NBA PM: Overpaying Joakim Noah Wasn’t Necessarily a Mistake

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Joakim Noah only started two NBA games last season. The New York Knicks gave him a four-year contract anyway.

Noah’s most serious ailment last season was a shoulder that required surgery and four-to-six months of rest before he was able to start rehabbing it. But that’s certainly not the only injury he has dealt with this decade. Noah has missed at least 16 games in six of his last seven seasons in Chicago.

Even when he’s been able to play, he’s rarely posted eye-popping numbers. His career averages are relatively pedestrian: 9.3 points (shooting below 50 percent from the floor), 9.4 rebounds, three assists and 1.4 blocks per game. Certainly solid, but not overwhelming by any means.

Despite all of this, and the fact that he hadn’t stepped foot on an NBA court since January, Joakim Noah was quite clearly the apple of Phil Jackson’s eye and the Knicks’ number one target in free agency this summer.

Once the Knicks traded away Robin Lopez in the Derrick Rose deal, New York was in need of a center. Although there were a plethora of big men up for grabs this summer on the free agent market, rumors of Noah and the Knicks’ mutual interest began swirling days before July arrived. It seemed all but inevitable that these two would end up together.

The Knicks ended up signing Noah to a four-year contract worth $72 million.

$18 million per season is a huge amount of money, but it isn’t an outrageous annual sum based on the crazy market conditions that existed as a result of the NBA’s salary cap spike. However, the reason many prominent pundits panned the deal was the length of the contract. Noah will turn 32 in the middle of next season. He’ll be 35 in the final year of the deal. Considering he was never a paragon of health even in his prime, what should we expect as he screeches towards his mid-30’s? It seems highly unlikely he’ll find the fountain of youth in midtown Manhattan.

Thus, the criticism is understandable on many levels.

However, attempting to determine Noah’s value simply by studying stats or game logs is a fool’s errand. Even in this age of advanced analytics, where we attempt analyze every morsel of available data, some players bring attributes to the table that escape quantification. The dreaded/debated “intangibles.”

Noah is one of those players. In fact, Noah is its personification. Talk to his former teammates in Chicago. Or the coaching staff. Or Bulls fans. Or the media covering the team. You’ll get glowing responses about Noah’s work ethic and approach. Just as importantly, you’ll often hear Joakim Noah is a far better human being than he is a basketball player.

As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune wrote earlier this month: “Noah played with joy. He didn’t take himself too seriously but knew when to get serious. He wasn’t perfect, but he cared so much about winning that it overcame his imperfections.”

The Knicks had a gaping hole in their backcourt heading into this offseason, and desperately needed to add guards. Thus, they traded for Derrick Rose and signed Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings.

However, the Knicks also need leaders in the locker room. Carmelo Anthony is a supremely talented basketball player who played extremely well last season, but he has never been a vocal leader. When he’s experienced his greatest success in NBA, it has been when he was surrounded by vets who took control of the team. The Knicks have won over 50 games only once this millennium, and that was back in 2012-13, when they fielded the “oldest team in NBA history,” featuring Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd among others.

In addition, if the Knicks ever want to be considered serious contenders, they need to improve defensively. New York has allowed fewer than 108 points per 100 possessions just three times over the last 12 seasons. Noah brings defense, aggressiveness and intensity – three qualities that have been sorely lacking in New York for some time. He will also hold his teammates accountable to an extremely high standard.

Maybe the biggest compliment you can pay Noah is that he’d fit in right alongside the beloved Knicks of the 1990’s, with players like Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and John Starks.

Noah, who was born in New York City, and grew up as a Knicks fan, has made it abundantly clear that playing in NYC is a dream come true. “”I was a diehard Knicks fan growing up. To be able to wear this jersey means the world to me. I really want to make this city proud,” Noah told ESPN radio on the day he was introduced as a Knick.

“I’m hungry to get it poppin’ in the Garden… I’m ready to be an animal for this city,” he said. It’s all music to Knicks fans ears.

Changing the culture in and around an organization won’t happen overnight, but adding players like Noah is how you begin to quickly effect positive change.

The reality is the Knicks won’t compete, much less win, an NBA championship next season. When/if the Knicks do elevate themselves to contender status, it will most likely be when Kristaps Porzingis enters his prime and begins to reach his incredible potential. As a result, one of Phil Jackson’s primary focuses going forward should be surrounding young Porzingis with players who play and prepare the right way. Noah is a proven winner (NCAA and NBA) who can mentor KP. The education of Porzingis is worth investing heavily in.

The other part of the equation to ascending into the upper echelon of the NBA is getting a young player in his prime to pair alongside KP. The Knicks will have a wonderful opportunity to do just that next summer, when so many elite superstars will hit the free agent market at the same time. Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin are just a few of the marquee players up for grabs.

The Knicks haven’t been able to even secure a meeting with any of the elite free agents the last two summers. Phil Jackson may be the “Zen Master” but the best players in the NBA are understandably hesitant to consider a team that can’t even qualify for the playoffs in a watered down Eastern Conference. If the Knicks can make strides this season, their revised pitch to top-tier free agents may be that New York is on the verge of making the leap to respectability.

Courtney Lee, who the Knicks got on a discount, confirmed that one of the major factors in deciding to sign with New York was his recruitment by Noah.

Lastly, it’s not as if Noah is a quasi-coach or sideline cheerleader who can’t contribute. The last time Noah was completely healthy, back in 2013-14, he was the best center in the NBA. He is actually the last Eastern Conference player not named LeBron James to finish in the top five in MVP voting. (Ironically, only five EC players have finished in the top five in MVP voting since 2011, and three of those players are currently Knicks: Rose, Melo and Noah).

Even when nursing injuries, Noah is still an elite rebounder and passer. Last season, Noah led all centers in assist rate (24.2 percent), and Marc Gasol was second at 18.9 percent. No Knicks point guard has averaged more than five assists per game since Raymond Felton in 2013-14. Noah averaged 5.4 assists per game in 2013-14. He also won Defensive Player of the Year that season.

Yes, signing Noah to a four-year contract is a gamble. However, if an NBA general manger is going to “overpay” for a player, he should make sure it’s a player who prepares and plays as hard as Joakim Noah.