By Dan Berstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) To hear the reaction to Bulls center Joakim Noah’s season-ending shoulder injury, it would seem that the last two seasons never happened.
The truth is that the energetic, effective player who endeared himself to fans, coaches and teammates with a unique combination of unorthodox versatility and on-court ebullience hasn’t been around for some time — specifically since May 2014, when he had knee surgery.
Originally termed a “minor” procedure by the Bulls, it turned out to be much more serious.
“It was more than a scope,” Noah admitted to the Chicago Tribune. “That’s what it was supposed to be. so it definitely took longer than we expected.”
Removal of cartilage effectively neutered his game. There were some good nights since then, occasional flurries of activity that reminded us of what he was, and countless, wishful reassurances that he’d make it all the way back, but Noah really never did.
The easy and oft-repeated national trope about him being the “heart and soul” of the franchise just hasn’t been true for a long while, but such facile labels tend to be long-lasting, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. Noah’s teammates and coaches are all sticking to the script in discussing his absence, going along with the standard storyline that might actually have been applicable after 2013-’14.
Noah was really good that year, in which he’d be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year and voted first-team All-NBA center. His Real Plus/Minus was 4.57, behind only the Spurs’ Tim Duncan among centers and 17th in the league overall. He received praise for becoming the focal point of the offense, too, becoming a necessitated high-post distributor. It was a terrible offense — the Bulls averaged a league-worst 93.7 points per game — but Noah’s old-school passing was an entertaining novelty for some. The Bulls won 48 games, and Noah had 11.2 win shares, ninth-best in the league.
But that was then. After surgery, Noah compiled only 5.6 win shares last year, finishing with an RPM of 1.09 that placed him 20th among centers. This year he was the 26th-best center by that metric, his win shares at a mere 1.3. That’s not the heart or soul of anything.
It’s too bad that this latest injury happened when it did, both for him and the Bulls. Headed into unrestricted free agency, Noah may now need to sign a shorter contract to prove his value, even as the salary cap is set to balloon with the massive television deal kicking in. Any possibility of trading him to accelerate an on-the-fly remodeling to a more coach-friendly roster is also obviously scuttled.
The idea that Noah still can lend motivational or spiritual assistance while recovering is just lip service, too, no matter what Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says. Injured players are ghosts, and any hand-clapping from the guy on the end of the bench in a suit is more annoyance than asset. Noah’s outgoing style was always tolerated as he was contributing to winning, yet some teammates found it grating when his game began to deteriorate.
Noah’s a good guy and was a compelling Chicago story. Arriving as a free-spirited goof on draft night in 2007, he went from not being able to make a team bus or plane on time to a pair of All-Star teams and some memorable performances in the playoffs. He also went from the silly spectacle of firing and holstering imaginary finger-guns to actually dedicating time to help the city combat actual gun violence. Noah has grown up significantly in the last nine years as a player and as a professional, and all wish him well as he turns 31 next month and faces a newly uncertain future.
But let’s realize that Joakim Noah was already gone.