With the Chicago Bulls having already dealt Luol Deng and allegedly looking to amnesty Carlos Boozer, some are beginning to suggest they may also trade Joakim Noah this offseason (or perhaps even before the trade deadline).
My response to that in a word: apostasy!
There are three reasons that to even consider trading Joakim Noah would be utterly insane:
- He is their most important defensive player, and it’s a team that succeeds based on defense.
- His deal is one of the best value contracts in the NBA for players who aren’t on their rookie pact.
- To trade Noah is to lose head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Noah Is the Bulls’ Most Important Defensive Player
The Chicago Bulls have always been a team that thrives because of defense, and Noah, without question, is the most critical part of their defensive success. Yes, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are also elite defensive players, but even they aren’t as crucial to the Bulls’ success as Noah is. The same was true of Deng.
That’s because Noah fills the most important role in the defensive scheme, which makes heavy use of the center switching on perimeter players and dropping down to ice on pick-and-rolls.
In the triple-overtime game against the Orlando Magic, Noah reminded us of why he’s so important to the Bulls. As noted by Dick Scanlon of NBA.com, by switching off on the Magic guards, he consistently challenged their shots and was instrumental in winning the contest.
His perimeter defense is uniquely special for a center. According to Synergy, guarding in isolation, he yields just .64 points per play, an otherworldly number for a 5 routinely checking point guards and small forwards. Noah has excellent lateral quickness for a big man, and that allows him to stay in front of smaller players.
Needless to say, most of those players aren’t going to be able to get a shot over him either.
Also, much of the Bulls defense utilizes what is called “ice.” Watch any Bulls game and you’ll hear Thibodeau scream the word somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.7 million times. It's what you might call an "ice scream." And Noah is the cone to hold it.
For a nice little video tutorial on what that means, Coach Nick has one here, and as you can see, he agrees that the Bulls base a good amount of their defensive success on it.
Synergy says Noah is one of the best roll defenders in the league, giving up just .79 points per play, suggesting that Noah doesn’t just ice, he does so very well.
For the Bulls' defensive success, Noah’s particular blend of athleticism, size and strength are needed. It allows him to come off and defend the perimeter in switches, or drop down and defend the paint in ice. That versatility is needed by the Bulls defense.
It’s why the same system worked so well with the Boston Celtics when they had Kevin Garnett. Defenders like that aren’t easily available, and the Bulls defense would suffer without Noah because of it.
Trading Noah and replacing him with just any center is going to have major ramifications. He is as critical to the Bulls defense as Derrick Rose is to their offense.
Noah’s Contract Is an Excellent Value
This year, Noah is making $11.1 million and is giving the Bulls .129 win shares per game. How does that stack up against the other centers in a comparable price range? Exceptionally.
Below is a table showing how much the centers making at least $10 million earn, how many wins shares they have, how many win shares they have per game and how many wins per game per million the team gets for the paychecks they’re signing.
As you can see, Noah not only leads the better paid centers in win shares per game, he also leads them in value:
|Relative Value of Centers Making $10 Million or More|
|RK||Player||Team||Salary||Win Shares||G||Wins/G/M||WS per Game per Million|
|1||Joakim Noah||Chicago Bulls||$11,100,000||4.9||38||0.129||0.0116|
|2||DeAndre Jordan||Los Angeles Clippers||$10,986,550||5.3||42||0.126||0.0115|
|3||Nikola Pekovic||Minnesota Timberwolves||$12,100,000||5.1||40||0.128||0.0105|
|4||Al Horford||Atlanta Hawks||$12,000,000||3.1||29||0.107||0.0089|
|5||Roy Hibbert||Indiana Pacers||$14,283,844||4.3||39||0.110||0.0077|
|6||Tiago Splitter||San Antonio Spurs||$10,000,000||2.3||30||0.077||0.0077|
|7||Andrew Bogut||Golden State Warriors||$14,000,000||3.9||41||0.095||0.0068|
|8||Al Jefferson||Charlotte Bobcats||$13,500,000||3||33||0.091||0.0067|
|9||Marc Gasol||Memphis Grizzlies||$14,860,523||1.6||16||0.100||0.0067|
|10||Dwight Howard||Houston Rockets||$20,513,178||5||42||0.119||0.0058|
|11||Chris Bosh||Miami Heat||$19,067,500||4.3||39||0.110||0.0058|
|12||Tyson Chandler||New York Knicks||$14,100,538||1.3||16||0.081||0.0058|
|13||Kris Humphries||Boston Celtics||$12,000,000||2.1||33||0.064||0.0053|
|14||Andrea Bargnani||New York Knicks||$11,862,500||1.5||40||0.038||0.0032|
|15||Pau Gasol||Los Angeles Lakers||$19,285,850||1.6||37||0.043||0.0022|
|Data collected from ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com|
In fact, he’s only the 50th highest paid player in the NBA. You could make an honest argument that he has the best contract of any All-Star player not on his rookie deal in the entire NBA.
