The Jabari Parker contract may turn out to be unsuccessful, but there is logic to it

Let me begin by saying that this article is not going to be a defence of Jabari Parker’s new contract. Not entirely, anyway.

After making a few moves (waiving Sean Kilpatrick, renouncing David Nwaba, passing up opportunities to accept salary dumps from other teams, and particularly ones involving Carmelo Anthony) that suggested they had some kind of aspiration for their cap space still, the Chicago Bulls yesterday signed Jabari Parker to a reported two year, $40 million deal. Concurrent with this, the Milwaukee Bucks rescinded Parker’s qualifying offer, thus bypassing the need for the Bulls to sign Parker to an offer sheet first. He is therefore theirs.

It is certainly a pricy deal for a player who is coming off of his second serious ACL tear. After playing in only 31 regular season games last season – and only 183 out of a possible 328 over his four years to date – Parker posted career-worst numbers of 24.0 minutes, 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, a .550% true shooting percentage and a -5 net rating in that span, before lumbering through an inconsistent playoff run that accurately embodied his season. Drafted second overall back in 2014, Parker averaged 20 points per game in 2016/17, his best season to date, yet has not been able to put together long stretches of quality play beyond this.

But while this article is necessarily not a defence of the signing, it is at least going to be a justification.

By this point in the internet era, the NBA fan base has, or should have, moved away from the idea that cap space automatically equals free agents. As the internet has brought a million new analytical voices to a commentary space previously only occupied by beat writers and press releases, it is known that having cap space (and the en vogue new media term ‘flexibility’) means having more options than just splashing the cash on new deals.

Indeed, despite being two weeks into free agency (and thus with the bulk of the heavy lifting done), this variety of cap space usages is still on show. Two concurrent deals done by teams with cap space the day before this Parker signing saw the Atlanta Hawks take Jeremy Lin from the Brooklyn Nets for some reason, and then Brooklyn themselves using their aggregate cap space opened up by the Lin deal to take on two big unwanted deals from the Denver Nuggets (Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur) for the sweetener of first- and second-round picks, with only the nominal salary of Isaiah Whitehead going back the other way.

This sort of deal is now held up as a new ideal in the realm of NBA team building. Draft picks represent the perceived best opportunity to acquire future starter-if-not-star talent in the league, and are highly priced accordingly; in essentially taking on circa. $9-$10 million in the aggregate for Faried and Arthur in exchange for the first-round pick (which matters way more than the second), the Nets essentially paid that much for one. That range, it seems, is now the going rate for firsts; having essentially spend $14.3 million to acquire the pick that became Chandler Hutchison during the Nikola Mirotic trade this past February, Chicago know this too.

But Chicago, ever the contrarians, did not do that Faried deal. Indeed, having also signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the summer of 2016, the Bulls have been going against the grain with their cap space strategy in recent years, and signing big name free agents moreso than making asset acquisition moves like the Nets. 

They have done so in countenance to their own history. One long-standing criticism of the Bulls historically is that they could not acquire big names after the Michael Jordan era, be it by free agency or by trade. The last couple of free agency crops seem to be a strike against that, and perhaps deliberately so.

Another criticism of the team has been a confused value of ‘assets’ (both draft and financial) in the player movement market. At times, incoming first-round picks have been highly touted long before any selection is actually made, while second-round picks have been given away with a striking frequency. The two are of course different and of different value, yet for a team openly reloading, the stark differences between the weighting of the two (a disparity that runs counter to much of the rest of the league) is hard to reconcile. Every predictive model out there will rightly suggest that the chances of getting starters with second-round picks are low, but they can at least land the occasional Jordan Bell. Chicago does not seem to want that.

And the third main criticism, also one made by myself among others, has been an inconsistency when it comes to planning for the short, medium and long-term futures of the franchise. Not since the injury to Derrick Rose have Chicago seemed to much devise an overarching plan, and then stick to it. They instead have always seemed more reactive rather than proactive.

On the face of it, the Parker acquisition awkwardly jars with all of this. But I would instead proffer that it actually passes all three tests.

