Once upon a time, Joakim Noah had damn near everything that a New York basketball fan wants. The 6-foot-11 center came fully equipped with an ever-revving motor and relentless commitment to physical defense, an unselfish nature, an inherent savvy that made him one of the sport’s slickest passing big men, a delightful comfort with playing the villain, and an unyielding competitive streak that ensured he’d show up when you needed him most.
He also had a 10-degrees-off-center style, a sui generis swag. Noah had the kind of irrepressible individuality that made every all-knees-and-elbows fast break and haunted knuckleball jumper fun to watch.
And despite the citizen-of-the-world vibe he carried as the son of a French tennis star and a former Miss Sweden, Noah is a New Yorker. He was born in the city and raised in Hell’s Kitchen; one of Noah’s greatest games, a virtuoso performance to beat the Brooklyn Nets in Game 7 of the first round of the 2013 playoffs, came at Barclays Center, about a 20-minute drive from Poly Prep, one of three different high schools Noah attended in the area.
The style, the game, the passion, the hometown connection: The version of Noah that used to exist would’ve been one of the most beloved Knicks of all time. Unfortunately, that Noah is gone. And after the Knicks chose Saturday to waive the 33-year-old center before the start of the 2018-19 NBA regular season, the present-day model is gone, too.
Former Knicks president Phil Jackson inked Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract in the summer of 2016, hoping that the two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year would help bring inspiration and defensive aptitude to a team in desperate need of both. But that was unlikely: Noah had missed 15 or more games in six of the seven seasons before his homecoming and had been limited by shoulder problems to just 29 appearances in the 2015-16 season. He’d barely even looked like a shell of his former self when healthy, shooting 38.3 percent from the field and a disastrous 42.1 percent inside the restricted area in his last season in Chicago. The contract would become a millstone the second Noah signed it; this was not hard to predict.
Noah played in 53 of a possible 164 games during two seasons as a Knick, ended one season with knee surgery before starting the next with a drug suspension, and wound up being sent away from the team after a reported practice squabble with then–head coach Jeff Hornacek. Now, after eight months of attempts to find a team willing to trade for Noah’s gargantuan contract without significant sweeteners attached came up empty, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have officially cut bait. The Noah we’d like to remember never made it to Madison Square Garden, and he never will.
ESPN and the New York Daily News reported Saturday that the Knicks waived Noah outright, meaning that he didn’t give up even 1 cent in a buyout agreement, and that he’ll receive all of the remaining $37.8 million owed over the final two years of his deal. (Shouts to Joakim’s representation.) It also means that New York will use the stretch provision in the collective bargaining agreement to reduce his 2019-20 cap hit from approximately $19.3 million to about $6.43 million.
That means nearly $13 million more in salary cap space next summer, when the Knicks hope to go big-game hunting in a free-agent market that will include Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving (though he might not be going anywhere), Klay Thompson (ditto) and Jimmy Butler (extremely not ditto). As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, New York will now be able to clear about $32.5 million in space under the NBA’s current $109 million salary cap projection for 2019-20. That will get the Knicks within range of a $32.7 million maximum-salaried contract offer for a player with seven to nine years of NBA service time, like Irving, but leaves them shy of the $38.1 million starting max for a 10-year vet like Durant.
To get there, they’ll have to offload higher-priced players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Lance Thomas, which could prove tough. (Mills and Perry have said they’re loath to create packages with young talent or future picks.) And even if the Knicks get a star on board to lead the young core of Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, and Frank Ntilikina, they’ll need to surround him with more talent. Waiving Noah using the stretch provision now will make that harder by spreading out his cap hit over three seasons, plopping an immovable $6.4 million dead-money charge on New York’s books for 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22; that’s money the Knicks won’t be able to spend on complementary pieces.
But the Knicks didn’t have to stretch Noah now. If they get a commitment from a top free agent summer, they could have stretched him at any point between now and August 31, 2019, to free the same amount of cap space. If the Knicks fail to land a star next July, they could have just let Noah’s $19.3 million come off the books, putting themselves in position to have max space in the 2020 offseason, even after extending Porzingis. Stretching Noah now eliminated the possibility of finding a team willing to take on a big expiring contract to reduce a luxury tax burden or to duck the tax entirely. Instead of waiting to see whether such an opportunity presented itself, though, the Knicks acted early, discarding Noah before the start of the season.
Maybe, in the wake of the chaos in Minnesota, New York didn’t want to deal with the possibility that a disgruntled Noah would fracture a young locker room. Perhaps they figured the odds that any team would trade for Noah’s salary were so slim that it wasn’t worth waiting. Maybe they felt like they desperately needed Noah’s roster spot for former first-round pick Noah Vonleh or preseason star and two-way-contract signee Allonzo Trier. Whatever the case, Mills and Perry decided that the value of cutting Noah now was worth any complications that might result from locking in that dead money. They’re intent on severing ties to the Knicks’ dismal recent past and on charting a course to a brighter future led by a bunch of exciting young talent and, potentially, a brand new signature superstar.
This might get them closer to that goal. It also might make building a true contender in New York that much harder.