When the Cleveland Cavaliers visited the Chicago Bulls this past Saturday, there was a lot of attention focused on Tyronn Lue. The new head coach of the Cavaliers was about to undertake his first game in charge against the Central Division rival Bulls. While that was the big news story – the end of the Blatt era in The Land – there was another story developing as well – the end of the Noah era in Chicago.
Joakim Noah was drafted No. 9 overall by the Bulls out of Florida in 2007. The flamboyant big man anchored the best team that Chicago had put on the floor since the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Noah has never been a great scorer. In fact, his shot looks like someone sewed his hands on backward and he’s trying to undo the complicated process in his brain to replicate something that looks remotely competent. Still, he had an impressive streak of five consecutive seasons scoring more than 10 points per game.
His shot was never the reason he was in the game. His contributions were his indomitable spirit, a raw emotion-filled warrior – screaming, flexing, attacking. His animated personality often overshadowed his truly skilled passing ability. It helped facilitate an offense that often sputtered out when Jimmy Butler wasn’t yet the player who could go off for 53 points in a single game or when Derrick Rose played less than 40-percent of the Bulls games over the course of four years.
Noah did what he could and then did some more and then did even more. He is the embodiment of all things Bulls. A team that worked so hard that Luol Deng became an all-star; worked so hard that Butler became a borderline superstar. And in it all, Noah eventually became a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year, finished near the top of the league in MVP voting and was also an all-star while garnering all-NBA First Team honors.
And just like Deng and Rose, Noah burned up in the same white-hot fire he ignited and stoked season after season.
After suffering a separated shoulder earlier in January, it was announced that Noah would have surgery that likely ends his season. His season isn’t the only thing that is ending. The 30-year-old Noah will be a free agent at the end of the year. While nothing is clear at this point, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to indicate that Noah will not be back in Chicago next year – not as a Bull, anyway.
Noah has not adjusted well to life as a role player, coming off the bench. The player who gives it his all every time out has not yet come to terms with the fact that his output was unsustainable. He achieved the minor miracle of playing beyond himself; to watch Noah was truly to watch a player who maximized every ounce of his ability. Age and injuries catch up with the best of us.
So, while the basketball world rightly watched to see what Game 1 of the Lue era in Cleveland would produce, it was the absence of Noah that probably should have spoken loudest of all.
Noah never shied from his disdain for LeBron James, Cleveland, the Miami Heat or anything else related to those three things. From his “Cleveland sucks” remarks to his “Hollywood as Hell” comments, Jo was always good for a soundbite on his nemesis. He got his team fired up, he clapped in the face of the Heat while they argued, he screamed from the bench, he clapped uncontrollably and screamed like a madman when a player like Blake Griffin would miss a free throw.
Not a lot of players can impact the game from the bench the way Noah always seemed to do for the Bulls. How many players can amplify the animosity for the opposing team in the modern NBA? And how many of them can do it from the bench? Noah is a special player. You can try to make a lot of comparisons to players of the past, lazy comps like Dennis Rodman are obvious. The same perhaps for Ben Wallace. Both incredibly gifted defensive players with giant personalities. All three players spent some amount of time in a Bulls uniform. All three have been honored as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Noah never was quite on the level of Big Ben or The Worm, but this is a different time and Noah was the Firestarter that his team needed.
When the Bulls handed the Cavaliers their 12th loss of the season last Saturday, it was a marker. This is first time that Noah is absent and probably never coming back. The first time Chicago locked horns with their old rival, LeBron, who has bested them every time that it counted most. It isn’t that Noah hasn’t missed any games before. This was different because this is the first time of what looks to be forever. Noah is probably never coming back through that door.
Lue got his first win a few nights later in a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It won’t be his last win. The two teams will cross paths again; once in March, once in April. They might even find themselves in yet another playoff matchup – LeBron vs the Bulls – but the odds are long that we ever see Noah on the court, again stoking the fires of war in this Central Division rivalry and that is a strange reality indeed.
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)