This is crucial to consider when you talk about trading him, because who are you going to replace him with? Which player is going to give you an upgrade for his value?
In today’s NBA with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, luxury taxes and repeater taxes, it’s not just an issue of getting the best players you can; it’s getting the most bang for your buck. And the numbers suggest that among centers, there’s no more bang for your buck than Noah.
And, bear in mind that win shares don’t even adequately convey Noah’s greatest strengths: defense, leadership, heart, intensity and other intangibles.
There are three priorities if any team wants to win a title in the immediate future. First, get LeBron James (but only one team can do that). Second, if you can’t get James, get other superstar(s). Third, get high-value contracts.
Noah is a borderline superstar and has a high value contract. That’s a rare combination. Unless the Bulls could get LeBron James back in a sign-and-trade for him, there’s no conceivably available player (including Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge) who would be worth dealing Noah for.
Those three may be better players, but they aren’t sufficiently enough better to justify the loss in value.
Here is how those players stack up with Noah in terms of wins per million. Bear in mind that if Aldridge or Love came over, it would require a max deal in one year, so the cost would go up.
|Relative Value of Potential Players Gained through Noah Trade|
|RK||Player||Team||Salary||Win Shares||G||WS/G||WS per Game per Million|
|1||Kevin Love||Minnesota Timberwolves||$14,693,906||7.8||39||0.200||0.014|
|2||Joakim Noah||Chicago Bulls||$11,100,000||4.9||38||0.129||0.012|
|3||LeBron James||Miami Heat||$19,067,500||8.3||39||0.213||0.011|
|4||LaMarcus Aldridge||Portland Trail Blazers||$14,878,000||5.4||40||0.135||0.009|
|5||Carmelo Anthony||New York Knicks||$21,388,953||4.7||37||0.127||0.006|
|Data collected from ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com|
When you consider the value of Noah’s contract, it is almost impossible to improve upon, and it would therefore be crazy to trade him.
To Trade Noah Is to Lose Thibodeau
You could make an argument that the single most important person in the Bulls’ future is not a player, but their coach, Thibodeau.
He has a career .654 winning percentage, which ranks 12th all-time. When you consider the injury issues the Bulls have had during his tenure, that’s not just impressive: It seem like it should be impossible. For the 269 games he’s coached, Thibodeau has had his starting five available just 59 times, less than 22 percent.
Outside of Gregg Popovich, you can argue there’s no better coach in the NBA.
Against that backdrop, let’s consider the recent Luol Deng trade and Thibodeau’s response to it, as reported by Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
I had a chance to voice my opinion. Their job is to make financial decisions, to make player personnel decisions, and things of that nature. Their job is to do that. My job is to coach the guys that are here. That's the way it works.
If you strip away all the interpretations of what Thibodeau said and look at his actual words, it’s pretty straightforward. They talked to him about it, he didn’t like it, but he knows that’s their job.
He is not a dolt. He understands that there is a financial side to things. He knows that Deng was going to be a free agent. He’s been around the NBA for more than two decades. He knows the way things work.
He may not like that Deng was traded, but he gets it. There were other mitigating factors which forced it (which I discuss in detail here).
Such factors don’t exist with Noah, and trading him could take a relationship that is already regarded as taut, and stretch it beyond the breaking point.
The lack of any reasonable justification for such a trade could result in the additional loss of Thibodeau. That is, unless it brought back James. Getting James justifies everything, although if it brought back James, Thibodeau would understand, so...
The cost of trading Noah would be enormous. It would weaken the defense, hurt the Bulls' salary situation by jettisoning their highest-value player and potentially lose Tom Thibodeau, who has helped the Bulls win against all odds.
The benefit would be what? At best, a marginal upgrade (when you consider both sides of the ball) at a high price. A reasonable cost-benefit analysis of almost any Noah trade shows it would be detrimental for anyone in the league unless he comes with cyborg parts.