The Knicks have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Joakim Noah to a four-year contract worth $72 million, according to ESPN.com and the New York Daily News. Noah, 31, averaged a career-low 4.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG while making just 29 appearances for the Bulls last season. The two-time All-Star center suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in January, bringing to end a memorable nine-year tenure in Chicago.
To justify the size and scope of this signing, the Knicks don’t merely need a bounce-back year from Noah, they need a full-on resurgence. Noah endured an atrocious 2015-16 campaign even before he was lost to the shoulder injury: he lost his starting job under new coach Fred Hoiberg, he shot just 38.3% from the field, he posted a career-low 14.1 Player Efficiency Rating, he struggled to finish shots in the basket area (he shot a career-low 43.9% from within three feet), and he took a major step back as an interior defender (allowing 52.4% shooting at the rim). Making matters worse, this was the second straight season in which Noah’s play and numbers declined, raising questions about whether he will be able to reclaim and sustain his fiercely competitive and energetic style of play now that he’s advanced into his 30s.
Noah is a tough player to fit into the NBA’s evolving approach to offense. He’s not a great finisher around the hoop, he lacks range on his jumper, and his best attribute is his play-making for others from the high post. His reluctance to shoot and his lack of range has made him an easy player to defend, as opponents have increasingly taken to ignoring him in favor of clogging up the paint and passing lanes.
New Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek will need to work around these flaws, as Noah plugs into the depth chart as the starting center, replacing Robin Lopez, who was moved in a pre-draft trade for Derrick Rose. While the frenetic Noah was named Defensive Player of the Year just two seasons ago and posted a solid 99.3 defensive rating last season, he must prove that he’s still capable of leading a defense over an 82-game season, as the Knicks desperately needs a reliable anchor to compensate for a rotation that will feature multiple weak defensive pieces, including Rose. Remember, Noah has missed at least 15 games in five of the last seven seasons, and New York simply doesn’t have the depth to withstand an extended absence.
The questions posed by his durability, decline and limited offense are bad enough, but Noah also makes for a strange pairing with 2015 lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis. There were two logical ways to approach Porzingis’s development: 1) play him at the four and pair him with a low-post monster or, 2) play him at the five, play Carmelo Anthony at the four and embrace small ball. Here, the Knicks have opted for a third plan by more or less abandoning the basket area with Noah to set up a possible high/low combination with Noah that will require Porzingis to develop quickly as an interior scorer. If he’s not quite up to the task yet, New York’s offense will likely find itself running out of real estate and bogging down.
It’s important to note that Knicks president Phil Jackson isn’t taking a “flier” on Noah. No, he’s paying starter-plus money on a full four-year contract that will carry Noah past his 35th birthday. While the Rose/Noah pairing will generate some initial excitement, given their name recognition, this money would have been better spent on a younger center like Bismack Biyombo or Festus Ezeli who could work as a Porzingis complement for years.
It’s hard to see how, even in a best-case scenario with perfect health, that the Rose/Noah acquisitions take New York to anything better than a swift first-round exit. And, if Noah’s wheels do fall off in the early stages of this contract, the Knicks have left themselves exposed to ruin without anything resembling a back-up plan.