Joakim Noah was the All-NBA First Team center and the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013/14, a season in which he finished fourth in MVP voting and embodied the scrapping spirit of former coach Tom Thibodeau‘s Bulls. It seemed at times that year as though he was simply willing his team to its 48 victories and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, as Derrick Rose again missed most of the season. So, it’s striking to see where Noah is now. The Bulls have benched him and reportedly put him on the trade block, and he was averaging just 4.5 points per game, a career low, before spraining and suffering a “slight tear” in his left shoulder this week, an injury likely to keep him out for up to a month.
The downfall seemed to start with Chicago’s decision to sign Pau Gasol in the summer of 2014. Gasol made it clear during his time with the Lakers that he plays best as a center, not as a power forward, and that’s particularly true as the NBA moves increasingly toward small-ball. The addition of Gasol forced Noah, long entrenched as Chicago’s center, to change the way he played. The adjustment has been difficult, and the nagging injuries that have plagued Noah certainly haven’t helped. He remained in the starting lineup last season, but his scoring average dipped into the single digits for the first time in six years. His rebounding slipped to a six-year low, too.
It’s tough to measure whether Noah has sustained his defense, and as teams consider trading for him, making the right read on this will be critical. His defensive reputation took a hit last season, as he sunk to 12th in Defensive Player of the Year voting after winning the award in 2013/14. Still, his defensive impact on the Bulls was about the same in terms of the team’s defensive rating with him on the court versus off, according to NBA.com. Other advanced metrics say he was indeed a poorer defender in 2014/15 than he was in 2013/14, including Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus Minus, where his number went from 5.5 to 3.6, and ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, where he went from 3.92 to 2.21.
This season, the data sets disagree in the opposite direction. The team’s defensive rating with him on the court is worse than it is when he’s sitting, but he’s seen gains in Box Plus Minus and Real Plus Minus. The Real Plus Minus metric shows him as the league’s seventh-best defensive center.
Teams that invest heavily in proprietary data figure to have an edge, and few study the numbers the way the Mavs do. Dallas quite famously came up empty in its bid to acquire a marquee starting center this past summer, but the center the Mavs wound up with, Zaza Pachulia, is averaging a double-double and is 12th in Defensive Real Plus Minus this season, just five spots beneath Noah. The Mavs would surely hesitate to give up assets for Noah, whom they could simply sign in free agency this summer, particularly given Pachulia’s strong play.
The Rockets are another team heavy on analytics, and questions have swirled about Dwight Howard, who, like Noah, isn’t the player he once was. Noah would bring some leadership to a team that appears to sorely need it, but a Dwight-for-Noah swap is a far-fetched idea, at least without a third team involved. The Bulls would have to include an extra chunk of salary, since Noah is making just $13.4MM compared to Howard’s pay of more than $22.359MM, and the tandem of Howard and Gasol was already a failure for the Lakers. It would help if the Rockets sent the Bulls the wing players and shooting they’re reportedly after, but Houston isn’t trading James Harden, Trevor Ariza is shooting just 31.8% from behind the arc, and the other Rocket wings of note — Corey Brewer, Jason Terry and Marcus Thornton — would scarcely be enough to entice Chicago.
Another Southwest Division team would make a much more intriguing suitor. The Pelicans appear to be going nowhere fast, having fallen to 9-20 after an overtime loss to the Heat today. Eric Gordon, a career 38.0% 3-point shooter, might just fit the bill for the sort of perimeter upgrade the Bulls are apparently seeking. Ryan Anderson is an alternative who’d provide shooting from a different position and would ostensibly be a better fit next to Gasol than Noah is, though the Bulls have no shortage of frontcourt players. The Pelicans made a strong statement about their desire to have Anthony Davis at power forward instead of center when they signed ex-Bull Omer Asik to a five-year deal in the summer, but he’s struggled mightily this season. So has Noah, of course, but the Pelicans could experiment with a change of scenery, and if Noah doesn’t pan out, they don’t have to re-sign him. The same goes for either Gordon or Anderson with the Bulls, since they’re both poised for free agency, too. Still, the Pelicans don’t appear eager to trade Anderson, and chatter about Gordon has been quiet of late.
The Bulls face a stiff challenge to find a new home for Noah, who turns 31 in February. Trading Taj Gibson, whom they’ve also apparently made available, would probably be easier to pull off and reportedly net a greater return, but that could turn a position of strength into one of weakness if Noah and Gasol depart in free agency this summer, leaving Chicago with Nikola Mirotic and the untested Bobby Portis up front without a strong candidate to back them up. GM Gar Forman and executive VP of basketball operations John Paxson also have to be careful about removing a leader from a locker room that seems to have some troubling dynamics. Nevertheless, it appears from a basketball standpoint as though the Bulls have already moved on from Noah, so it makes sense for the Bulls to find a palatable offer and formally bid him adieu before the chance to recoup any assets at all for him vanishes.
What potential trades do you think would work for Noah and the Bulls? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.