At the start of the year, the Bulls had a 5-man front court log-jam. Nikola Mirotic was supposed to double-up on major success in minimal minutes during his rookie year. Joakim Noah was supposed to overcome his previous year’s knee problems and get back to standard Noah Basketball. Pau Gasol was promised minutes in a starting role and Taj Gibson was coming off an ankle surgery, but likely to re-up on his impact off the bench. But the Bulls have been all over the place this year, and for a time, the quality play of each of their big men was cause for concern. Coach Fred Hoiberg did his best to fiddle with rotations, even trying Mirotic at the 3 (which was a bad idea to begin with, and remained a bad idea) to make room for standout rookie, Bobby Portis.
Eventually, their inconsistencies forced management’s hand. Reportedly looking to add a impactful wing in exchange for one or two of Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson or Noah for some insurance in those thin spots. When the report surfaced, it might have made sense to deal one of them, but now, Noah’s shoulder dislocation makes that impossibly difficult.
Where there were five, now there are four, but that four isn’t all that assuring to begin with. Gasol is aging, fighting injuries and has already made it known that he won’t be staying with the team on his player option for next year. Mirotic is infuriatingly inconsistent and therefore unusable in heavy minutes on a nightly basis. Bobby Portis is a young rookie with promise, but his tendency to be somewhat of a chucker and general inexperience, particularly on the defensive side, strike him from being a major contributor on a team with aspirations for deep playoff run in the foreseeable future.
That leaves Gibson as the only big with experience, (defensive) impact and more than just this year on his contract. That likely makes him the biggest asset to this present team and to others as a trade chip.
At this point, it might go without saying, but with news of Noah’s 4-6 month recovery time, the Bulls went from a team with riches of frontcourt depth to barely enough to survive - and certainly not enough to deal for a wing, unless management’s view on the realistic goals for this season change.
The Bulls without Noah
Here’s a look at Noah’s On/Off numbers.
Aside from the rebounding and assist numbers, Noah doesn’t seem to make a positive impact on the outcome of a game. But as Mark outlined, much of this has more to do with the players around him rather than his personal output.
Playing the majority of his lineups with Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore isn’t conducive to vastly positive net ratings.
Noah obviously has drawbacks as a player, but he showed steady improvement as he regained his conditioning, health and confidence.
Excluding the month of January, during which time his initial shoulder injury derailed his improvements, Noah showed that he was going to continue to get better. With increased confidence, the numbers match the eye test, and his overall production steadily improved. This is absolutely essential for a team with playoff aspirations so that he would potentially be playing his best basketball of the season when it matters most.
What does this mean for the Bulls season?
Some might think it ridiculous to consider a season lost after an injury to a backup center, but Bulls fans know how damaging this injury could be. Through their coaching transition, have lost their identity - their inability to show the Thibsian characteristic of coming to play every night has proven to be problem. For a team that either wins or loses by 10, either wins 7 in a row and looks like they might be ready to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals or gets beaten up, shows no interest/energy/motivation and seems to belong in the lottery, Noah symbolizes the only sense of stability.
— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) January 17, 2016
Losing Noah only exacerbates this.
Noah’s value was never determined by the points he put up or his True Shooting percentage. His production emanated from his all-out effort on a nightly basis and that made him an elite defender and rebounder. But his point-center sensibilities separated him. Even in his reduced role, he remains a top five rebounder per 100 possessions and his assist percentage is atop the league among qualified centers.
Even though he had only been playing 22 minutes per game, Noah’s affinity for the boards is one of the few things on which the Bulls can rely every game. His energy, leadership and unselfish nature help stabilize their downfalls. Losing Noah means that the Bulls will have to search for their identity in different avenues.
Losing Noah doesn't have to mean losing Noah
Noah's injury means that a trade is infinitely more unlikely. It puts pressure on the remaining players to excel because the alternative is to try to find return value for the players currently constructing the roster. Of course, there are ways around this injury signaling the end of Noah's tenure with the Bulls. In spite of the imminent spike in the salary cap, it might make sense for both parties to come to terms. For Noah, signing on a one-year deal would give Noah the chance to prove his health and ability as the starting center again. With Gasol likely opting out of his contract, the starting center position would be available. Signing a one-year deal would also allow Noah to become eligible for ten-year contract bumps after the season, giving him time to sign one more bigger, longer deal for the twilight of his career.
Especially considering the remaining pieces of the "Derrick Rose Era" would still be around - Rose himself and Gibson would each have another year on their contract - bringing back Noah would allow the core to return for one more year before all becoming free agents in 2017, when the salary cap is expected to spike once more (estimated 110 million), at which point even more free agents will be on the market.
After the LeBron James' and Kevin Durant's of the 2016 free agent class, Mike Conley and and Al Horford come to the front, but none of those are likely to join the Bulls. Bringing back Noah another year gives the Bulls one more run before a much more robust 2017 free agency.
While there is still hope for Noah to have a future in a Bulls uniform, his injury forces the present day Bulls into a tough situation. The idea of a trade is now, almost certainly off the table. It also means a formerly deep front court featuring 5 unique players is strained, putting pressure on the remaining players to up their production. Most importantly, the Bulls identity problems will remain for the course of the season if not worsen without Noah.