The Joakim Noah Problem: What Can Knicks Do About 'Worst Contract in the NBA'?

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 04: Joakim Noah #13 of the New York Knicks reacts in the second half of a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 4, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers won 115-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Referring to Joakim Noah's current deal as a "bad contract" would be an insult to bad contracts everywhere. He's a 32-year-old center who played just 75 games in the two seasons prior to 2017-18, and he has a history of ailments that reads like a chart at a doctor's office for geriatrics.

And yet, amazingly, he's earning nearly $17.8 million this season. Even worse, he's slated to receive roughly $37.8 million from the New York Knicks over the two ensuing seasons.

"It's the worst contract in the NBA," an Eastern Conference front office staffer told B/R.

The contract is an albatross, the type of deal that can handcuff a team for years. Think of it as Phil Jackson's parting gift to his now-former employer.

None of this is meant to disparage Noah, nor to blame him for accepting a deal Jackson offered to him. A two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year, Noah once deserved such riches. He was a brilliant passer, a bruising screener and a genius defensive stopper who boasted both the athleticism to stick with guards and muscles to man the paint.

But that player no longer exists. Injuries have sapped Noah of his burst, while the game's migration toward pace and space has rendered plodding centers extinct.

Noah is aware of this. 

"Probably not," he recently told reporters when asked whether he thinks he can rediscover his old form. "I can help. I feel like I could help this team, and that's just my reality. But I just want to, you know, just be the best that I can be. It's not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it's not the reality."

WESTCHESTER, NY - NOVEMBER 29:  Joakim Noah #13 of the Westchester Knicks warms up before an NBA G-League game against the Maine Red Claws on November 29, 2017 at Westcester County Center in White Plains, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

The Knicks have played 11 games since Noah was activated from the 20-game suspension he earned for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (dating back to last season). He's been inactive for seven of them.

To date, Noah, who's third on the team's depth chart at center, has appeared in only two games this season. He's played for a grand total of 10 minutes and 59 seconds even though Knicks big men Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis each have missed recent games due to injuries. 

The most run he's received this season came last week for the Westchester Knicks, the team's G League affiliate.

Having Noah around is a major issue for the new Knicks regime. The question is: What are their options?

The answer? There aren't any good ones. 

Option No. 1: Trade Noah

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 2: Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets reacts during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 2, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

This would be the ideal route for the Knicks, but it's far easier said than done. Two scouts told B/R there's no scenario in which they'd take Noah back in a deal. One (slightly) hedged, saying, "If it's death or take Noah, I'll take Noah."

A Western Conference executive added the only teams that would "maybe" be interested in Noah would be looking for veteran leadershipnot all teams believe in the value of thator a backup center. Perhaps the Pelicans, or the Nuggets in exchange for Kenneth Faried. Or maybe Tom Thibodeau wants to reunite with his former player in Minnesota.  

But even these scenarios were a long shot, the executive said.

Think of it like this: Remember when Jackson dangled Porzingis over the summer? According to ESPN.com's Ian Begley, Jackson wanted any team that traded for his young unicorn to take back Noah as well, which speaks to Noah's value around the league. Basically, no team would consider absorbing his deal unless it was also receiving an All-Star. The Knicks only have one of those, and with Jackson gone, there are no plans to move him.

In other words, no outside team is parachuting in to rescue the Knicks from Noah's deal.

Option No. 2: Buy Noah Out 

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

This would work in theory, but as the front office staffer said, "There's really no incentive for Noah to accept a buyout." 

A buyout involves a player agreeing to surrender some of the money he's guaranteed in exchange for the freedom to sign with another team. In Noah's case, though, there might not be another team in the league interested in him. He'd be giving back money and perhaps receiving nothing in return.

That may change if he continues to rot on New York's bench and another team expresses interest in signing him to a reserve role for a minimum contract. Any cap relief would be valuable to the Knicks. But unless Noah's representation knows of another team open to bringing him in, it's hard to envision any of this coming to fruition.

Option 3: Noah Retires

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29:  Joakim Noah attends the Miami Heat Vs New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on November 29, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by James Devaney/Getty Images)
James Devaney/Getty Images

This isn't the escape hatch you might think. 

If a player under contract voluntarily retires, it doesn't affect his cap hit. Retirement can't be used as a method for circumventing league rules, either. Any player who voluntarily retires foregoes his remaining salary and is forbidden from signing with another team for a year. 

For an aging veteran on a small deal, it might not be a bad route. But it's hard to imagine Noah walking away from $37.8 million. 

The only maneuver under the retirement umbrella that could free the Knicks from Noah's deal is if he were to retire for medical reasons. He'd still receive his salary, but it wouldn't count on the Knicks' cap sheet.

However, a player can't just decide his body can no longer handle playing. Doctors, chosen by the league and the NBA Players Association, evaluate players who retire for medical reasons, and they have to give a stamp of approval. 

Perhaps Noah's injury history is enough to pass this test. But it's unlikely, and these sorts of applications have been rejected before. Noah has also given no indication this season that he plans on stepping away from the game anytime soon.

"Oh my God, it's been so long," Noah told reporters following his first minutes of the season. "Just to be on the court is special.

Option 4: 'Stretch' Noah's Contract 

NEW YORK CITY - OCTOBER 16:  Joakim Noah #13 of the New York Knicks stretches during the Knicks Open Practice at Madison Square Garden on October 16, 2016 in New York, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

This is the most plausible option, but it's also the most dangerous.

The stretch provision allows a team to waive a player and then "stretch" his remaining cap hit over twice as many years as there left on his deal, plus one. So, if a player is stretched with two years and $5 million remaining on his contract, his cap hit becomes $1 million over each of the next five years.

Stretching provides immediate cap relief, but it eats into your books for a long time.

In Noah's case, stretching would take the $37.8 million he's owed over the next two years and turn that into roughly a $7.5 million cap hit over each of the next five. That means that in the summer of 2022, Noah's deal would still be restraining the Knicks.

There's no benefit to waiving and stretching Noah now. The summer would be the time to do so, and only to free up about $12 million in cap room to sign a free agent.

There's also no reason for the Knicks, who aren't close to competing for titles, to prioritize the short term. Especially with the league's salary cap, now at $99 million, projected to rise only incrementally over the next few years. By the time Porzingis is ready to take his final step, it's going to be difficult for the Knicks to carve out cap space. Keeping Noah on the books in any form could be detrimental. 

The Knicks' eyes should be on 2020, not this coming summer. Stretching Noah would hinder that plan. The best path for them is the one they've followed this year.

The contract is a sunk cost. Ignore it and keep Noah aroundbut on the benchuntil it expires. 


Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.