The size of the deal is striking, considering various factors in play. The money to be paid, the lack of years involved, the stage of free agency we are at, the lack of suitors for Parker’s services, Milwaukee’s apparent intent to move on regardless, the outstanding Carmelo situation, the impact upon Nwaba (and, to a lesser extent, Noah Vonleh), the Bulls’ roster makeup even before the acquisition of Parker, their expensive decision to match the Sacramento Kings’ offer sheet to Zach LaVine not one week before, their team building strategy going forward, and Parker’s career to date, all call into question the exact contract Chicago have signed, and who with.

That is an awful lot of questions to be answered about one signing. So, let’s address them in turn. Firstly, the size of the deal.

As reported, Parker’s deal will be for two years and $40 million, a number we can thus use to project the efficacy of his deal notwithstanding the fact that some rounding has likely occurred in the reporting. The second year of that deal will reportedly be either a team option or unguaranteed; many times, contracts of an unguaranteed nature are reported as having “team option” years, but there is a difference between a team option and an unguaranteed portion, and it can matter. Whichever it is, it will meet the criteria for “flexibility”.

The idea behind the second season of the contract is to have some team control; that is to say, for the team to have some options in trade if things work out. Chicago as a franchise are quite keen on team control over their players, rarely signing one year deals above the minimum salary, so as to have early or full Bird rights to work with, as well as the flexibility in trade if it is indeed an unguaranteed season.

[SIDE NOTE: The new CBA somewhat reduces the amount of trade value that unguaranteed years once had, as, when used in trade math, their value is determined by the amount of guaranteed salary in the current year rather than the total value of the contract. So to use a simple example, you cannot trade a $10 million unguaranteed contract for a $10 million guaranteed one as simple as that any longer. You can however do it in the seasons before the non/unguaranteed portions apply, so some trade value on these years remains.]

Having this extra team-favourable leverage often costs money. Chicago know this can work because they just did the exact same thing with Nikola Mirotic. Indeed, I wrote about it in this space – the Bulls gave slightly more money to Mirotic in a de facto one year deal than they had to, especially considering his lack of suitors, because doing so coerced Mirotic and his representatives into allowing a second team option year (which in this instance was actually a team option).

And with Mirotic, it worked. Buoyed by his career-best play to open last season, Chicago was able to trade him at the deadline to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for salary filler and a 2018 first-round pick that has subsequently been used on Chandler Hutchison. This sort of deal chimes more with the style of cap space usage touched upon in the opening – and as will be seen here, it is also something that somewhat applies with Parker, too. Chicago didn’t just sign the hometown guy for the hell of it here; in defiance of criticism number two, they signed a potential asset.

Secondly, the number of years involved is deliberate. 

It would appear as though the idea behind the contract is to be able to cater for all of the eventualities of Parker’s career. When taking his high talent level with his underwhelming career to date, his offensive talents with his defensive deficiencies, and his ability to do a lot with the ball without much pedigree to date of actually being an above average NBA player, Parker is a polarising player with tremendous variance in his projections. The contract he has signed is designed to cater for this variance.

By virtue of the unguaranteed/optional second season, if Parker does not work out, he can be easily waived/declined next summer and Chicago can re-enter free agency as a significant player once more. If he kind of works out, but a better fit is available, the team control in the second year makes him tradable at the upcoming deadline. If the Bulls instead opt to take on more 2020 expiring salary filler for a first-round pick – akin to what Brooklyn did with Faried and Arthur in the opening, and somewhat akin to what they did themselves with Mirotic back in February – the unguaranteed year again becomes of some use in trades.

Less obvious but still pertinent, however, is the fact that Parker’s deal also caters for what happens if Parker breaks out and fulfils the potential that he has not done before.

If he becomes a star across the next two seasons, Parker may be looking at a maximum salary. Without the luxury of restricted free agency (something available only in the first three years of a player’s career, or their fourth if an expiring first-round pick), Chicago will thus have to pony up to pay him. Parker will not be extension eligible either (something available to only contracts of three years or more in length), so in the scenario in which Parker becomes a star, Chicago will have a bidding war on their hands to keep him.

