At this time a year ago, Joakim Noah was hurting.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery days after the Bulls' playoff loss to the Wizards and spent the entire offseason rehabilitating. He walked into Bulls media day having not played any basketball over the summer, filling his time with what he referred to as "boring stuff." He claimed he'd be ready for the rigors of the season, and to his part he lived up to his prediction. Noah played in 67 games and all 12 postseason contests, and only two of the 15 games he missed were attributed to left knee soreness.
But simply put, Noah wasn't himself. Granted, he wasn't going to replicate his All-NBA first team numbers from 2013-14, when the absence of Derrick Rose (knee) and Luol Deng (traded to Cleveland) made him the focal point on both ends of the floor. But Noah averaged just 7.2 points on a career-low 44.5 percent shooting and 9.6 rebounds. He was a step behind on defensive rotations, didn't have the same burst that had carried him to back-to-back NBA All-Defensive first team honors and struggled around the rim, shooting nine percentage points lower in that area from the previous year, per basketball-reference.com.
Noah would be the last to make excuses for his lackluster performance, and he didn't. The reality was, however, that an offseason stuck in the weight room and training facility instead of on the basketball floor was a setback. It's a situation Noah has reversed heading into 2015, the start of the Fred Hoiberg era and an important contract year for the 30-year-old.
He spent his offseason in Santa Barbara, Calif., at Peak Performance Project (P3), focusing on basketball and improving his strength as he looks to bounce back from last year's forgettable campaign. His motivation was simple: his teammates had picked him up last year, winning 50 games and earning the East's No. 3 seed. Now it's Noah's time to pay it forward.
"Just needed a little time to regroup and get healthy. That was my priority for this summer, and I’m really, really excited for this upcoming season," he said. "I just wanted to come right for my teammates. They were there for me. Last year was very tough for me, just not being able to move the way that I wanted to on the court, be able to play the way that I wanted to play. I’m excited to be back in Chicago and show my teammates that I can be there for them."
Added general manager Gar Forman: "Joakim looks like Joakim. He's live, he's active, he's had a good summer of training."
Fred Hoiberg said he hasn't made any decisions on the starting lineup, or the more important finishing lineup. He spent time with each member of the Bulls at some point over the summer, meeting with Noah on his journey along the West Coast that included meeting with Derrick Rose (Los Angeles) and Aaron Brooks (Oregon). Much was made last season about the Bulls potentially splitting up true centers Noah and Pau Gasol, shifting Noah to the second unit to better balance the Bulls' depth.
Hoiberg said he'll experiment frequently during the preseason with lineups, presumably meaning Noah will see time both in the starting lineup and coming off the bench.
"There’s a lot of flexibility to put guys in a lot of positions. There’s a lot of versatility on this roster. I don’t know if I can answer that question today. The important thing for me is before that first game against Cleveland on October 27th, hopefully that’ll be more defined."
Hoiberg may not know where he'll place Noah in his rotation, but what he can expect is the old energetic center who feels fresh after an offseason spent on the basketball floor instead of the training table.