Joakim Noah responded to every question with a knowing smile, one that concedes he understands the queries but can't answer them in good faith, at least not yet. At age 30, the Bulls center is on the brink what might be the biggest year of his career in his final season under contract in Chicago. There's a new coach with a new vision about to enter his life, but the collateral damage of nine seasons acting as the Bulls' beating heart can't simply be wiped clean.
Noah was at a Foot Locker on State Street watching kids from his Noah's Arc Foundation pick out new clothes and shoes before heading back to school on Monday afternoon. It's just one of the initiatives Noah has been involved with recently, alongside his anti-violence "Rock the Drop" campaign that's been plastered around the city all summer.
"Being with a franchise for nine years allows you to do things like this," Noah told reporters during a short media session. "It feels great."
Nine years is a lifetime in the NBA, and Noah wears those seasons on his body if not on his face. This is very much still the same gregarious character that won over the city with a non-stop motor and an ability to play through pain, but time has worn those quick-twitch limbs that used to be his greatest advantage.
Last season was a disaster for Noah, and there's no way to sugarcoat it. It started with the first knee surgery of his career last summer that prevented him from playing pickup or keeping up with his conditioning, and battling through it proved to be more difficult than anyone anticipated.
A season after winning Defensive Player of the Year and placing fourth in MVP balloting, Noah often looked like a liability for the Bulls in their final year under Tom Thibodeau. His numbers dropped across the board during the regular season and he was wildly ineffective in the playoffs, averaging just 5.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on 40.8 percent shooting.
The numbers give perspective to his struggles, but they don't tell the full story. Noah wasn't just unproductive, it looked like he didn't belong on the court. He was throwing up prayers three-feet away from the basket that were hitting parts of the backboard that had never been hit before. The lateral quickness that once defined his all-world defense diminished playing next to the slow-footed Pau Gasol. That Game 7 win over the Nets in 2013 when Noah finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks felt like a decade ago.
To hear Noah tell it, the injuries that caused his ineptitude are behind him now. What else is he supposed to say? It wasn't long ago that Noah was one of the best centers in the NBA, a defensive anchor whose passing, ball handling and offensive rebounding gave the Bulls a dimension most teams couldn't dream of. It all fell apart so quickly. Can one summer really fix all that ails him?
"Injuries suck," Noah said. "As an athlete you want to be out there feeling good. Sometimes you take your health for granted. It definitely put a lot of things in perspective for me. I'm a lot more focused and very excited for what's coming."
"I feel healthier than I have been in a long time. There's going to be a lot of ball movement. I'm just really excited to come in because I feel like I have to prove myself again."
Then there's the team's perspective. The Bulls drafted big man Bobby Portis this June despite an overcrowded front court and very real needs in the backcourt. That selection wasn't a quick fix, but one made with the long-term plan in mind. Does that plan include Noah? It all depends on whether he can rediscover what once made him so special.
And therein lies the problem: you don't just replace Joakim Noah. A two-way center is one of the most difficult things to find in professional sports, and that doesn't even account for the emotional leadership Noah has provided since coming into his own. It took years for Noah to blossom in the NBA, and that was after spending three seasons in college where he won two national championships. It takes time with big men, and it can all be gone before you know it.
This season brings new questions even as the team around Noah remains the same. Will Noah or Pau Gasol move to the bench to open up playing time for Nikola Mirotic? How will he be featured in Hoiberg's read-and-react offense that emphasizes pace? Is he closer to the player we saw in 2013-14 or 2014-15?
For now, you can trace everything back to a phrase Noah has muttered on multiple occasions this offseason: "time will tell". Noah promises he's "ready to rumble", and says it with a wry grin that lets you know he's aware of the stakes. The Bulls are, too.