A player’s maximum salary is determined by various factors (there is no one set maximum amount that suits everyone), yet the main one of these is their years of experience. Disregarding the other factors in play given their irrelevance here, players with zero to six years of experience can sign new maximum value deals that start at up to 25% of the salary cap; this rises to 30% from players with between seven and nine years, and then players with ten or more years can start their deals at 35% of the cap. 

By the time this new deal expires, Parker will have six years of experience. This makes him eligible only for the 25% threshold; by way of example, that amount this season is $25,467,250. The salary cap is projected to rise, with Shams Charania of Yahoo! Sports reporting  that the Player’s Association is circulating the projection that it will rise (and operating in the belief in it rising) to $120 million in the 2020/21 season, the same season that Parker will need a new deal in.

By that time, the Bulls will have accrued Early Bird rights on Parker. Early Bird rights allow a team to re-sign a player for up to 175% of their previous season’s salary (but not going above the max), for up to four years, with 8% raises (new contracts are capped at 5%; thus empowering the re-signing team to outbid the competition). 25% of a $120 million salary cap will be $30 million; Early Bird rights on a deal that starts at $19.1 million this season and rising to $20.055 million next season [which is purely a projection on Parker’s deal at this point as accurate numbers are awaited but a realistic one based on the Bulls’ cap situation prior to signing this new deal] would allow the Bulls to pay this maximum amount to Parker, and indeed any max up to $35,096,250 (i.e 175% of the $20.055 million figure).

It may indeed be fantastical that this would ever apply to Parker. It would certainly take quite the turnaround in his on-court production and luck with health over the next two seasons for it to apply. But it might apply, and that was perhaps the point here. The size of the deal allows a breakout Parker to be re-signed to the current projected maximum salary when he is next a free agent, with some overage to account for the variance that is inevitable when dealing with a financial projection two years down the road. Had he been signed to, let’s say, a deal this season that started at $13 million this season (something that has been argued as being possible, given the points immediately below this one), this would not have been the case.

This thus explains the number of years involved. This deal keeps open the 2019 cap space aspirations Chicago still seems to foster, keeps open the 2020 ones they may end up having to default to, and also sees Parker re-enter free agency before his maximum salary spikes. Maybe he never even approaches becoming a maximum salary calibre of player; he certainly hasn’t gotten close so far. But if a team is to back itself to develop and/or redeem talents, as it should, then it must account for the eventuality.

Thirdly, while the move coming two weeks into the free agency period is somewhat unusual, it is not hugely meaningful. The move being announced at this stage of free agency does not necessarily mean that it only came about in recent days (it really didn’t), nor that it was a last hurrah for a team that had struck out on other moves.

Fourthly, and related to the point immediately above, it does factor in that there were so few other bidders left for Parker – only the Sacramento Kings have comparable cap room to Chicago any longer, and with Milwaukee seemingly having long since moved on from Parker, the usual need to overpay in offer sheets to avoid the risk of the incumbent team matching did not apply. It is nonetheless more likely that Chicago had their eyes on a deal of this sort for a long time, and delayed slightly only to field other (perhaps Carmelo-shaped) offers for their space. 

Fifthly, despite the optics, the Bulls can still re-sign Nwaba. Rescinding his qualifying offer and renouncing his cap hold does prevent the ability to match any offer sheets he would receive, and removes the ability to re-sign him via Bird rights. But it doesn’t prevent the team re-signing him via some other means, and with the salary cap room exception created in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement still being a thing, the Bulls can still use that on him. (As for Vonleh, the minimum would surely get it done, if desired.)

Sixthly, and surely the most obvious question, is Parker’s fit on the roster going forward. Lauri Markkanen is slotted in as the power forward going forward, and the somewhat-similar Bobby Portis is also on the roster, who should ideally be playing the power forward position too. Parker himself is also better suited to the four spot; he’s bad defensively at any position, but he is particularly bad at small forward, where his very slow defensive feet make him very little of an obstacle on the perimeter. Still, it would appear as though the Bulls will force Parker into the small forward spot in a bid to play high-scoring line-ups (including five-out ones with Portis at centre), which at least creates sizeable if ill-fitting roles for everybody involved. They will struggle badly on defence, especially at certain positions, but nothing about this deal suggests anyone is under the impression that this is supposed to be the final piece of this puzzle.

