When Joakim Noah brushed past the local media covering Chicago’s Friday evening pairing with the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday afternoon, it was a continuation of a days-long media boycott in the wake of the Luol Deng trade. Noah wasn’t blaming the local beat writers for the deal that sent Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but as we wrote on Friday, he also probably wasn’t keen to express what seven years’ worth of friendship meant to him, following a personal and professional disappoint when as the Bulls traded their All-Star solely for payroll relief and a long shot at a possible first round pick.
Even though Chicago downed the Bucks on Friday, continuing the team’s winning streak, Noah declined to speak to the press. After the Bulls held off the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday night for the team’s eighth win in 10 tries, though, the All-Star center decided to perch up at his locker and share his thoughts with the assembled scrum.
"The trade definitely hurt," Noah said, adding that he had spoken to Deng about it. "But we got to move on. I feel confident in this team; we're working really hard. A lot of people say this is a business and all that but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective, that's just my side of the story. Everybody has a different job. I'm not mad at anybody. I'm not mad at the organization or anything like that. It's just that my brother isn't here anymore. So I just needed a little bit of time to digest that."
"It's hard to say because at the end of the day that's my brother," he said. "And he's not here anymore. That's the way I see it. They see the game differently. They're not out there on the court. They're not out there on the plane. They don't know how much Lu meant to me personally. But I'm not mad at anybody. At the end of the day, the games keep coming -- we're just going to go out there, give it everything we got. There's no tanking. None of that. We're going to go out there and give 150 percent. When people in Chicago say 'Chicago Bulls,' I want people in Chicago to be proud of that. Even if there's four guys hurt, guys are hurt, no matter who's out, we're going to go out there and we're going to give 150 percent, win or lose. I know people in this city are proud of that."
Noah, beaming from yet another home win in front of a rabid Chicago crowd, went on to further endear himself to Chicago natives and Bulls fans:
"We just want to represent. We know this is a city that ... even when I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. [It's] cold outside -- when he sees me driving by, he's excited. You know what I mean? He's excited. He's like, 'All right. Let's go Bulls! Get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena, and I look up top and I see teams call timeout, and I see the guy who looks this big and he's up cheering up and down, jumping up and down, that's the guy I play for. To me, that's what this city represents. There's a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city, and I feel like when I play basketball I want people to be proud of their team."
Joakim went on to say that he had spoken with Chicago’s two top personnel chiefs – vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, and general manager Gar Forman – and that both left him with the impression that they didn’t expect Chicago to tank even with Deng being dealt for no immediate on-court help. Both Forman and Paxson probably wouldn’t mind Chicago sliding into the lottery this year – especially with the protected Sacramento Kings pick they were dealt for Luol likely to never materialize – but both front office men understand that there is no way in hell a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, one working with Noah as its centerpiece on both ends, is going to start sleepwalking through games.
As we talked about last week, the Deng deal does offer significant financial relief to a Bulls team looking to avoid the “repeater tax,” one that hits if a franchise is in the luxury tax bracket in four out of five years. Chicago paid the tax last year for the first time in owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s lucrative run as Bulls owner, but they’re now underneath the line following the Deng transaction by a few hundred thousand. This is why Chicago isn’t likely to bring in anyone but 10-day contract players (like recent signee Cartier Martin, who scored 11 points in the team’s win over Charlotte) for the rest of the year. This was an already thin team, but under Thibodeau and Noah’s guidance, they could still hang onto that playoff berth.
Beyond that, the team’s future isn’t exactly secure. Luol Deng said he spoke at length with Derrick Rose following the deal, though the crux of that conversation wasn’t disclosed. The go-to retooling plan has Chicago bringing in highly regarded Real Madrid forward Nikola Mirotic next summer, and using the amnesty clause to release Carlos Boozer, thereby creating cap space to add yet another star.
The team will need that space to sign Mirotic, though, who doesn’t have to adhere to the confines of the rookie salary scale because he was drafted by Chicago three years ago – and it’s no sure thing that Nikola will leave money on the table just to come stateside. Chicago wouldn’t have enough cash to pitch a maximum deal to another star anyway, and it’s probable that all the big names on the free agent market – Miami’s Big Three, Carmelo Anthony – will all stay with their incumbent teams. The Bulls could deal swingman Mike Dunleavy to grab extra space, but Dunleavy’s production at his comparatively miniscule rate – half of the average per-year salary – would be nigh on impossible to replace in the free agent market.
Then there’s the question of whether or not the Bulls would amnesty Boozer anyway.
Such a move would knock his salary off the salary cap charts, but Reinsdorf would still be on the hook to pay his actual $16.8 million price tag. Reinsdorf would then be asked to use that cap space to fill up the rest of the roster, possibly including Mirotic, thereby paying more salary along the way than he would have had to deal with Boozer still on the active roster.
This is where the Bulls can hit their fans, once again. Pointing out that the pickings in the free agent class were slim, while trumping up Boozer’s expiring contract as trade bait, while introducing two potential rotation additions in their own middling 2014 first round pick, and the one they’re likely to get from Charlotte in the middle of the first round. All while pointing to more potential assets – the Kings’ first round pick in 2015, which only comes to Chicago if the Kings ever become an average squad, and the ability to switch picks with Cleveland next season if the Cavaliers somehow get their act together (they lost by 44 points to Sacramento on Sunday, and stand at 13-24) and make the low end of the playoffs in 2015-16.
But, hey, you get Derrick Rose back! And with no tax issues, we can extend Jimmy Butler!
If the Bulls’ ownership really is thinking basketball-first with this Luol Deng deal, they’ll have to go completely against character to prove us wrong.
Until then, Joakim and the team’s fans will be watching. And talking.
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