It's hard to consider that possibly the final image of Joakim Noah's career as a Chicago Bull will be one of him in agonizing pain. It wasn't supposed to end this way. But sadly, this era of Chicago Bulls basketball is one that has been defined by injuries.
What's equally as unfortunate is how Noah's (presumably) final two seasons in Chicago have played out. Joakim Noah was the one forced to play out of position. Joakim Noah was the one who pridefully swallowed a demotion to the bench. Joakim Noah was the one who played nearly all of the 2014-15 season on one good leg. And you know who will be the one that's shown the door? Joakim Noah.
It's been apparent that the Bulls have been distancing themselves from Noah this entire season. Now they've got themselves the built-in excuse as to why they're not going to bring him back, which, to be sure, is a foolish one. The front office will obviously attempt to save face by peddling the same line that no longer falls on deaf ears. Financial flexibility is not a sound reason to let Joakim Noah go because the Bulls are not -- and never have been -- big time players in free agency.
But above all else, the most important detail in all of this is that the Bulls are being given an opportunity to amend their biggest mistake of the past two seasons in the form of Pau Gasol already stating he plans to opt out this summer. No, the Gasol signing at face value was not the mistake, but thereby making Noah a power forward and catering to Pau's under-the-table starting needs was. Effectively, the Bulls chose Gasol over Noah, and that was the biggest mistake of all.
For the longest time, the Bulls have been big enough for basically only one of Gasol and Noah. And now that the option of trading Noah has been eliminated, they're going to be given the choice of Gasol or Noah again this summer. That choice, by the way, is a remarkably easy one. It's no coincidence that the Bulls, stylistically and statistically, have worsened at both defense and rebounding since Gasol's arrival.
If there's one thing I've learned this season it's that Noah is still a useful center in this league. He reinvented himself while leading what's been a fun, free-flowing, ball-sharing second unit for the Bulls. In many ways, it's been the Bulls' bench that embodies Fred Hoiberg's offensive principles, not the starting group, and Joakim Noah's most responsible for that. Gasol's the antithesis of Hoiball, but I don't necessarily fault him for that because Hoiberg is not the coach he came to Chicago to play for.
The crazy thing is, I had come to terms with the idea of trading Noah more than most. In fact, I'd consider myself to be one of Noah's harshest critics over the past year and a half. I wrote about his pronounced struggles last season and how he became virtually unplayable in the postseason. If there was anyone ready to detach themselves from Noah, it was me. But you know what? I saw a new Noah this year. Prior to suffering his initial shoulder injury, Noah had found his groove and was clearly the best big man on the team. There's still a player worth keeping for his basketball worth alone, beyond all the other intangibles the Bulls can ill-afford to lose.
Speaking of intangibles: this team, as presently constituted, has difficulty playing with any sense of togetherness. Noah's one of the few that plays like he actually gives a you-know-what every single night. But you know who else gave a damn? Luol Deng did. Tom Thibodeau surely did. You lose Noah, you've lost what little heart is left on this team. Which is why the debate over whose team it is always seemed laughable to me. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are clearly the most talented, but the team -- in my eyes -- always belonged to Jo.
And just as an aside, it always annoyed me that Kirk Hinrich gets referred to as The Captain and not Jo. Kirk's fine, really good Bull for a really long time. Good player, good career. Nothing against him. But Kirk's not no damn captain when Joakim Noah is right 'effing there.
Joakim Noah is the lifeblood of this team. Period. You don't betray the love of your life to pursue one night of pure ecstasy. Because other than the pipe dream of Kevin Durant, what financial justification do the Bulls have to not bring Noah back? Unless some team is out there ready to offer Noah $15 million per season, the Bulls will have the ability to bring him back if they haven't completely soured the relationship to this point.
I think it's fair to wonder if Noah would even want to return, but that's another discussion entirely. I'm of the belief that he won't come at a large cost this summer because, statistically, he's an absolute train wreck on the surface. So, hey, I guess the inevitable Bulls' low ball offer won't look as disrespectful as it probably should? But what worries is that some smart team out there has taken notice of the best that Noah still has to offer. There's almost certainly a team that sees what a great addition he'd be as a below market rate starting center.
Ultimately, how Gar Forman and John Paxson handle this Noah situation will say all we need to know about how they operate. Hopefully, they learned their lesson after striking out with every A-list free agent in the summer of 2010. Paxson and Forman can improve this team the smart way: improvements around the margins and drafting well. Thankfully, they're pretty good at those facets of management.
I wouldn't consider GarPax cold for letting Joakim Noah go, I'd just consider them dumb.