Just two years ago, Joakim Noah was the heart, soul, engine and face of the Bulls, serving as a wildly energetic backline protector for the league’s No. 2 defense and a main facilitator of a scrounging-up-baskets-however-possible offense in Derrick Rose’s absence. Imagining those Bulls without Noah was impossible: Rose appeared in just 10 games before suffering another season-ending injury, Jimmy Butler was banged up and hadn’t yet broken out as an offensive force, Luol Deng was traded early in the year and Carlos Boozer was mercifully in his last go-round in Chicago. Noah nevertheless carried Chicago to 48 wins and the playoffs, taking home All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team honors along the way while also finishing third in MVP voting.
Imagining the 2016 Bulls without Noah, however, is both possible and an unfortunate reality. The Bulls announced Saturday that Noah suffered a dislocated left shoulder during a Friday night loss against the Mavericks that will require surgery.
The 30-year-old center is expected to miss 4–6 months, which effectively rules him out for the rest of the 2015–16 regular season and the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, even on the short end of that timetable. In all likelihood, Noah’s season is complete, and it’s quite possible that his nine-year career in Chicago has run its course.
“It’s tough to lose a guy like, Jo,” Butler said on Friday night, according to the Chicago Tribune. “He does so much for us. … You just hate to see that happen to a person like him.”
No player has been hit harder by Chicago’s off-season coaching transition from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg than Noah. Stripped of a starting job that he held for more than a half-decade, Noah was averaging a career-low 4.3 PPG in just 21.9 MPG, the fewest minutes he’s played since his rookie year. Concerns about how his lack of shooting range would work in Hoiberg’s preferred approach on offense have proven justified: he made just five shots outside the basket area in 29 games this season. During the 2015 playoffs, the Cavaliers practically neglected him whenever he had the ball, a critical strategic development that made it difficult to keep him on the court. His struggles finishing—he’s shooting a career-worst 38.3% and converting just 42.2% of his shots in the basket area—make it that much more difficult to construct functional offensive lineups that included him.
The timing here couldn’t be worse from Noah’s perspective, as he’s in the final year of a contract that pays him $13.4 million this season and he’s set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. After being lost in the shuffle early this season, he now disappears off the map for the balance of 2015–16 and must hope that the league’s rising salary cap can help generate a market for his services. Given his injury history—he’s missed significant time in five of the last seven seasons—this summer was, even in a best-case scenario, going to be his last shot at a major long-term deal.
The Bulls lose not only a member of their frontcourt rotation, but also a potential trade piece in advance of the Feb. 18 trade deadline. While his value was surely eroded by his slippage over the last two seasons, there might have been teams interested in rolling the dice, thinking that a change of scenery and a better system fit would help revive the quality of his play. Instead, Noah has been reduced to a simple expiring contract at a time when expiring contracts aren’t really all that coveted.
That Noah—the energetic instigator who carried the Bulls through Rose’s traumatic injuries, stoked a rivalry with the “Big 3” Heat, and delivered a phenomenal Game 7 performance on the road to beat the Nets in the first round of the 2013 playoffs—has been reduced to economic terms, dead money, feels particularly cruel and abrupt. But there’s no way around it.
“We’re a team of fighters and we’re not going to give up,” Noah memorably said after that Game 7 win. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
If this injury winds up being the end of the Noah era in Chicago, that identifying phrase—“Team of Fighters”—and the endless adversity it suggests is the only proper epitaph. Noah fought and fought, through injuries, pain and discomfort, to himself and to his teammates. He was, not surprisingly, injured while fighting for the ball on the final play of his season.
The Bulls, behind Butler, Rose and Pau Gasol, must move forward quickly, hoping that Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and rookie Bobby Portis can help pick up the slack as they continue to chase Cleveland in the East. But without peak Noah, with a new coach, and with so many competing interests, it remains to be seen whether the Bulls are still “fighters,” or whether their next collective identity is about to be revealed.