Joakim Noah leaving Bulls feels both unthinkable and inevitable

Dan Devine
Joakim Noah may be preparing to say goodbye to Chicago. (AP/Andrew A. Nelles)
Joakim Noah may be preparing to say goodbye to Chicago. (AP/Andrew A. Nelles)

After nine years, two All-Star selections, a Defensive Player of the Year nod and countless barbaric yawps, Joakim Noah's time with the Chicago Bulls may be at an end. Following a disappointing season shortened by shoulder surgery, the 31-year-old center will enter unrestricted free agency this summer, and according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Noah has already begun to say his goodbyes:

[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]

According to a Bulls player, Noah has been telling teammates the last few weeks that he was done with the organization once free agency begins, and "has no trust in the front office getting this in the right direction."

The player was asked if Noah’s feelings had anything to do with first-year coach Fred Hoiberg and the he said, he said that went on early in the season when Noah lost his starting job, and insisted that Noah didn’t offer up that as an explanation.

What was offered up, however, was the fact that there seems to be a complete mistrust that multiple players have toward general manager Gar Forman, with Noah leading the way.

For what it's worth, Noah's camp swiftly responded with a "nothing to see here."

... so Bulls fans hoping Noah sticks around might not need to start lighting candles and hammering out their vigil schedules just yet.

On one hand, a divorce between Noah and Chicago feels unthinkable.

Few players in recent NBA history have both represented a city and embodied a team's identity the way Noah has with the Bulls over the past decade. His relentless motor, genius defensive work and unselfish offensive play provided the backbone of a team that changed the course of NBA defense (and, in response, offense), routinely found ways to continue succeeding despite devastating injuries, and never stopped charging their enemies until they'd knocked the opponent over or fallen dead in the process.

Noah, more than any other individual player, was the linchpin of the approach that resulted in seven straight playoff trips and, briefly, belief that Chicago could return to the championship conversation for the first time since Michael Jordan left town. But then, all that was true of Tom Thibodeau, too, and shifting circumstances and reportedly poisoned internal relationships eventually led to his exit, too. Things change, eras end, and time marches on ... and the Bulls seemed ready, and perhaps even eager, to step away from Noah from the start of the 2015-16 campaign.

It began with new head coach Fred Hoiberg's season-opening decision to shift Noah — who had started 523 of his 603 career NBA games and hadn't come off the bench since March 30, 2010, but who had also yet to look like the fire of old after a "minor" arthroscopic knee surgery in the summer of 2014 that kept him sidelined for several months — to a reserve role behind Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Hoiberg briefly spun the move as Noah's idea, which the veteran pivot quickly denied.

Noah rebounded, passed and defended in his curtailed minutes, but often looked brutal offensively both before and after his December shoulder sprain, and clearly chafed at a role far more limited than he'd anticipated. By mid-January, a torn labrum had ended Noah's year; by mid-April, the Bulls had wrapped up a disappointing 42-40 season that seemed to presage and offseason shake-up that could, and perhaps should, feature a roster reset that closes the door on the Noah-and-Derrick Rose age in Bulls history.

Back in January, after his season-ending surgery, Noah said that wasn't the way he wanted things to go, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

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. [...]

"This is all I know. I've been here nine years. I've been injured before. Maybe not in this position and situation but I'm looking forward to being around the guys."

Just maybe not so much around the guy drawing up the plays, as Bryan Crawford suggested in HOOP Magazine after Noah's injury:

“I tried calling him again this morning, but it seemed like his phone was off,” Hoiberg said after the team’s practice on Sunday morning. However, Pau Gasol revealed that he’d spoken with Noah every day since he got hurt on Friday night.

“We’ve been texting,” Gasol said. “I talked to him a little bit after the game and we texted [Saturday night.]”

Without firm belief in the coaching staff, the front office or his role in the Bulls' future, it would make sense for Noah to at least explore what sort of market there might be for his services. Prospective suitors might balk at paying high prices for a player who absorbed so many high-leverage minutes under the Thibodeau regime, who has suffered so many significant injuries in recent years, who's never been an especially reliable shooter and who has struggled with interior finishing since that knee injury.

Then again, with the league set to be flush with cash as influx of revenue from the NBA's new $24 billion broadcast rights deal sends the salary cap soaring past the $90 million mark, and with veterans capable of helping create a defense-first culture still carrying value, Noah could find a more enticing offer outside the Windy City:

... depending, of course, on how he sees himself and what sort of role he believes he could/should play:

... for better or for worse:

Whatever comes next for Noah, if his path takes him away from Chicago, he'll leave the Bulls as one of the most beloved figures in franchise history — a hard-working and productive, charismatic never-say-die character who, warts and all, never short-changed the team or its fans any time he set foot on the court. Things might have ended badly, because that's how things typically end, but the good he did in Chicago — both on and off the court — will be remembered for a long, long time.

More NBA coverage:

- - - - - - -

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL, "Like" BDL on Facebook and follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.