It's no secret: The Chicago Bulls are swimming in some muddy waters these days. Pieces will almost assuredly be moved, but when the storm has settled, Joakim Noah needs to be manning the middle for the Bulls.
It's clear that Derrick Rose injuries have derailed championship aspirations in two straight seasons, and the current core's shelf life may have already seen its expiration.
With Rose still on the books for the long term, he remains the undoubted captain of Chicago's ship. That ship's direction, however, is anyone's guess.
There's the possibility that Chicago may play a big role in this year's free agency. With a move involving Mike Dunleavy and/or other complementary pieces that were initially brought on to compete for a 2014 trophy, the Bulls may find themselves just a Carlos Boozer amnesty away from clearing significant cap space this summer.
But, using calculations from Mark Deeks and some mental math, Chicago could attain maximum cap room with a salary dump involving one of its major assets. And just in time for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to hit free agency.
It's been rumored that the team will finally bring foreign prospect Nikola Mirotic aboard for the 2014-15 season, and Ricky O'Donnell of Blog a Bull estimates that it'd take roughly $7-10 million to do so, which would eat up most of the team's projected room.
But with significant pieces available this summer in the domestic market, Chicago may be inclined to move one of their high-salary players to open the door for a bigger splash.
And if the team knows what's best, they'll make sure Noah isn't the one moved in a salary dump.
Versatility is Key
When talking about Noah, you're bringing up perhaps the most well-rounded center in the entire league. Standing at 6'11", the soon-to-be 29-year-old has averaged 11 rebounds per 36 minutes in each season since his rookie year.
He's tremendously improved his scoring ability since entering the league, and, by averaging a career-high 4.4 assists this season, has proven to be a true playmaker out of the center spot. He's dished out the most assists of any Bull this season with 220. The next closest player is Kirk Hinrich with 192.
His defensive presence has never been questioned, and it's what put Noah on the NBA map all those seasons ago. Though he can impact the game in several areas these days, defending the rim remains Noah's calling card. Of the 25 players who have faced the same amount of (or more) attempts at the rim, Noah has held his counterpart to the sixth-lowest clip at 46 percent, according to NBA.com.
His rounded skill set and various capabilities make him an easy fit for any players the Bulls may consider adding, whether it be Mirotic or another free agent. He brings to the table elite rim protection—to cover the back of any defensively inept teammates—and can also act as a legitimate scoring threat when the first or second options aren't available.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
According to Synergy Sports, Noah has averaged 1.16 points per play while cutting to the rim, and a respectable 0.91 when acting as a screen setter.
Only seven other centers have posted a full-season stat line better than Noah's current one. Of those seven, six are Hall of Famers, including Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain (via Basketball-Reference).
It's clear that productive centers aren't easy to come by, which makes Noah one of a kind at his position.
No Shortage of Movable Pieces
If Chicago does understandably opt for a spending spree this summer, it would need to part ways with a valuable piece. But with other attractive assets like Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler under contract, moving Noah is far from a necessity.
In fact, considering the likely addition of Mirotic, a stretch 4, in time for next season, moving a center who'd mesh so well with one of Europe's best players would be unforgivable.
With the Bulls set to add a skilled power forward, and with one of their current power forwards commanding a significant salary through 2016-17, moving Gibson seems much more fitting than any Noah deal.
Though Gibson isn't making as much as Noah next season, his $8 million salary for 2014-15 will be the third highest on the team if Boozer is waived this summer. Moving that amount off the books would undoubtedly set in motion the team's pursuit of a top free agent.
Gibson is enjoying a career-best season in scoring and brings size and defense to the table. He could start in some teams' frontcourts immediately upon acquisition.
Assuming Chicago dumps Mike Dunleavy this deadline—and also assuming that Mirotic signs on for a, say, $9 million salary in 2014-15—a Gibson deal would re-open enough cap room to get within a trade of the max. As I wrote earlier in the week while attempting to predict Chicago's future:
Shipping Gibson and his $8 million salary for 2014-15 would then open up more than $15 million in cap room—a bit shy of the max. If that amount isn't enough to sway a superstar's—namely Carmelo Anthony's—opinion, trading Jimmy Butler's $2 million salary for next year would inch Chicago even closer to max space: more than $17.3 million.
Dealing Jimmy Butler, just 24 and with loads of potential on both ends of the floor, would be tough. Though nabbing a young replacement swingman in this year's draft would be a worthy option.
A potential core of Rose, Noah, Mirotic, a 2014 first-rounder and a max-salary free agent would be hard to argue against as a Bulls fan.
Strong Leadership is Invaluable
An oft-forgotten asset to Noah's skill set is his longevity. Still viewed primarily as a younger player, Noah has seen five men pass through the Bulls' head coaching position since he was drafted in 2007.
He played for a lottery-bound Bulls team during his rookie season. He knows the feeling of being a low-level, meddling playoff team, and he's anchored the defense of an Eastern Conference No. 1 seed. He's been part of the last two Chicago rosters that have seen the season implode before their very eyes.
What should the Bulls do with Joakim Noah after the season?
And he's still the same upbeat, vocal, down-and-dirty center that Chicago dreamed about when drafting him ninth overall in 2007.
Noah will surely display a fair share of strong outbursts, which may not be the ideal allocation of emotion at times, but it all traces back to the core quality behind Noah's game and leadership: The guy wants to win more than anything else in the world, and he demands the same sentiment from his teammates.
That's not something you can sign in free agency, and it's certainly not something you donate to another team in a salary dump. It's what you build around. Which makes Noah a key cog in the Bulls' reconstruction after this year, no matter how they decide to approach it.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Stats gathered from Basketball-Reference, 82games and NBA.com.