Seventhly, the decision to match the four year, circa. $78 million offer sheet that the Kings had signed Zach LaVine to this past week should not prohibit this move for Parker, or any other move like it. It is certainly true that the LaVine decision is questionable in its own right, and that he and Parker will be a terrible defensive pairing on the wing. But let us not assume that either is actually planned to be here for the entirety of the contracts they have signed. Callous though it is, in a roster-building context, players are commodities. And an openly reloading team knows that well.

Eighthly, Chicago’s strategy since the trade of Jimmy Butler has been to reload without doing a full Process. To get younger and more athletic; to acquire players with potential without having to bottom out to do so. To that end, in the time since that trade, they have acquired all of Markkanen, LaVine, Kris Dunn, Hutchison, Wendell Carter Jr, and now Parker to pair with the incumbents of Portis, Denzel Valentine and Cameron Payne. They do so while retaining salary flexibility and all their future draft picks. The signing of 23-year-old Jabari Parker to one guaranteed season fits in nicely with that, and the Bulls of the past season have devised and delivered on a consistent plan.

As for ninthly, and Parker’s own abilities to actually play up to the money….well, that’s the biggest question of all. For services rendered hitherto, this is a substantial overpayment. For what he may recover to be, however, it could be far better value. This on-court variance is the thing that will determine the success of all of the above.

Despite that slightly massive final question, let us not forget the wider holistic optics here.

Jabari Parker wants to play with the Bulls, and there was a time it was feared that no one of any status did. Parker has not been a particularly effective player in his four years to date, yet he is nonetheless a player of some status. Exceptionalist ideals in which the Bulls are able to sign stars with cap room in future years need to start with them actually being able to convince players of note to sign there. This move is a part of that and thus addresses criticism number one.

Other players around the league know this, too. They also know what style of player Parker is, and what style of play Chicago will now exhibit. The Bulls will be high scoring and fun, and whether they should do or not, points scored can still equal trade value. Certain teams still fall victim to confirmation bias and lack of depth in their player analyses; the Bulls that struggled to crack 90 points per game to start last season didn’t have nearly as many appealing-looking players as next year’s Hoiball line-up will do. 

Insofar as signing Parker is not the same as doing Netsian deals for future assets, there are limitations on that new ideal too. At some point, flexibility has to actually convert to talent. The Nets didn’t have any talent when they started out on this path, and thus did not have the option of the reload. The Bulls did, and have done so. And in doing so, the Bulls have been true to their plan. Which sees criticism number three addressed as well.

The Process-style ideal of drafting extremely high via asset stripping before being able to sign veteran stars down the road is now held up as a bastion of roster building, yet it is dependent on circumstances that did not really apply here. Teams cannot just keep tanking for stars in the draft; for the Bulls to have picked at the top of the draft this season or in any upcoming ones, they would have to actively be worse. Considering that all of their good players save for Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday are young – and further considering that they completely blatantly benched those two last season in a bid to get worse – this would have meant kicking the can on good young players who did nothing wrong except not have superstar potential.

This is not exactly reflective of a team having faith in its ability to develop and/or redeem talent, and to wait only for the perfect player/s is to wait an indeterminably long time for something that might never happen. Exceptionalism, the idea of only targeting the very best, is tempting. But it is also merely an ideal a lot more often than it is reality. The Bulls cannot just pick in the top three for a bit then sign some stars when ready. They were simply never bad enough for that.

Whether it is right or wrong, then, the Bulls make this move with some logic behind it. The success of it now depends on quite how good Jabari Parker actually is. Honestly, all of the above is not necessarily a defence of the signing – all my bloviating and rationalising does not change the fact that Parker the player is not nearly worth $19 million a season, which is what this deal remains at its core. But it is a particularly layered deal, and many of the layers make sense.

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