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One of Phil Jackson's more precarious moves during his bizarre tenure as president of the New York Knicks was signing Joakim Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract in July 2016. Barely a year and a half later, the acquisition looks like it was perhaps the biggest of Jackson's many blunders. Noah has played all of 40 minutes through the Knicks' first 52 games this season, and the team announced Friday that the former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year “will not be with the team until further notice,” per Steve Popper of USA Today.
It has been reported that Noah initially left the team after a heated exchange with head coach Jeff Hornacek back on January 24, the cause of which is said to be Noah's dissatisfaction with his playing time.
At 23-29, the Knicks don't have have a great roster, but one spot at which they are strong is the center position. Enes Kanter and Kyle O'Quinn are both having career years, and Willy Hernangomez, though he has played sparingly this season (he's averaging 9.2 minutes across 25 games), is a promising young player who was First-Team All-Rookie last season. Even if Noah were a solid option in the frontcourt, it would still be tough for head Hornacek to get him regular playing time given the talent he has at center.
Making matters worse for Noah is that it seems like his days of being a “solid option” are over. Over the past four seasons, the 32-year-old has averaged 5.7 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting. He still hits the boards fairly well (8.8 rebounds per game over that span) and is a solid facilitator for a big man (3.6 assists), but he is clearly not close to being the dynamic difference-maker that he was during his prime years with the Chicago Bulls.
What makes it even tougher to get Noah on the court is the fact that the Knicks are in the process of rebuilding their core, and Noah isn't in the team's future plans. By the time top weapon Kristaps Porzingis reaches his prime, Noah will be in his mid-to-late-30s and is a lock to be playing elsewhere, if any NBA team will even take him at that point. As a result, it makes far more sense for the Knicks to give minutes to players like Kanter (25 years old), O'Quinn (27), and Hernangomez (23), who have the potential to be core pieces for future Knicks teams or could perhaps be traded for future assets this season.
Speaking of trades, the Knicks preferred method of dealing with the disgruntled Noah would surely be to ship him off to another team. Unfortunately for them, the lucrative contract that Jackson gave Noah makes a trade extremely difficult. In order to move the aging big man, the Knicks would likely have to either take on another team's bad contracts, or part with future draft picks or a talented young player—something that would hamper their rebuilding efforts.
Another method that won't work is a buyout. Noah has another two years and and $37.8 million left on his contract—all fully guaranteed. Players will occasionally agree to take a fraction of their remaining salary to leave a team, allowing them to sign a new contract with a different team. Noah, however, would likely be met with a cold market, so he doesn't have much of an incentive to give up any significant chunk of his remaining guaranteed money.
Knicks fans are familiar with bad contracts—names like Jerome James and Eddy Curry come to mind, and we can now add Noah to that list of infamous disappointments. Unfortunately, there's not much the team can do but wait. In 2020, Noah's contract will expire, or perhaps the team will trade his expiring contract at the deadline in two years. But for now, the Knicks will continue to pay him while he sits at home watching “his team” struggle to contend a low-end playoff spot.