When the Clippers signed veteran center Joakim Noah in March, there was an acknowledgment that the influence of the former defensive player of the year might be felt more in the locker room than on the court.
Although Noah has averaged nearly a double-double in 60 postseason games, he hadn't appeared in the postseason in five years. And his effectiveness as a spot-defender guarding the Western Conference's tall, strong centers was more hope than sure thing considering Noah was only months removed from what he called a "freak" injury.
Four months later, with scrimmages set to begin Wednesday inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, Fla., Noah's role is on the verge of expanding, at least in the short-term.
Ivica Zubac, the 23-year-old starting center whom the team hoped would benefit most from 35-year-old Noah's playoff experience, did not travel with the team July 8 and the team has not said whether he has since arrived. Zubac's backup, Montrezl Harrell, also is away from the team while tending to an emergency family matter. He will be required to re-quarantine between four and 10 days upon his return.
"We need him to be a solid veteran player, we need him to be a leader as much as he can lead, to be a great example, to be a teacher to [Zubac], and then really just to be ready when called upon," coach Doc Rivers said Sunday during a videoconference with reporters. "I think mentally he's in the right space right now to be ready, so I think he will be."
Even before Harrell's departure Friday, there was growing confidence within the team regarding Noah's potential contributions. Now, with their first seeding game (July 30 against the Lakers) rapidly approaching, there could be ample opportunity for Noah to repay the team's optimism.
"He's played well this week," guard Lou Williams said. "We've had a lot of competitive situations where he's been able to show he's a seasoned veteran in this game. He's had some deep playoff runs, he's had some success in his career, and he has an opportunity to get back on his feet after a career-changing injury. I think this is a great fit for him."
A free agent after averaging a career-reviving 7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in 42 games for Memphis last season, Noah planned to work out for the Clippers in September. His audition was canceled, however, after the stainless steel ice bath he was carrying after a summer workout sliced his Achilles tendon.
"I told myself that that's just not how I wanted to end my career," Noah said July 11. "The day after the surgery, I was in the gym working out with the hope of making this team. I knew that if I didn't keep training and if I got a call from the Clippers and I wasn't ready, I knew I would have regrets for the rest of my life."
The NBA's four-month layoff because of the coronavirus outbreak has allowed multiple Clippers to become fully healthy, but Rivers believes the extra time benefited Noah — who is signed through the 2021 season on a non-guaranteed deal — most.
"He's just bringing that energy every day," reserve guard Rodney McGruder said. "That's something that I'm learning from him, and it's just the intensity and just the persistence that he plays with on the defensive end, how you always hear his voice. He's always yelling, he's always talking."