CHICAGO—Just under two weeks ago, Joakim Noah played what may wind up being his final game in a Chicago Bulls uniform. The dislocated left shoulder he suffered in a Jan. 15 loss to the Dallas Mavericks put him out four to six months, effectively ending his season and sending him to unrestricted free agency this summer in a cloud of uncertainty.
Even before the injury, it was growing less likely by the week that Noah would be in Chicago after July.
His increasing frustration with his diminishing role in coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation was obvious, and with this Bulls roster in a period of transition as it is, it was hard to picture the Bulls’ front office paying big money to bring back someone on the wrong side of 30 with the health history that Noah has.
At practice on Tuesday, a day before his team hits the road for a two-week, seven-game trip that Noah will not be making, he gave his first public comments since undergoing surgery last week. He was adamant that he wanted to continue his career in Chicago, where he has played for nine years, including two All-Star appearances, and won a Defensive Player of the Year award.
"I hope so," he said when asked if he wants to be back next season. "Right now I'm not trying to focus on the future. I just had season-ending surgery last week. But this is all I know. So I'm looking forward to see what the guys are doing, and right now it's just all about taking a step back and just focusing on getting healthy and then we'll go from there."
Make no mistake: Despite Noah’s shoulder surgery, he will do well this summer.
Despite his decreased playing time and the early end to his season, he’s entering free agency at a time when teams will have an unprecedented amount of money to spend and not a lot of top-level players to spend it on.
According to the NBA’s latest projections, the salary cap this summer will hit $89 million, a $22 million increase over the current number. Nearly every team in the league will have cap space to burn, and outside of the top-tier free agents (Kevin Durant and, to a lesser extent, Al Horford and Mike Conley), all that money will be going to some players that, in a previous climate, wouldn’t command anything close to it.
Even under the current salary cap, Wesley Matthews scored a four-year, $70 million deal in Dallas this summer while rehabbing from a torn Achilles', a more serious injury than that any Noah has dealt with in his career, including this most recent one.
With his pedigree and reputation around the league, Noah could easily be the kind of player a team takes a gamble on needing a change of scenery. At 33 years old with a lengthy injury history of his own, Tyson Chandler scored a four-year, $52 million deal with the Phoenix Suns this past offseason.
Something in that range, maybe even higher, could be on the table for Noah, given the amount of money that will be flying around. Even an outlandish deal this summer will look like a bargain in 2017, when the cap jumps again to a projected $108 million.
The Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks are among the teams who will have cap space and a need in the frontcourt, and either one of them could potentially outbid the Bulls for Noah.
There will be enormous risk for whoever signs Noah this summer, given his age and health. Despite his continued effectiveness as a passer and a rebounder, his scoring ability has all but disappeared. Before the injury, he was shooting an abysmal 38.3 percent from the field and his 1.8 field goals per game were the lowest of his career.
|Joakim Noah's Statistical Decline|
|Year||Points Per 36 Mins||TOs Per 36 Mins||Fouls Per 36 Mins||FG%||FT%||PER|
A player as reliant on athleticism and explosiveness as Noah is will experience a decline that will be steep and sudden. It’s already happening.
Still, for teams that value leadership and energy, Noah has built a well-deserved reputation as one of the most beloved teammates in the league. He’s the ultimate “you love him if he’s on your team and hate him if he’s on the other team” player, for fans and opponents, and he’s been the emotional leader of the Bulls since the current run of playoff contention began in 2009.
Given those intangibles, teams around the league may be more willing to gamble on their own medical staffs to get a few more productive years out of Noah.
The Bulls possibly being the team that hands out his next contract is another story.
Assuming Pau Gasol opts out of the final year of his contract, Chicago will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million in cap room to play with, per Basketball Insiders. Under the new cap, and despite all his red flags, that might be what it takes to re-sign Noah.
It’s unlikely that the Bulls, for as beloved as Noah is in Chicago and the locker room, will commit that much money to a 31-year-old coming off major surgery, when they have the chance to sign other players on smaller deals who better fit the fast-paced offense Hoiberg wants to run.
So when Noah says he wants to stay, know that it isn’t realistic, unless he’s willing to take a massive pay cut from what he will likely be able to get on the open market.
And considering the five-year, $60 million extension Noah took in 2010 was a below-market contract the day he signed it, it would be in his best interest to chase a big pact before his body completely breaks down.
Until then, Noah will stay around the Bulls as much as possible and look forward to the chance to prove, whether to the Bulls or another team with deep pockets, that he’s worth making one last big financial commitment to this summer.
"It's not easy, but I know there's people out there who it's a lot harder for, so I'm not complaining," Noah said. "These are my cards right now. And it's all about how you bounce back. I just want to prove that I have a lot more basketball in me."