The old saying about the month of March, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” might as well be the playoff slogan for the Chicago Bulls. I know that’s a reference to the weather of the month, but if you take it as the Bulls’ demeanor in their second-round series against LeBron James and the banged-up Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s remarkably proficient.
The Bulls were dispatched in Game 6 on their home court, following a pretty pathetic effort from their entire team. There will be repercussions for head coach Tom Thibodeau, as he’s going to lose his job. Derrick Rose will be under scrutiny, as usual, for just about anything he says or does. But the majority of the roster that performed so poorly is going to be back next year.
So what can the Bulls do to move forward and extend the window of contention for a few more years? One idea would be to trade Joakim Noah, the very guy who represented the heart and grit that the Thibodeau teams were known for over his tenure. On the surface, it sounds crazy. You either believe that Noah can’t be traded because the Bulls need his leadership and hustle, or you think his play has deteriorated to the point where no one would want him.
But a new coach is coming into Chicago next year, whether it be Fred Hoiberg, Alvin Gentry or anyone else. And just like when Thibs arrived and the roster changed, and when Vinny Del Negro arrived and the roster changed, and when Scott Skiles arrived and the roster changed, the roster will need to change to suit the next guy to hold the clipboard.
Looking at what they have and who’s under contract, we can narrow things down a bit when it comes to big changes. Rose and his two years remaining on his contract aren’t going anywhere. They likely won’t get much in return if they can deal Rose, and they’ve wasted two seasons while waiting on him. He showed flashes in the playoffs of the kind of player he can still be, and the Bulls owe it to themselves to wait it out another year.
Pau Gasol performed well in his limited capacities of post scoring, spot-up shooting, blocking shots and defensive rebounding this year. The Bulls have him signed to a reasonable deal for a productive center, and a guy with his experience and pedigree is a keeper on a team trying to win. Jimmy Butler is a restricted free agent, but for the purposes of my writing, let’s go ahead and assume the Bulls will match any offer on Jimmy or sign him outright to a new deal.
Nikola Mirotic, despite a poor showing in the playoffs, is a keeper. He has tremendous offensive skills and has a lot of development left. The jury is still out on Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, but considering Snell’s cheap contract and McDermott’s draft status, it’s likely they’re going to be around next year.
Aaron Brooks, Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich can be unrestricted free agents. It’s reasonable to assume that Brooks played himself out of the Bulls’ price range (even despite his awful postseason), as every point guard they sign does. Dunleavy has a good chance at returning, but likely would need to accept a bench role. Hinrich has a player option, and could be back next year even if he doesn’t play much.
That leaves us with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. Gibson is 29 years old (he turns 30 in June) and Noah is 30, and both had disappointing seasons this year. Gibson has two years left on his contract and comes in at $8.5 million next year. Noah has just one year left, at $13.4 million. Since we plan to keep Gasol, in this hypothetical exercise, which of these guys fits best with Pau?
The Gasol-Noah pairing had some success in the postseason, but it was an awkward fit all year, which won’t change moving forward. Gasol and Gibson is theoretically a better fit, but they didn’t set the world on fire. When you throw Mirotic into the mix, the Gasol-Mirotic frontcourt had some success in both the regular season and postseason, and that option could be the best to explore. There are some defensive limitations there, but that’s quite the skilled frontcourt.
Moving Noah in a trade and inserting Mirotic into the starting lineup opposite Gasol is a smart move for both the immediate future and the long term, considering the development of Mirotic’s game. Of course, this requires that the Bulls either draft, sign or trade for another big man who can play quality minutes off the bench. But that’s a discussion for another day.
For now, the topic is Noah. He won Defensive Player of the Year last season and played his heart out. He’s probably the most current obvious example for those who claim that Thibodeau runs his players into the ground, as he played over 42 minutes per game in the playoffs in 2014 and over 37 minutes per game in the regular season following the trade of Luol Deng, the other guy Thibodeau ran ragged. After the Bulls were bounced out by Washington, it was revealed that Noah had a knee injury and needed surgery.
That knee bothered Noah visibly this year, and he just never looked the same out there. His points and rebounds averages were the lowest since his second NBA season. When Noah was on the court, the Bulls were playing 4-on-5 on offense. Thibs often forced the offense to run through him at the high post, which worked at times in the regular season but was again a failure in the postseason. Teams either didn’t respect him at all or made sure to pressure the ball to force bad turnovers. It didn’t help that Noah lost all confidence in his tornado jumper and couldn’t make a layup, and he wasn’t as effective with his putbacks and tip-ins on the offensive glass.
It’s unknown at this point what the Bulls could receive back in a trade for Noah. Do rival executives see a guy who has been run into the ground, whose better days are behind him? Do they see a guy who didn’t fit with Gasol, possibly rushed his rehab from his knee surgery and might be able to return to form? There’s likely at least a small handful of general managers who think that Noah could bring something to their team that they’re sorely missing, whether it’s defense, rebounding, strong passing or just good old fashioned passion.
Coming on a one-year deal, there’s little risk in trading for Noah from another team. If he’s bad, you can let his contract expire and start over. One location that makes a lot of sense for both would be the New York Knicks, who have a need for a leader, a need for a center, a need for rebounding, a ton of cap space and Noah’s buddy Carmelo Anthony. Not to mention, Joakim is from the New York area.
I won’t bother to speculate on what the Knicks could offer the Bulls to pry Noah away, because I’m no good at making up fake trades. It’s just one example of a destination that seems like a fit, among a league full of young teams looking for on-court leadership and tenacity. Noah could possibly bring that to a new team, while bringing back some cap space or another useful player for the Bulls.
To extend the window of contention for this team, the Bulls need to build up their core of assets. Right now, Rose, Butler, Gasol and Mirotic seem like the most obvious assets that they have. Unfortunately for Noah, his abilities no longer play to the strength of the team. Simply put, if they imagine getting past LeBron James at any point, they can’t have a player on the floor that the other team doesn’t need to defend.
After eight seasons with the Chicago Bulls, one DPOY award, one All-Star appearance, one Eastern Conference Finals trip and one extremely memorable steal and dunk (see below), the time has finally come for Joakim Noah to move on. For the Bulls to extend their window of contention and for Noah to have a chance at playing his style of basketball again, a breakup is in everyone’s best interest. Hopefully, the Bulls’ front office swallows their pride and makes it happen.
Otherwise, fans will be stuck yet again with the difficult sight of Noah lumbering up and down the court, giving it his all, but not being able to give enough. We deserve to not have to remember Noah that way, but rather to remember him for what he meant to this team and the fans for so long.
Oh, and for this: