CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah is at his happiest on a basketball court. The emotional big man loves talking to his teammates and opponents, and he relishes being the center of attention when he takes the floor. When he's at his best, he plays with the type of fire and passion that is much easier to find in a high school gymnasium, not an NBA palace.
That's why last season was so difficult for the 30-year-old center. The exuberance that has defined his nine-year career went missing for long stretches. After coming in fourth in the MVP voting two years ago, Noah looked like a shell of his old self after offseason knee surgery. He wasn't moving the same way, he wasn't feeling the same way. For a player who thrives off energy and positive vibes, Noah looked miserable at times while playing on a knee that was still hurting and in an offensive system still adjusting to the reemergence of Derrick Rose and the introduction of All-Star Pau Gasol.
For a player entering into the final year of a $60 million contract and hoping to cash in on the monster amounts of money coming into the league this summer thanks to the new TV deal, this was not the way Noah wanted to enter into his impending free agency year. But that's what makes the past week so intriguing for both Noah and the Bulls. Noah looks and sounds like his old self again in practice. He's bouncing around the floor and talking the way he did when he had the most success of his career. Finally, Noah looks as happy as he feels again.
"Jo's been awesome," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said recently. "His energy, he's been a great leader out here. He's knocking down shots right now. Offensive rebounds, he's finishing with explosiveness. He's been, I'd say, one of the top guys in camp so far."
So what happened?
Noah spent much of the summer working out in Santa Barbara, California, at P3 The Peak Performance Project, an athletic training facility that, at least in part, is known for helping athletes get back on track after various injuries. Former Bull Kyle Korver swears by the facility. Alongside his trusted friend and trainer Alex Perris, Noah spent much of the offseason in Santa Barbara trying to get his body back in order. The difference in his game early in training camp has been noticeable to teammates who watched him hobble through last season.
"I just feel bouncier, just lighter on my feet. Just waking up in the morning and moving good, that's a good feeling. Doing a lot of yoga every morning before I come in. Just taking care of myself a little different. This isn't my first rodeo." Joakim Noah
"He feels a lot better," Bulls power forward Taj Gibson said. "You can tell by how he's jumping, his pop. You can tell he put a lot of work in over the summer. Sometimes with injuries like he had, it takes a full year to really recuperate. You can tell he put in a lot of work, you can tell he's moving back the way he's normally moving, he's attacking the rim with force. He's been having a great couple days in camp. I look forward to him having a good early start."
The fact Noah's body never appeared to heal completely from the knee surgery was apparent and backed up by the numbers. Noah averaged 35.3 minutes a game in the 2013-14 season compared to just 30.6 in 2014-15, thanks in part to a front office mandate that Noah was not to exceed 32 minutes a game during the regular season. Two seasons ago, Noah averaged a career-high 10.0 field-goal attempts a game, according to research from ESPN Stats and Information. A year ago, he averaged just 6.4 shots a game and looked lost on offense throughout much of the season, especially in the playoffs.
Noah averaged just 4.8 points a game in the paint a year ago, the lowest total he earned since his rookie season. Two years ago, he averaged 7.8 points in the paint. The "tornado" jumper that had been successful for him two years ago went missing as well. Two years ago, Noah was 55.9 percent (19-for-34) from the field from 20-24 feet, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. Last season, he shot just 42 percent (8-for-19) from the same range.
The larger issue for Noah, and one which may underscore the issues he had moving around the floor, comes when looking at defensive win shares. Two seasons ago, Noah had 6.6 defensive win shares, which led the NBA, according to statistics from basketballreference.com. Last season, Noah had just 3.1, good for 35th in the league. As a whole, the Bulls were a much poorer defensive team than they had been in years past, but throughout his time in Chicago, it has been Noah who has set the tone for his team, especially on the defensive end.
In order to fix the agility issue, Noah also started doing more yoga to help with his movement.
"I just feel bouncier, just lighter on my feet," he said. "Just waking up in the morning and moving good, that's a good feeling. Doing a lot of yoga every morning before I come in. Just taking care of myself a little different. This isn't my first rodeo."
Besides feeling better, Noah also has to find a way to play better with Gasol, whom he helped recruit last summer to come to the Bulls. Noah never seemed to click with Gasol a year ago, and the pair looked unsure of their positions on the floor. While Hoiberg hasn't yet committed to starting both in the regular season, he did sound confident that Noah and Gasol could function much better together.
"The big thing with him is being a little bit more patient when he's on the baseline," Hoiberg said of Noah. "As opposed to just flashing as an action is going on where he could muddy up the spacing a little bit. But Jo is a very good playmaker, and you have to utilize him in that role. But I think he and Pau have been good together so far, and I'm excited to get those two on the floor together once we start playing preseason games and I know those two guys are as well."
Gasol likes what he has seen from Noah up to this point as well. When asked about his pairing with Gasol, Noah was quick to defend the duo's potential effectiveness even if it's still a work in progress.
"I think we should give it an honest evaluation while I'm healthy," Noah said. "Last year, I wasn't healthy. Let's see how it goes and then coaches can make a decision from there."
Noah is perceptive. He knows many believe his best days might be behind him. He knows he's in a contract year and has to prove to the Bulls -- and the rest of the league -- he can still play at a high level. He knows what's on the line. But as he gets set for his ninth season, Noah is trying to do what he couldn't do throughout much of last year: have fun.
His body is in a good place again, and he hopes his game will follow suit.
"I'm just enjoying and embracing the moment," Noah said when asked about his upcoming free agency. "Enjoying it day by day. I'm not worried about the future or past. I'm just trying to stay focused on the moment."