Finally, Finality on Joakim Noah

By Jonathan Macri

The Joakim Noah contract has been a headache to Knicks fans since the day he signed it. While his cap hit will continue to hurt, at least we can move on.

In the days leading up to July 1, 2016, the worst kept secret in the NBA was that Joakim Noah was going to be a Knick. You could see it coming a mile away, and for all the worst reasons. New York fans are all too familiar with the sharp, wincing pain that hits your side whenever any move is characterized as “classic Knicks,” but if there ever was one, this was it.

Former great player with very real concerns, injury-related or otherwise? Check.

Easily consumable storyline (he’s from New York, don’t forget) made for the back page? Check.

Paying a guy for past performance? Check, check, and check. All of the checks.

Despite the clear warning signs, if you squinted hard enough, you could see Phil’s logic in making the move. Even if Noah was, say, 85% of his peak self, that’s still a top five defensive center who you could run some offense through. Throw in the locker room/culture/history of winning stuff, and you could unearth an argument for bringing him on board.

This was exactly what ran through my mind when I saw that first picture of him in a Knicks hat. 1

Then I started to see rumors of an annual salary nearing $20 mil. I was like, “OK. Two guaranteed years with a team option wouldn’t be so terrible, even at that number. Even a partially guaranteed third year…sure, I can live with that. He’s Jo Noah. He yells a lot. We need a yeller.”

We didn’t get so lucky.

This wasn’t just an overspend. It was a complete miscalculation of the market. Yes, almost every NBA team was throwing dollars around like James Harden at the Spearmint Rhino, but only the very worst front offices were spending that money on centers who didn’t fit where the game was going. That the move was made to compliment a player who never should have been acquired (Rose) and to fit an offense that should have never been installed triangle only made it worse.

Most frustrating of all, it was part of a win-now mentality instituted to appease a player who should no longer have been in the organization’s long term plans. Instead of biting the bullet and realizing he should have never given Melo his inexplicable no trade clause, Phil doubled down and tried to make the best of the situation. He’d already been digging his own grave; this just gave him a bigger shovel.

When you factor in what Noah actually gave the team on the court, it’s tough to argue against this being the worst free agent signing in Knicks history.

I get why people would insist otherwise. While it’s impossible to know the opportunity cost here, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had literally lit $72 million on fire as opposed to just doing so figuratively. Still, for as much as the Allan Houston extension, the Amare Stoudemire contract and the Jerome James and Eddy Curry extra-value meals hamstrung the franchise in various ways, no deal was more shortsighted the moment it happened than Noah’s.

But here we are. As a result of this weekend’s decision, James Dolan will continue paying the former Gator until the end of the 2021-22 season. Noah, meanwhile, didn’t take a penny off the top, apparently because no one is interested in giving him another job.2

It begs the obvious question about whether this a move the Knicks needed to make right now. Sure, doing it before the season means they get an extra roster spot, but that’s not all this was about. There are salary cap-heads across the league who view these transactions through a black and white prism, but there’s far too many factors at play to unequivocally make the call one way or another. To wit:

What would be the effect of having a sulky Noah sitting around the locker room all season? If he stayed around the team, could he evolve from sulky to something even more destructive? What effect would that have on a young team trying to establish a culture? Could they simply send him home, and if they did, would the player’s union get involved? Would that matter? Even if the union stayed out of it, would Noah’s banishment reflect poorly on the player-friendly image the Knicks are trying to cultivate for themselves around the league? How would Noah’s agent, Bill Duffy – a long time power broker in the NBA – treat the hesitation to waive his client when it’s highly likely they’re going to do so anyway come July?

To some, these uncertainties may not matter as much as the definitiveness of an ongoing cap hit, but it’s always easier to make those judgments from afar. At the end of the day, the only near-absolute drawback is that having Noah’s stretched salary on the books next summer will prevent the team from opening up two full max salary slots.3

In light of Kyrie Irving’s recent comments and the growing sentiment that handing a max contract to Jimmy Butler may not be the wisest of organizational plays, it doesn’t look like this is going to come back to haunt them as much as it probably could have.

Regardless, every Knicks fan should be happy that there is, at last, finality with the Noah saga. Saga?4

This was the last remnant of the black cloud that had been hanging over the franchise’s head for most of the Phil era. It’s finally gone. Godspeed to Noah. Wherever he ends up next, here’s hoping he has a proud end to his career. It wasn’t his fault that he was largely broken when we signed him.

I just hope he keeps his clothes on at his next stop.

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