By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) As the Bulls continue to garner headlines for all the wrong reasons, there’s no shortage of major, self-inflicted issues and questions they need to address this offseason.
There’s the internal lack of faith, at least on some fronts, in general manager Gar Forman. There’s the still-developing relationship between Jimmy Butler and Fred Hoiberg that too often included the emboldened player tuning out the hand-picked coach in their first season together. There’s the prolonged lack of continuity between the high-profile backcourt pairing of Derrick Rose and Butler. There’s the question of whether the agenda of several assistants is to serve Hoiberg or the front office.
Each is a systemic issue. In a different, basketball-specific realm, the Bulls also face important offseason decisions.
One of the most high-profile ones: To bring big man Joakim Noah back or not to bring him back?
Having spent his entire nine-year career in Chicago, the 31-year-old Noah is entering free agency for the first time. He’s coming off a rocky 2015-’16 season, in which he played just 29 games and averaged a career-low 4.3 points before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in mid-January that required surgery. He’s been diligently rehabbing since.
“I just want to prove I have a lot more basketball in me,” Noah said in late January.
Hovering over the Noah decision is his reported rift with Butler. The degree to which it’s deteriorated varies depending on the perspective, but it’s clear Noah didn’t take well to Butler’s self-appointed leadership role last season. Noah even challenged Butler for staying silent — read: not taking accountability — during a late March team meeting, the Tribune reported.
The Butler leadership coup started almost immediately after the Bulls signed him to a max contract last July. Nearly every step of the way since, the Bulls have overtly or tacitly empowered — perhaps some would use “enabled” — Butler.
When Butler called Hoiberg out in December by saying he needed to “coach harder,” neither management nor Hoiberg himself publicly admonished Butler. While that’s a fine line to walk, there’s something to be said for making clear what’s unacceptable. It was hard to view that drama and not flash back to February 2015, when former coach Tom Thibodeau made no effort to hide his frustration when Rose missed the team’s first post-All-Star break practice because of travel issues.
When Butler wanted to run more isolation plays that were a trademark of his breakout 2014-’15 campaign, the Bulls instituted more isolation plays for him. When Butler wanted to play through knee troubles in a meaningless penultimate regular-season game when the Bulls had already been eliminated from playoff contention, no one forced him to rest.
“Nobody can make me do anything,” Butler told ESPN.com on April 11.
The one turn in which the Bulls didn’t placate Butler came two days later, when in a season-ending news conference, Forman was directly asked whether they were committed to building around Butler as the franchise player.
“We’ve got to take a look at everything,” Forman said.
Several weeks later, the Tribune reported those comments didn’t sit well with Butler. Shortly after, Butler was on the dais at the NBA Draft lottery, serving as the face of the franchise.
There’s another Noah subplot in play here too as free agency looms. In the first week of the regular season, Noah was irked with how Hoiberg claimed he’d volunteered to come off the bench. A proud veteran and team-first player, Noah made abundantly clear that’s not what happened. He wanted to start but was willing to do what was best for all.
Their relationship has moved past that, but the fact remains that the offensively challenged Noah doesn’t fit well with Hoiberg’s preferred up-tempo, free-flowing system.
In all this, you can debate the merits of whether empowering Butler and going all in on Hoiberg has been a wise path for the Bulls to take. What’s less debatable is that if the future is based around Butler and Hoiberg while the implementation of present-day change is also needed, bringing the veteran Noah back doesn’t fit the agenda.
For where’s the sense in empowering Butler at every turn and then bringing back a teammate who’s the biggest threat to his throne? Where’s the sense in management backing its hand-picked coach, then willingly retaining a player who doesn’t fit the on-court vision? Even if we acknowledge Noah’s in the right to lead and has something left in the tank, how does any of this help what appears to be an already-volatile situation?
Perhaps Noah’s already set on leaving, but how the Bulls approach this will be telling. To pursue Noah would be a nod to the past instead of acting on the promise of change.
Noah has certainly been the heart and soul of the franchise for the past decade, and that should never be forgotten. What he’s done for the city, most notably with his anti-violence initiatives, has been admirable and wonderful. His leadership and the tone he set pushed the Bulls through a handful of Rose-less seasons, making a fan base proud and lining the pockets of ownership with more playoff revenue.
“He represents a lot of things that we believe in,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said, noting the team plans to engage in talks with him come free agency. “To me, he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever been around in this business.”
Here’s the harsh reality of basketball as a business: None of that matters now. What matters is that Noah is on the decline, doesn’t fit Hoiberg’s system and there’s baggage regarding his relationships with Butler and Hoiberg, central figures under long-term deals on the same timeline.
As currently constructed, the Bulls are nowhere near competing for a title, and this is at last a two-offseason rebuild, given their lack of assets and the fact that many teams will have money to throw around with the salary cap exploding. With that as context, it makes better sense to invest in youngster Cristiano Felicio and a fresh face at center than it does to bring back an aging, injury-hampered Noah in the name of nostalgia, intangibles and perhaps a few extra wins.
Noah’s free agency will come down to money, opportunity and personal feelings, just like everyone else’s does.
Most sensibly, that should be somewhere other than Chicago.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.