Joakim Noah Bouncing Back in Midst of Contract Year

Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/ Getty Images

Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/ Getty Images

It wasn’t a pretty start for the two-time All-Star, but Joakim Noah has found his groove.

Noah entered the season coming off the bench, and for the first month or so, he was practically non-existent on the court. His averages of 3.7 points per game on 36.4 percent shooting are career lows, and his 22.2 minutes per game are the lowest since his rookie campaign.

His role within the team was unclear, and it reflected in his play. He seemed lost on offense, though it wasn’t a big surprise as it’s a system that doesn’t quite fit his specialties. Still, Noah remained with a team-first mentality, embracing his new bench role and trying to find ways to contribute.

Well, he’s starting to figure some of it out.

Noah seems to have found a stride, and even though his scoring remains low, his activity and energy are reminiscent of his 2013-14 season—the year he won Defensive Player of the Year. Over the last nine games, Noah’s per-36-minutes numbers are very solid: 7.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, nearly seven assists and over two blocks per game.

Noah’s offensive rating has been a bit better too, posting a 98.3 rating (season rating of 97.1). But it’s his defense that has been impressive over this nine-game stretch, posting a 93.5 rating (season: 96.0). The 30-year-old has found ways to impact the game: from taking the ball up the court on the fast-break, to his top-notch passing from the free-throw line extended, to the occasional drive to the basket.

Chicago’s second unit has been a spark the past couple of games, even outplaying the starters on occasion. Noah has been a catalyst in setting up the offense and setting a good pace as well. And if he remains aggressive, he can keep defenses honest as they tend to leave him most times. Head coach Fred Hoiberg had this to say about his center, per the Chicago Tribune:

Joakim has done a great job the last couple games going into dribble handoffs and flashing to the ball at the right time and getting some good action going on out there… Obviously, his energy, too… He’s also been pushing the ball down the floor. A lot of times that’s been our best thrust—when Jo gets it off the rim and pushes it down and we’re able to go right into an action as opposed to a swing.

The last part is key, especially for a team that has been a tad inconsistent in pushing the ball. The Bulls are eighth in pace, a big jump from last season (21st), but there have been quite a few missed opportunities for easy scores.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, Noah’s performance this year is key because of his looming free agency. The former Defensive Player of the Year is earning $13.4 million this season, and the Bulls might not pay such a high price tag for an aging center with a history of lower extremity injuries.

Noah has always put winning a championship above everything else, so that can mean one of three things this upcoming summer when he’s an unrestricted free agent:

  • He’ll sign a contract that corresponds to his current value (likely somewhere between $7-9 million);
  • take a pay-cut from said value to help Chicago bring in extra talent (a la David West going to San Antonio, though perhaps not as big a cut);
  • or, notice that Chicago needs major changes that won’t be fixed with any sort of pay-cut and join a team that will pay a bit of premium and give him a chance for a title.

One thing could keep Noah here, though, and it’s Pau Gasol’s likely intention to test free agency. Gasol said a couple of weeks ago that he “knows he’ll have options” if he continues playing at a high level, per CSN Chicago—and he’s right.

The 35-year-old big man signed a three-year, $22.3 million contract in 2014, and he’s outplayed it so far in his year-and-change with Chicago. The contract includes a player option for the final year, and if Gasol opts out and goes to another team, the door is open again for Noah to start and anchor the Bulls’ defense. This could revitalize his career and take him closer to that 2013-14 level.

Noah will have to continue his recent play—and build on it—because there’s still a chance the Bulls will want to part ways with him. As I said above, he’s not a great fit offensively because defenses back off of him. He’s shown he can function in the system over the past few games, but his lack of scoring could hurt his future in a team that is looking to be at least a top-five scoring unit.

At the end of the day, Noah will live and die by his defense. If he can do it next year as a starter—assuming Gasol leaves—Chicago should do whatever it takes to keep him—albeit at a price that won’t cripple them. Noah off the bench just doesn’t work too well, while as the lone center in a lineup, he excels.

Noah is the heart and soul of the team, and though it sounds cliche, it’s something evident in the way the team reacts and plays when he’s active and doing crazy Joakim Noah things.