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Monday, July 5, 2010
Noah's great, but what about signing him?

By Marc Stein

Interesting question posed in a chat I just had with a longtime front-office chief: How many young players have more contract leverage right now than Bulls center Joakim Noah?

Answer: Aside from Kevin Durant, absolutely no one from the NBA’s 2007 draft class.

Noah, like Durant, is eligible for a contract extension this summer. But Noah also happens to be one of the Bulls’ major selling points to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and especially Chris Bosh in free agency, because Chicago’s pitch to the top free agents centers around the fact that it already has an elite point guard (Rose) and a blossoming big man (Noah) in place. When it comes to Bosh specifically, Noah’s presence means Bosh could stay at power forward as opposed to masquerading as a center, which is something Bosh does not want to do.

You figure that the Bulls would prefer to wait until after their expected free-agent splashes -- with the $30 million in salary-cap space they’re throwing at James, Wade and Bosh -- before getting serious with Noah, even though an extension wouldn’t affect this summer’s cap room.

Yet you could also make the case -- something I’m quite sure other teams chasing the top free agents have made clear to James, Wade and Bosh -- that the Bulls don’t really have Noah "in place" until he’s locked up long term.

Which brings us to one of the biggest hurdles Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has to clear if he wants to lure a LeBron-and-Bosh or Wade-and-Bosh combo to the Windy City.

The Bulls are insisting to free agents that Reinsdorf’s reputation as a reluctant spender is unfounded and that he’s willing to spend money when his team has the opportunity to win championships. As proof they’re pointing to the last few years of the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson dynasty, when Jordan was a $30 million player.

Chicago, though, has never been a luxury-tax payer. So skepticism remains about Reinsdorf’s willingness to spend big money on Noah -- when Rose is also eligible for a contract extension next summer -- because two high-dollar free agents and two pricey extensions would almost certainly turn the Bulls into a tax team.

It’s no secret that the Bulls continue to shop Luol Deng in hopes of creating more long-term financial flexibility for the Noah and Rose extensions, but what happens if Chicago can’t find a trade taker for Deng? You can safely assume that Noah, seeing how crucial he’s become to the Bulls’ overall picture, isn’t about to let himself get squeezed.

But the situation could change adversely for Noah if the Bulls strike out in free agency. Hard as that is to imagine with the kind of cap space Chicago has, along with the lure of a big market and a team brand famous worldwide, Reinsdorf figures to revert to his usual hard-lining self in extension talks if his team doesn’t score big this summer.