Joakim Noah, reportedly, will come off the bench for the Chicago Bulls

Joakim Noah, reportedly, will come off the bench for the Chicago Bulls

After a seven-game exhibition run that saw him barely make more than a quarter of his shots, it appears that Joakim Noah will come off the bench for the Chicago Bulls to start the season. Noah’s heart is in the right place, but it’s a steep drop for a player who is just 17 months removed from finishing fourth in the 2013-14 MVP race.

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Second-year forward Nikola Mirotic will slide into the power forward slot occupied last season by Noah, who struggled both at that position and at center, which features Pau Gasol as the current starter.

After first year coach Fred Hoiberg watched Mirotic start all seven preseason games thus far for Chicago, either alongside Noah or Gasol, the writing was on the wall. Chicago Tribune Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson dropped as much on Wednesday afternoon:

While Hoiberg said he hasn’t decided who will start the Oct. 27 regular-season opener against the Cavaliers, sources said the first-year coach is leaning strongly toward starting Nikola Mirotic.

This seems in line with Noah’s quotes regarding the likely demotion after Chicago’s exhibition win over the Indiana Pacers, one that saw Mirotic enjoy his best game of the exhibition season:

"Whatever is best for the team. It's not about me right now. It's about this team," Noah said. "We have to figure out ways to get better. And we will."

"He didn't fight it one bit," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think he's excited to play with Taj (Gibson) and the chemistry those two have together."

Save for a rookie season spent partially behind Ben Wallace, and a second season spent with Vinny Del Negro’s daffy decision-making (Noah often sat in favor of Drew Gooden or Aaron Gray), Joakim has been a starter his entire pro career. Just as the case with the MVP polling, Noah is also 17 months removed from winning the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s not exactly being kicked to the end of the bench, far from it, but this is quite a fall.

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Noah’s struggles began soon after he received that award, in his team’s first round playoff loss to the Washington Wizards. The center was noticeably slowed and at times limping in the five-game defeat, sloughing off any questions about a severe leg or knee injury. The Bulls refused disclose when, exactly, Noah did hurt himself (or even what part of his knee was injured), but they did reveal that Noah underwent a “minor” operation on his left knee following the season that would leave him out for two to three months.

In the NBA, minor operations rarely need half that time for recovery, and more flags were raised six months after the surgery when Noah admitted that he was still not quite back. He wouldn’t be back for all of 2014-15, despite playing the string out, as the Bulls fell in the second round with Noah struggling terribly.

The move to sign Pau Gasol in 2014 was seen as a possible acquisition that could put Chicago over the top, as his passing, low and high post acumen would see to mesh well with Noah’s passing and screening – two of the smartest players in the game lining up alongside each other. Overall, Chicago’s statistics with the two working in tandem weren’t terrible, and by the time the playoffs hit the “Noah and Gasol don’t play well alongside each other”-narrative had changed into a “the Bulls are getting killed out there with Joakim.”

Enter Nikola Mirotic, and Taj Gibson. Kind of.

Ideally, Mirotic would act as the sort of floor-spacer that could turn Chicago’s oft-moribund offense into something special, but he shot 31 percent from behind the arc in his rookie year and routinely passed up good looks from the outside. The caveat to that initial statement lies in the change in coaching staff – new coach Fred Hoiberg expects to have a modern, open offense to provide better looks, and former coach Tom Thibodeau often played Mirotic out of position at small forward, where quicker defenders could close out easier on his long looks.

Mirotic and Gasol played on the Spanish National Team for the first time over the offseason, taking the Eurobasket title as Gasol played a dominant brand of ball. It’s safe to say they’re feeling rather solid about the pairing moving forward.

From K.C Johnson at the Tribune, speaking first with Pau about his familiarity with his younger teammate:

"Comfort level? I would say big."

And Mirotic, on his team’s new offense:

"I know how to play now. I know the players," Mirotic said. "And I like the new system. Playing fast, running the floor, trying to score easy baskets. I think we need that. We need to play with space. I don't think it's just me. I think everyone likes it."

Mirotic downplayed his likely starting role.

"I don't care about this really. My only worry is how I can put the energy into my team," he said. "I just have to play a simple game and be good defensively. Whether I start or not is not my preoccupation. The coach has to think about that. But I'm really feeling great right now and I just want to enjoy this season."

This goes a long way toward explaining why Hoiberg would run with these two together, instead of pairing Pau with defensive-minded big Taj Gibson (admittedly only now returning from significant ankle surgery), or Noah starting alongside Nikola. Even back in 2014-15 many Chicago observers were expecting a starting lineup change, but it was expected that whichever coach made the switch would pair offense with defense.

And, as Joakim Noah is hardly an offensive spark off of the bench, just-about-guaranteed low post goodness from Gasol off the pine.

Instead, Joakim sits. He’s played actively but poorly in the exhibition season, and his best game (a 12-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist performance starting alongside Mirotic on Monday) still saw him miss eight of ten shots from the floor (three were blocked) and eight of 13 from the free throw line.

That waning athleticism, for someone who wasn’t a big jumper in the first place and doesn’t have a cadre of offensive moves to rely on when the ball swings his way, remains worrying. Noah is a free agent this summer and he’ll turn 31 midseason, which is why he went all out last summer in an attempt to right a body that has been failing him for nearly a year and a half following his “minor” operation.

From a fantastic feature by James Herbert at CBS Sports, detailing Noah’s summer spent at Peak Performance Project (P3) in Santa Barbara, California:

On the first day, Noah did all of P3's standard testing with motion-capture technology so a personalized program could be designed. By the end of the summer, his performance metrics were all completely different.

“Everything improved, physically,” [founder Dr. Marcus] Elliott said. “I mean literally everything. He had a handful of biomechanical things he did that didn't serve him that we worried about. Some of them were compensation patterns from old injuries and some of them were just the way he moved. He did some things that were hard on his body. And all those things improved. His risk of injury is much, much less than what it was before.”

In a couple of months, Noah made more progress at P3 than almost anyone. When he moved laterally, at first he wasn't stable enough in his trunk, which meant he flexed it and lost energy. On exit testing, his trunk flexion was down from 21.6 degrees, a bad outlier, to 12.1 degrees, much better than an average NBA big man. His drop jump — a vertical jump off a box — went up 4.5 inches. With plyometrics, he learned how to be much more efficient when he landed, which took pressure off his knees and allowed him to jump not just higher, but faster.

That’s fun to hear, Noah had pushed himself both during and in the offseason for years, but the setup still worries.

A pairing with Gibson, who has played well in the exhibition season but won’t be at his best for at least a few more weeks, puts the onus on an already shaky offense. With second-year forward Doug McDermott, who struggled terribly in his rookie year after the former coaching staff railed against his acquisition and showed little to no patience nor creativity in developing avenues for him to succeed, having to act as a potential go-to force alongside the pair.

There is a chance it could work, and that Hoiberg and a rejuvenated crew could put together something special. And it’s not as if Joakim Noah is being banished, or released.

It’s still quite the drop, though.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!