By John Schmeelk
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Since the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose there hasn’t been a player linked more to New York than Joakim Noah.
The connection is logical. Rose talked openly about recruiting Noah, his former teammate. The Knicks need a defensive center to replace Robin Lopez. Noah, coming off an injury plagued season, might come for slightly less money. Noah is a native New Yorker.
But with all the talk of whether the Knicks could get Noah, no one bothered to ask if they should. If the year was 2011, ’12 or ’13 the answer would be an easy one: absolutely. But much like with Rose, it has been a couple years since Noah played anything close to All-Star-caliber basketball.
Everything went south for Noah in 2014 when he had offseason knee surgery. Coming off an All-Star season in which he averaged 12 points, 11 rebounds, shot 48 percent from the field and 74percent from the free-throw line, his efficiency plummeted. He played 67 games during the 2014-15 season and shot only 45 percent from the field and 60 percent from the line while averaging just 7 points and 9 rebounds. His true shooting percentage plummeted to 48 percent (from 53 percent). Advanced statistics (defensive win shares and defensive plus-minus) showed his defensive impact get cut in half.
While dealing with a bad shoulder last season, Noah played in just 29 games and was terrible by any standard. He came off the bench and only played 22 minutes per game (down from 30 and 35 the previous two seasons) with his scoring average hemorrhaging to 4.3, though he still grabbed just under nine rebounds per game. His efficiency was the stuff of horror movies, shooting just 38percent from the field, and 49 percent from the line. His true shooting percentage was a ghastly 41 percent. His defense was a struggle as well.
It might be easy to write off those numbers due to his shoulder injury, but the fact they represent a two-year trend is troubling. Noah isn’t young, having played nine NBA seasons. He made his living outworking everyone else and using his athleticism to beat opponents to spots inside. He has never been the modicum of health either, having played 70 or more games just three times in his career.
In the last two years he has had knee surgery (summer of 2014) and shoulder surgery (this year). It could be that his style of play is catching up with him and his body is breaking down. Those injuries might also be impacting his athleticism, which would explain the defensive problems.
They would also explain the cratering of his ability to finish around the basket. Last season, Noah shot 39 percent on layups, according to NBA.com. The season before he shot only 47 percent on layups. In his prime years he was around 53 percent on those shots. Losing explosion and athleticism would explain the deterioration in his ability to finish near the basket as well as his reduction in defensive effectiveness.
It’s hard to argue Noah isn’t a player in decline. It’s just as hard to argue that he isn’t a legitimate injury risk. At 31, he is not the player he was in his prime just a few seasons ago. Whenever a declining player is signed to a long-term deal, something Noah would likely demand, the chances of the team getting close to value on that player is slim to none.
Even if you take out Noah’s lone season under Fred Hoiberg, when he came off the bench and was dealing with a shoulder problem, the Joakim Noah of 2014-15 wasn’t even an average player at his position. If you use John Hollinger’s PER ranking, he was 42nd among centers, below Robin Lopez, who was 34th this past season. Despite Noah being three years older than Lopez and a worse player the last three seasons, his contract is probably going to be far bigger than what the Knicks’ former center received.
Is it possible that Noah regains his skills from three seasons ago? Sure. It’s just as likely as Rose regaining his MVP form. In other words, it’s not very likely at all. The Knicks would be making a mistake giving an aging, declining, injury-prone player who hasn’t been good for two seasons a significant long-term contract. It would clog their salary cap, and be a poor, more expensive replacement for Lopez. It would be a bad deal.
Throwing a bigger contract at Hassan Whiteside would make more sense, as would paying Al Horford. Zaza Pachulia might even be a better option if the Knicks could get him for a small enough price. Even Bismack Biyombo, as wildly overpaid as he will be, would at least provide some upside, as opposed to Noah, whose best basketball is clearly behind him.
The Knicks want to win now, but unless they own a time machine and are signing a 2012 version of Noah or playing games in the NBA five years ago, bringing him onboard doesn’t make a lot of sense.
For all things Knicks, please follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk