a surprise scratch from the Timberwolves last game before the All-Star break, a “left wrist injury” delaying the home debut of him with D'Angelo Russell (they did play a road game together in Toronto). Then came the rumors he could miss a few games when play started up again.

It’s going to be more than a few games, more than a few weeks.

Towns has a fractured left wrist, the team announced Friday. He is out and will be re-evaluated in two weeks. From the team press release:

“While Towns has been diligent in treatment with a goal of return to play, he has been assessed by multiple specialists over the last several days and the team continues to gather information on the optimal management strategies.”

Towns had been playing through wrist pain for a couple of weeks before this diagnosis.

Towns is having a career year on offense, averaging  26.5 points a game while shooting 41 percent from three (on 7.9 attempts per game), plus grabbing 10.8 rebounds a night. That has not translated into wins for Minnesota, however.

Towns being out doesn’t hurt the Timberwolves in the short term, they have fallen far out of the playoff chase in the West. However, this cuts into time Towns and Russell could have used to grow accustomed to each other’s games. It’s time lost for the coaching staff and front office as they evaluate the fit of players they have around Towns and Russell.