Joakim Noah hopes to be back with the Chicago Bulls next season. That is what he said, anyway, when recently asked about his impending free agency, and despite all logic running to the contrary, it's not hard to believe him. Noah is one of the most sincere, loyal, hard-working people in the NBA, and would probably like nothing more than to finish his career in a city that's become a home for him.
It's all that good stuff about Noah that has made his struggles the past two years so hard to watch. Shortly after the season of a lifetime, in which he was both fourth in MVP voting and the league's Defensive Player of the Year, Noah had arthroscopic knee surgery, and the Bulls signed Pau Gasol away from the Lakers. Noah came back to find a crowded frontcourt and no clear role. Since spring of 2014, the center has languished, and his status as icon in Chicago has become more honorary than actual. He was an admirable, galvanizing player, and then he was just kind of an idea, a sort of a ghost of himself.
What Noah wants this summer and what will happen are likely to be different tales. Like Kevin Garnett, the man whose ethic he emulated (only to be "crushed" by KG saying "Fuck you" to him on the court later in life), Noah is too intensely present for the types of free agency long views that define the modern NBA—the kind that have us skipping the steps of Kevin Durant's remaining games with the Oklahoma City Thunder and discussing instead how he'll fit in Golden State, or Boston, or Washington, or wherever. When Noah says that he wants to stay where he is and be an emotionally significant presence for his team despite undergoing season-ending shoulder injury in January, he means it.
But Noah will be banged up and 31 when he hits the market, and the mid-build Bulls will be only too happy to lowball him and watch him walk to a larger role and a bigger payday—hopefully amicably—as opposed to recommitting to a culture they began phasing out when they fired head coach Tom Thibodeau last offseason. Noah's zenith came during one of the multiple improbable campaigns that Thibodeau waged, as the team compiled unreasonable win tallies despite injuries to then-franchise centerpiece Derrick Rose. While Noah, like the rest of the Bulls, may have grown tired of Thibodeau's ceaseless work-first truisms, it's hard to imagine a more symbiotic player-coach relationship than what Jo and Tom had going.
Together, the two defined an era of Chicago basketball that was brilliant in its defiance of expectations; year after year, these teams pulled glory from a trough of bad bodies, and despite offensive firepower that can be best described as bullshit. Noah became a volcanic, do-everything star with these teams, a point center who almost single-handedly made up for all the Bulls' roster deficiencies through exertion and crazed will. He gobbled up rebounds in fits of screaming improbability, blew up pick-and-rolls, and acted as a clever passing nexus for his team on the offensive elbow, creating scoring opportunities where there shouldn't have been any. Noah became a totem for Bulls fans; he channeled the city's defiant id when he said, to a LeBron James who had just dunked on him, "Fuck you, you still a bitch though."
Since hiring Fred Hoiberg to replace Thibodeau, however, the Bulls haven't exactly been polishing Noah's throne. He was ousted from the starting lineup before the season—a move which Hoiberg falsely (and weirdly) claimed that Noah had not only agreed to but even suggested himself—in favor of sophomore forward Nikola Mirotic, who has played a collective month or two of quality NBA basketball. Chicago drafted Bobby Portis, a rookie who will figure prominently in the future of the team's frontcourt. They decided that Noah, not Gasol, was the veteran whose pride they were willing to offend.
Noah hasn't been happy with the new order of the Bulls, and his trademark ebullience was missing from a locker room it once lit up. To call the difference noticeable is to engage in over-the-top understatement. To watch Noah search within Hoiberg's sets for a function was at times cringeworthy, as he scrambled between defenders in an effort to set an extra screen seemingly every time the ball moved.
Perhaps the saddest truth in the oncoming breakup between Noah and his team is that the Bulls appear to be better without him. Mirotic was eventually moved back to the bench, but it was to make room for Taj Gibson in the starting lineup. And since the early emergence of Portis has made the Bulls' big man rotation even more strained, losing Joakim's body in the five-man logjam has made the team more cohesive and better able to realize Hoiberg's principles.
This is how culture change happens in the NBA. Beloved players have their personalities shaved down to fit into narrower concepts, and their emotional significance becomes secondary to more utilitarian goals. As much as Noah will be missed if he leaves the Bulls, it's hard not to hope he ends up with an organization more eager to appreciate his singular take on basketball, however much it fits into morphing NBA paradigms. The thought of him one day having a gleeful vintage revenge performance at the United Center, in a rival jersey, is so Joakim Noah that it feels almost like an inevitability. No Bulls fan would boo it.
Of course, Noah could land back in Chicago. Gasol is also eyeing free agency, with an opt-out clause in his contract and a chance to get one big contract before he retires. Aside from Hoiberg, Mirotic, Portis, and new centerpiece Jimmy Butler, little is clear about the future for Chicago; ruling out a place in it for Noah may be hasty. But if the center does overextend himself to stay put, it will be a paradoxical disappointment to a lot of Joakim-first fans. Those who love him most just want to set him free, and to watch him enjoy a second act in a career that deserves at least three.