CHICAGO — When Derrick Rose was an MVP, the Chicago Bulls were his team. Over the past two seasons, as Jimmy Butler has developed into a two-way All-Star, they’ve become the 2-guard's team.
But spiritually, the Bulls have always been Joakim Noah’s team.
Noah is the one whose infectious energy has set the tone at both ends of the floor for almost a decade. His game, a combination of tenacious paint play and sharp passing instincts for a big man, has bridged the gap between the old school and the new school. Noah, not Rose, was the one tasked with recruiting Carmelo Anthony (unsuccessfully) and Pau Gasol (successfully) as free agents in 2014.
Noah’s play has been a microcosm of the Bulls’ fortunes as a team the past few years. His 2013-14 campaign, which culminated in a first-team All-NBA selection and Defensive Player of the Year honors, was the driving force behind a run that went further than it had any right to go with Rose sidelined with knee surgery.
And Noah’s disappointing, injury-riddled follow-up 2014-15 season perfectly captured the essence of the end of the Tom Thibodeau era: Chicago was a group that was just burnt out and overextended.
“He’s our emotional leader,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said this week at practice. “He’s bringing great energy night in and night out. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, whether he’s on the bench cheering for his teammates or on the floor making big plays.”
Noah’s importance to the identity of these Bulls is unquestioned. But as his role is shifting, and his minutes are declining, his future with the team and place in its fabric are clouded with uncertainty.
For the first time since Vinny Del Negro was his coach, Noah is coming off the bench. Hoiberg made the decision to bench Noah for Nikola Mirotic during training camp under bizarre circumstances. Initially, he told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that Noah actually suggested the move, which Noah later denied.
Noah’s contract is up after this season, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. He wants to prove—be it to the Bulls or another team that might sign him with this summer’s influx of TV money—that, after visibly playing through a serious knee injury last year, he’s still capable of impacting a game at both ends the way he did before his body began to break down.
For as long as he's been in the NBA, Noah has built a career and reputation on being willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary, and he’s conscious of that. He isn’t going to complain publicly about a move like this, especially while the 11-5 Bulls have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. But when one reads between the lines of his vague public comments on his new role, it’s clear he isn’t exactly thrilled about it.
“I’m not going to lie,” Noah said after the Bulls’ Monday win over the San Antonio Spurs. “There’s been a lot going on this year. There’s been a lot of adversity for me. I have to be better at being a good leader for this team sometimes.”
Hoiberg nearly gave Noah the start Nov. 9 against the Philadelphia 76ers, until Noah tweaked that surgically repaired left knee during warm-ups and was scratched from the lineup at the last minute. When he returned in the next game, he once again came off the bench, even with Mirotic struggling.
Meanwhile, Noah has played his best basketball of the season over the last two weeks, providing a defensive spark and collecting 11 rebounds in each of the Bulls’ last two games. Chicago gives up 2.5 more points per 100 possessions with Noah on the bench than when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com, the biggest differential of any of Chicago’s big men.
But Noah has yet to score in double figures this season and has been scoreless in seven of his 15 games. With Hoiberg still trying to install a complex new offensive system that so far has brought mixed results (the offense is the fourth-worst in the league, per NBA.com), Noah’s liability on that end is going to be an impediment to his case for more minutes.
Noah has been diplomatic about the reduction in playing time, but that hasn’t made it any easier to swallow.
“I want to play the whole game,” Noah said. “I never want to come out. But I understand this is my role now and just accept it and do the best I can with what I have. It’s not good to be frustrated, especially as one of the leaders of the team. There’s no question about that.”
Hoiberg is optimistic about Noah’s potential to continue making an impact.
“Anytime a guy has a role changed [he will be frustrated],” the coach said. “Jo has been a starter in this league; he’s been an All-Star in this league; he’s been a Defensive Player of the Year in this league. He’s had a lot of great moments for us and has helped us win a lot of games so far this year, and he’ll continue to do that.”
In the short term, it seems clear that Noah’s role is not going to change. Not while the Bulls are winning, and not while they’re committed to developing Mirotic as a cornerstone for their future. This summer, with Noah’s contract up and Gasol likely to opt out, the Bulls will be at a crossroads with the player who has been the most central to their identity over the past eight-plus years.
Until then, Noah is forced to make the best of a situation that isn’t ideal for anybody.
“Right now, I don’t have a choice,” Noah said. “I’m just focused on my improvement; it’s all I can do right now. I think the team’s in the right place. I’ve always been a team player. I’m not gonna change now.”