When Steve Kerr took over the Warriors last season, he played a delicate game: minor tweaks to the defense, slow redirections with the offense, gentle shifts in minutes. He was replacing a coach, Mark Jackson, who was popular within the locker room and had found a winning for
Kerr’s biggest early-season move? He sent his most experienced starter, an ace defender with an inconsistent jumper, to the bench in favor of a young shooter. And that’s where the Chicago Bulls and first-year coach Fred Hoiberg come in.
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Hoiberg announced Monday that Nikola Mirotic would be his starting power forward and Pau Gasol would slide down to center for the NBA's season-opener between the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers (8 p.m. ET, TNT). And in the process, Joakim Noah lost a starting role he’s occupied for more than seven years in Chicago.
"It's going to be good for our team," Noah said of the demotion, via The Chicago Tribune. "I believe that. I've always been a team-first guy. And that's not going to change.”
That’s what the big man is supposed to say. That’s what a 30-year-old who hasn’t won a championship since his pair at the University of Florida should go with publicly when his new coach decides to bench him.
But there’s a fire that burns inside Noah, one that makes him roar so loud his voice carries along the half-empty seats at a road preseason game. And that fire doesn’t sit on any benches.
“He's absolutely our vocal leader on the floor; our energy’s always good when Joakim’s in the game,” Hoiberg said last week in Charlotte. “He's a true pro. He's a great guy to have on the team. He's a great guy for our young guys to learn from. He's kind of taken (rookie power forward) Bobby Portis under his wing.”
All of that sounds like the way the Timberwolves describe 39-year-old Kevin Garnett. Noah is 30, two years removed from a fifth-place finish in NBA MVP voting. And while he battled injuries last season, he feels and looks healthy again, has a spring in his step as he moved fluidly on both ends and nearly recorded a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) against the Hornets in a preseason game.
Noah has been the heart of the Bulls since he arrived. His energy and intensity effuses, and he was the dominant force in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. But he can’t shoot, and he doesn’t have the dominant at-the-rim finishing ability of the best penetrating centers. Hoiberg brings with him a modern offense, built on free-flowing ball movement, greater pace and more shooting and screening — the tenets that brought the Warriors their title last season.
"I just have to get more comfortable with it. We have a lot of moving parts right now,” Noah said last week. “There's definitely a lot more screening and rolling, but everything's different. It’s also about personnel.”
The 2013-14 season was special for Noah. Derrick Rose went down with another injury after a 10-game return. Luol Deng was traded midseason. Jimmy Butler still was a defensive specialist. So Noah, having overcome foot issues from previous years, carried the Bulls on both ends to a 48-34 record with team highs in rebounds (11.3 per game), assists (5.4) and blocks (1.5).
That role, where he played lead distributor, won’t be as possible with Rose healthy, Butler's emergence and Gasol and Mirotic now the starting big men. Noah knew that coming in to the season, though.
“We actually worked out a lot together this summer ... and one of the things he was saying is we both have to change our games into the way it is now,” Hornets center and throwback post player Al Jefferson told Sporting News. “He worked real hard on trying to be more of a pick-and-roll guy, which he already is in my opinion. He's a point guard out there.”
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Those developments should help. Noah excels at dribble-handoffs, which can lead to good shooting opportunities for the Bulls’ wings. And with the second unit, he will be asked to create plenty of offense — Rose’s backups, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, may both be better off the ball anyway.
Still, Jefferson often gave Noah a 10-feet cushion on the perimeter, completely unafraid of his jump shot. That’s the type of spacing issue that can cause issues as Rose or Butler looks to exploit the paint with dribble penetration — Noah’s defenders can sag off him. And that logic, along with having another more traditional big man Gasol, is part of what drove Hoiberg’s decision to a start stretch-power forward like Mirotic.
"I think he still can play that role,” Hoiberg said. “The ball will be in Derrick and Jimmy's hands a lot, obviously, for good reason — they're great playmakers. Pau is a great facilitator with the ball in his hands. But Jo, the thing Jo does so well is if we're stuck, Jo knows when to flash to the ball and then make a play. He's very good going into dribble handoffs. ... We'll definitely use him that role."
But Noah knows things have changed. “I get the ball a lot less, that’s for sure,” he said. He won’t have to scrap for playing time immediately, as Portis still probably is too green for major minutes and Taj Gibson, the Bulls’ fourth big man and best at-the-rim finisher, has dealt with a leg injury in the preseason. But he will have to fight for his role — especially if he wants to earn a starting job again.
Perhaps he can speak to Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala, the veteran whom Kerr benched last season in favor of Harrison Barnes. Iguodala was loud about his distaste for the role, and he seemed disoriented to start the season. But by the second half, he’d found a comfort zone and probably was outplaying Barnes — and taking back whatever late-game minutes he’d lost in the process.
Iguodala again is coming off the bench for the Warriors, but his mind seems more at ease with the role. That’s probably because Golden State won the championship last season. And Iguodala won Finals MVP.
In case Noah needs goals.