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There’s no blame for anyone in the Jabari Parker-Bucks break-up

Milwaukee bet Parker would help it bounce back and be an Eastern force. The Bucks are good, but Jabari has little to do with it, and now he’s gone.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jabari Parker was the consolation prize for the Milwaukee Bucks’ worst season ever, a No. 2 overall pick with incredible star potential as a scorer and a high-aesthetic style. The Bucks took him in 2014, coming off a 15-win year notable only for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s bewildering and thrilling rookie campaign. It was an unintentional tank job that landed the Bucks high in the lottery in a draft with plenty of top-tier talent, including Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Aaron Gordon.

Parker was a safe, seemingly smart pick once Wiggins went No. 1 overall. He was the son of a retired NBA player, Sonny Parker. He arrived at Duke as a consensus top-5 prospect in the nation and delivered on his promise, breaking Duke’s freshman scoring record and becoming the first Blue Devil freshman to lead the team in scoring and rebounding. He was a first team All-American and runner-up behind Doug McDermott for the Wooden Award.

Parker’s career with the Bucks started off well enough: he won Rookie of the Month for October/November, 2014. But in December, he tore his ACL for the first time. He missed the rest of the season and the start of the next. Once he got on the court in 2015-16, he played rather well, all things considered. His star had been eclipsed, though: Antetokounmpo was clearly something special.

It wasn’t just Giannis — Khris Middleton blossomed, as well, becoming Milkwaukee’s leading scorer. Though Jabari was supposed to be the center of the Bucks’ universe once drafted No. 2 overall, Antetokounmpo’s unique basketball genius ruled that out. He could have thrived as a standard soloist scorer next to Giannis, a traditional second banana. But Middleton — who could defend and hit threes — subsumed that role. Meanwhile, Jabari’s presence didn’t exactly make mediocre Milwaukee much better.

Middleton suffered an injury the following season that allowed Parker to take his place alongside Antetokounmpo. Jabari averaged 20 points per game and boosted his efficiency, but the Bucks were still mediocre until Parker suffered the blow that would lead to his eventual exit. On Feb. 8 against Miami, he tore his ACL again.

That night was actually Middleton’s first game back from injury. Without Parker and with Middleton, Milwaukee would finish the season on a 20-11 run to slip into the playoffs, where it gave the Raptors hell in the first round. Parker wouldn’t come back until deep into the 2017-18 season, where he’d struggle to fit with an MVP-caliber Giannis, Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and the rest.

Now, the Bucks have watched him depart in free agency while getting nothing in return.

NBA: Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Parker was the safe pick in 2014. There’s no arguing that. Embiid has become the best player in that draft, but Jabari had played 101 NBA games before Embiid got into his first, and there was no publicly known pre-draft warning sign about Parker’s knee. Injuries happen in sports. Catastrophic injuries happen. This wasn’t a Greg Oden situation, where there was a worrisome inkling before the draft, and the team took him anyway. If anything, the Embiid pick was akin to that.

Parker’s situation was more like that of Shaun Livingston, who suffered a horrific, random injury early in his career and ended up on a far different trajectory than imagined when he was taken No. 4 overall.

Milwaukee made the safe, responsible pick at No. 2 in 2014 as they tried to steadily, soberly build a successful program. And the team did end up on the right trajectory despite the infusion of chaos introduced by Jabari’s two injuries. The Bucks won 44 games this season for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since that magical 2001 season. Milwaukee is on the rise and has a star. That’s what the franchise envisioned in June 2014, not quite knowing what Giannis would be. (None of us did. Giannis didn’t.)

This is the sad and sobering reality of the end of Jabari’s time in Milwaukee: the NBA is riddled with chaos. There are no sure things. You can minimize risk and things can still go sideways. You can place a wager on a prospect with pedigree and the blueprints to success and watch it miss. You can throw a bet on a complete question mark and end up with an MVP candidate. These things happen. Milwaukee, if nothing else, came up even in the 2013 and 2014 drafts: one shocking win and one shocking defeat.

That the Bucks are now losing Parker for nothing — having rescinded his qualifying offer to allow the Bulls to sign him to a 2-year, $40 million deal as an unrestricted free agent — is a sad coda to the last four years of Jabari heartbreak.

But that’s all the Bucks could reason to do. Betting on Parker again after seeing Milwaukee at its best without him wouldn’t make sense. The costs are already paid in the form of essentially blowing a No. 2 pick; no need to throw money into the pit, too. Letting it close and heal is the right move here.

In a way, Parker’s tenure ended up much like that of the previous high-profile lottery pick Milwaukee had: Andrew Bogut, taken No. 1 in 2006. Unlike Jabari, Bogut was the Bucks’ best player for a couple of years. But injury derailed his career, and he was eventually shipped off for little of consequence (no offense to Monta Ellis or the Ekpe Udoh Book Club).

Unlike with the Bogut-era Bucks (and with no offense to Brandon Jennings), this version has plenty else to be excited about. Giannis is the best player in the conference with LeBron James departing, and he’ll be a popular preseason MVP pick. Parker, meanwhile, will be making tons of money in his beloved hometown of Chicago, with a chance to rebuild his career before his prime.

There’s disappointment all over the place here, but no blame and no mistakes. The only real lesson here is that chaos reigns in the NBA. You can’t be sure of anything in failure or success.