When asked whether he told new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg he wanted to come off the bench, Noah responded quickly.
“No,” he said.
The topic has been hovering around the Bulls since training camp, as Hoiberg explored all his options and ultimately decided to insert second-year big man Nikola Mirotic into the starting lineup on opening night instead of Noah. The storyline came back to light on Thursday when a Hoiberg Q-and-A with Grantland’s Zach Lowe was posted. In the exchange, Hoiberg said Noah was the one who started the conversation about coming off the bench this season.
“Jo actually came to me and talked to me about that,” Hoiberg told Lowe. “He said, basically, ‘I’ve always played well with Taj [Gibson].’ He said he thought Niko and Pau played very well together, so let’s go that route. It was actually Jo that started the whole conversation. He came to me. That says a lot about him.”
When asked to clarify the conversation on Friday, Hoiberg tip-toed around the details. Did Noah come to him and say he wanted to come off the bench or did the big man see the writing on the wall in the preseason and say it would be OK if Hoiberg decided to keep him on the bench to start?
“I don’t remember,” Hoiberg said. “Pick whichever one you want.”
When pressed for more details, Hoiberg demurred.
“He came to me; we had a discussion about it,” Hoiberg said. “And he talked about how he really liked playing with Taj and that’s kind of how it went. … We had a very easy conversation, and I give him a lot of credit for coming and initiating that conversation. … The conversation was he came and said ‘I really feel I play well with Taj, and I think Niko and Pau play very well together.’ That’s basically how the conversation went. That’s the story and I’m sticking to it.”
For his part, Noah has never seemed outwardly angry about what’s going on and doesn’t want to rock the boat as a team leader. He has struggled in his first two games off the bench to find his rhythm, failing to register a point. Noah does have 15 rebounds and six assists in his first two games and appears to be feeling good after struggling with the effects of offseason left knee surgery a year ago.
“I just want to do what’s best for the team,” Noah said. “I think we’re 2-0 right now. We still have a lot of room for improvement. What I said doesn’t matter. I think right now we’re doing what’s best for the team, and we just got to keep building off that.”
What makes Noah’s situation more intriguing is that he is in the final year of a five-year, $60 million deal. While he hasn’t discussed his future publicly, he’s likely aware of the kind of money being funneled into the league like every other player. Noah said he understands he has to be “patient” in his new role but also acknowledged that his pairing with Gasol hasn’t always worked as well as he would have hoped.
“The truth is, I think I’m more effective playing the 5 over the 4,” Noah said. “I think Pau is the same. And we have two very good fours [in Mirotic and Gibson], so it makes more sense [to pair us like that].”
The sight of Noah on the bench has been strange, some of his longtime teammates conceded.
“It’s weird,” Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. “It’s a little weird, but he’s a pro. He’s been great about it. His spirit has been up besides getting hurt. His spirit’s been up as far as competing, being himself and he knows how important he is to this team, and everybody knows how important he is to this team.”
Gibson says the adjustment has been difficult on Noah.
“It’s been tough,” Gibson said. “You’re just trying to find a rhythm. And you got to understand, I’ve been doing this for a long time now, coming off the bench. Once you get a rhythm going, knowing when you’re going to go in and knowing how you’re going to feel right away that’s the first thing that you got to get adjusted to. For him, it’s going to be different from being a starter just coming in and starting the game off fresh, sweat, warmed up and lathered up already. Now he has to focus on staying warm, be ready, at a time he knows he’s going to go in. He’s still adjusting; he’s still trying to figure out the sets from the guys on the bench; [those are] different than the starters. But it’s going to take time.”