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A rejuvenated Joakim Noah beats the odds, returns to Chicago ready to ‘end this thing on my own note’

A rejuvenated Joakim Noah beats the odds, returns to Chicago ready to ‘end this thing on my own note’

Father Time appeared to arrive for Joakim Noah in the first half of 2017, and even the former Bulls legend doubted if he’d ever play again.

Noah, who was in Chicago on Wednesday for the third time as a visitor, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February of that year, prematurely ending a disastrous first season in New York in which he averaged 5.0 points and 8.8 rebounds on the first year of a four-year, $72 million contract. One month later he was suspended 20 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy after testing positive for a substance found commonly in over-the-counter supplements. One month after the suspension was announced Noah underwent surgery on a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Year 2 in New York didn’t help matters. After serving his suspension Noah played just seven games in mop-up duty and reached a breaking point in January after he was sent home following a confrontation with head coach Jeff Hornacek. He was eventually waived in October prior to the start of the 2018 season, with the Knicks eating the final two years and $38 million on his contract.

At 32 years old and with 20,000 career minutes under his belt, the writing was on the wall. An unceremonious exit in Chicago under Fred Hoiberg, multiple surgeries, a suspension and a dismissal from his own team spelled the end of his career.

“Yeah, there was a time when I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep playing,” Noah said Wednesday at the United Center. “There was definitely a time during that time that I didn’t want to play basketball anymore.”

But Noah wasn’t going to let that career, one he had built on overcoming adverse odds and toughing out difficult times, end on that note. During his exile in New York, Noah was seen working out and honing his craft, preparing for a return that many believed wouldn’t come. Once Tom Thibodeau reportedly had no interest in bringing Noah to the TimberBulls in Minnesota, it seemed unlikely Noah would latch on anywhere.

But the Grizzlies took a chance on Noah in early December, albeit on a veteran’s minimum contract and in a reserve role behind four-time All-Star Marc Gasol. And while Noah hasn’t been able to replicate the success he had in Chicago, he’s held his own. Over his last eight games Noah has averaged 8.8 points and 6.9 rebounds in 20.2 minutes, and on Saturday he turned back the clock with 19 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the Pelicans.

After playing his entire career under the bright lights of Chicago and New York, a more reserved Noah has found a spot to reclaim his career in Memphis. Just as humbling was his time away from the game.

“I just didn’t want to leave the game like that. I feel like I worked too hard my whole life to end it like that,” he said. “I hadn’t had peace on the court in years and I wasn’t enjoying playing basketball anymore and I’ve always been somebody who loved basketball, loved to compete, loved to be in the locker room with my teammates. So I wanted to find that again, and I worked my ass off to be in this position.”

Noah isn’t the first reclamation project to return healthy to Chicago this season. Last month a rejuvenated Derrick Rose brought his talents back to his hometown, slicing up the Bulls for 24 points and eight assists in 38 minutes.

Noah didn’t have the same outcome as Rose did – he had a respectable 8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks in 20 minutes – but it was still refreshing to see another member of the 2010s Bulls back in the United Center. Though no longer chasing titles, guys like Noah, Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng have found success post-Chicago, and Noah doesn’t feel like any of what those teams accomplished is lessened by the fact that it didn’t end in a parade down Michigan Avenue and a seventh ring.

“I don’t see it like that. There can only be one champ. I look back on those times, and those were really special times,” Noah said. “I know we’ve all gone through a lot. We all have our different journeys. Those guys are my brothers for life. I think that there’s even championship teams that don’t even have that kind of bond. It was a special bond. I’m just happy to see my old teammates doing well. To me, that’s almost as important as winning a championship.”

He's not the Sixth Man of the Year candidate Rose is and the man responsible for ending his championship runs, LeBron James, was just named to his 15th consecutive All-Star Game. Noah’s a shell of himself, but the very fact that he’s found his way back to the court after 2017 is perhaps just as unlikely and incredible as the accomplishments from Rose and James. Noah was named to two All-Star teams, won Defensive Player of the Year and was named First Team All-NBA in 2014. However, as his career ends he’s making sure it happens on the court, on his own terms.

“There’s always people saying or comparing to what it was, or ‘you’re not as good as you used to be,’ but that’s not what it is to me,” Noah said. “I have my kids, my daughter’s able to watch me play and my people are able to watch me play. I can end this thing on my note.”

 

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Former Bulls center Joakim Noah says he was "too lit" to play in New York City

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USA TODAY

Former Bulls center Joakim Noah says he was "too lit" to play in New York City

What went wrong for former Bull and current Grizzlies center Joakim Noah with the Knicks?

Noah opened up about his Knicks-tenure in a recent interview on the Chris Vernon Show, admitting he was not ready for life in New York.

"I don’t think it was one thing, I think it was a lot of things," Noah said. "I’m not here to blame anybody, or it’s anybody’s fault. It just didn’t work out.

"I can look back on it and say I thought I was ready for New York City, but I wasn’t. It’s something that I gotta live with.

Noah, who signed with the Grizzlies earlier this month for the veteran's minimum, played in just 53 games across two seasons with the Knicks. His tenure was marked by knee and shoulder injuries after signing a four-year, $72 million contract in July 2016.

Injuries aside, Noah was also suspended 20 games for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy. However, he implied that partying was a factor in his struggles.

"I remember after the first game, I probably had 60 people in my house," he said. "I’m too lit, I’m too lit to play in New York City. Memphis is perfect for me."

The Knicks ultimately released Noah in October, though he had been away from the team since January after getting into an altercation at practice with former Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek.

Essentially kicked off the team at that point, Noah said that he had a decision to make about how he wanted to live his life.

"When I got kicked off the team, it was New York Fashion Week and I was getting paid a lot of money and I had no direction," he said. "I really had to make a decision of how I wanted to live my life, because if I kept going in the direction that I was going in and stayed in New York, then I probably wouldn’t be here right now."

"I’m getting paid millions of dollars and I have nothing to do and I’m 32 years old. I really had to lock in and set a routine for myself. [Because] partying and being an athlete, they don’t go hand-in-hand."

But what about Noah's tenure with the Bulls?

"We were lit in Chicago, but I was young, so you recover faster."

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NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.