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Of course Joakim Noah wants to return to the Chicago Bulls next season. What else is he going to say? He likes his teammates, he likes the greatest city in the world, and he likes the only franchise he’s ever known.
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The Bulls center is probably out for the season after suffering a second left shoulder injury. A free agent this summer, the (nearly) 31-year old might have to move on from a Bulls team that, sadly, has performed ably in his absence.
Joakim returned to Chicago and the Bulls’ hub this week after shoulder surgery in New York, and spoke to reporters for the first time on Tuesday. K.C. Johnson, at the Chicago Tribune, was listening:
Still, Noah expressed a desire to stay with the Bulls.
"I hope so," he said. "Right now, I'm not trying to focus on the future. … Right now it's all about taking a step back and focusing on getting healthy. Then we'll go from there."
Noah acknowledged such a devastating injury with free agency looming is not ideal.
"But I know there are people out there it's a lot harder for (so) I'm not complaining," Noah said. "It's all about how you bounce back. I just want to prove I have a lot more basketball in me.”
Joakim Noah does have a lot of basketball left in him. What’s left to figure out is what sort of basketball is left to play, for which team, and for which system.
Noah made his hay as an MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year for the 2013-14 Chicago Bulls by partially using the element of surprise as then-coach Tom Thibodeau utilized his passing skills to keep the team’s offense afloat. Noah expertly manned both the defensive glass while showcasing the moving feet needed to excel in Thibodeau’s defensive schemes.
Overuse, however, led to his body breaking down. The Bulls announced in May, 2014 that Noah would undergo a “minor knee procedure,” one that a year and a half later has almost completely hamstrung the center’s effect on the game and his ability to play as he sees fit. Coupled with the league’s realization that it doesn’t have to pay much defensive attention to Noah both on the perimeter (where he was once able to fire perfect passes to cutters) or around the hoop (where he struggles to finish), and you have a bit of a millstone offensively.
You also, despite the setbacks, still have one of the league’s smartest players and most dogged competitors. One that also just happens to stand at seven-feet tall, while he outruns some of your guards down the court.
This is the conundrum that not only faces Chicago, but the scores of other NBA teams that will have cap space this year in a limited free agent market.
Noah, understandably, does not want to change his colors:
"This is all I know," Noah said. "I've been here nine years, and I've been injured before. Maybe not in this position, this situation, but yeah, I'm looking forward to being around the guys."
The Bulls will have some room to breathe under this summer’s skyrocketing salary cap. With Pau Gasol likely opting out of his relatively modest contract, the team could see itself as a player on the free agent market.
Noah’s $20 million cap hold (a designation that prevents teams from completely freeing themselves of expiring contracts until they announce no plans to re-sign an unrestricted free agent) will get in the way of any rebuilding. It would be tempting to try to bring the whole gang back – Gasol and Noah actually played well together this season in a pairing that is (literally) right out of Kelly Dwyer’s dreams – but age, injury, price, and Gasol’s thirst for adventure might get in the way of one more try.
Joakim Noah, after a solid rehab and just two years removed from acting as one of the league’s more dominant players, will likely become a sought-after fallback plan for teams that couldn’t land a franchise player in free agency. The Bulls, after running him into the ground for years, might not be keen to keep up in bidding. The team was hardly sentimental in its dealings with Luol Deng two years ago, dealing the similarly-worn small forward for what the franchise hopes will be a first round draft pick this June.
The Bulls want Joakim Noah around, right now. Relying on rookie Bobby Portis to make sound defensive decisions and Gasol to act the part of an All-Star at age 35 is a bit of stretch, all while Taj Gibson does yeoman’s work on both ends of the ball. Yes, Noah makes fewer than 39 percent of his looks around the rim, but as is the case with Derrick Rose, sometimes you see flashes. And, to people on streets, they keep you coming back.
Whether or not this means anything in July, regardless of 2015-16’s outcome, is entirely up to the market. Joakim Noah and the Bulls probably want to keep this going, but we all say these sorts of things when we’re denied the chance to be a part of something we love.
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