By: Jake Paynting
Once former Chicago Bulls Coach of the Year and current Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau entered the Twin Cities, one thing has been ever so clear: Thibs loved the gritty guys he had in Chicago, and he wants them back.
Jimmy Butler was the marquee name to arrive from the Windy City, followed by forward Taj Gibson, back-up point Aaron Brooks. The ultimate Bulls throwback came a few weeks after last season's all-star break when Thibs used his president of basketball operations power to lasso 2011's Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose into the fold.
Now, just two names remain on the 60-year-old's list. The first is former All-Star Loul Deng. The 33-year-old featured in just a solitary game last season, despite being fully healthy. Even with the lack of gametime, he and the Lakers seem to have hit a stalemate in buyout or trade discussions. According to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, an NBA executive even went as far as to say Deng is all but semi-retired and that he may never play again in the NBA unless he has a change of heart.
That leaves one lonely name, 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
Like Deng, the 33-year-old center was healthily warming the bench last season, featuring in just 40 minutes spread out over seven appearances. Unlike his former Chicago pal, the New York Knicks plan to let Noah move on. According to ESPN, Knicks general manager plans to stretch and waive the final two years of his enormous 4-year, $72 million contract, providing they can't find a trade partner. Since making his move from Chicago to the Big Apple, Noah's star-studded career has fallen off a cliff. With his huge contract providing a black cloud over a promising future in New York, the Knicks will undoubtedly look to move the big man as soon as possible.
It's likely Thibodeau will just wait it out and sign his former defensive anchor on a league minimum deal, rather than trade for him and his huge contract. Nonetheless, all signs point to Noah making his way to the Mayo Clinic at some stage this year. However, with franchise centerpiece Karl-Anthony Towns, overpaid albeit rotation-worthy Gorgui Dieng and unseen sophomore big man Justin Patton all vying for minutes, Noah might be restricted to another bench role.
That doesn't mean that he can't be a locker room and defensive leader for the aforementioned big men in the Timberwolves ranks. Reputations in the NBA change faster than your average set of traffic lights, so it's easy to forget a time where Joakim Noah was a star, but just four short years ago he was very that. The 6-foot-11 was an inefficient scorer with one of the goofiest looking jump shots you will ever see, but he was an elite passer for his size and his three All-Defensive nods attest to his game-changing ability on that end.
The most important thing is that every bit of that success came under the tightened reigns of Tom Thibodeau, and his famous rendition of the 'ICE' defense. That's where the long-haired ball of energy can add value to this team, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns, who has seen his fair share of defensive criticism.
Towns took steps toward being an impact defender in his third season, but he was often still out of sync with Thibodeau's lauded defensive schemes. He ranked in the 61st percentile when guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, and in the 41st percentile when defending the rolling big man. Not ideal for a team with less than stellar defenders Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins already on the perimeter.
Placing the affable Noah on the young star's hip behind the scenes could unlock another level to KAT's game. There is no way a guy with the experience the 11-year pro has as Thibs' last line of defense can't provide some sort mentoring and help for such a defensively-challenged team. The Wolves gave up 0.96 points per possession in pick-and-roll action last season, the 9th worst mark in the NBA. Any help is good help at this point.
If somehow Noah does get minutes due to injury or unplayable form from by Dieng and/or Patton, he might still be able to squeeze the last drops out of his playing career. In the 40 minutes he spent on the floor for New York last season, he faced 11 possessions defending the pick-and-roll ball handler and gave up just six total points. It's a minuscule sample size, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
When Noah spoke to the Star Tribune before a 2016 game against the Timberwolves and his former coach, he was quick to show Thibodeau love.
“It’s hard to win in this league. Sometimes, with Thibs, we’d butt heads. But you don’t’ realize what you have with him until he’s not around.’’ he said.
With a return to butting heads with his former leader looking more and more possible by the day, Joakim Noah still has plenty of wisdom and leadership to offer to a Timberwolves franchise desperate for stability.