At management’s season-ending postmortem in April, executive vice president John Paxson made clear his affinity for Joakim Noah, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July for the first time in his nine-year career.

Despite a difficult 2015-16 campaign in which he lost his starting role and endured season-ending shoulder surgery in January, Noah hasn’t ruled out a return to the Bulls.

“Joakim and I speak on a daily basis about his future,” Bill Duffy, Noah’s agent, told the Tribune. “There has been zero indication from him that he doesn’t wish to return to the Bulls.”

This is smart business, to be sure, to keep all of Noah’s options open. And Noah is open-minded about going through the free-agency process.

The Bulls are under no illusion that re-signing Noah will be easy, if that’s the path they choose. Noah, as team-first an athlete as one will find, wants a starting role and a chance to win a championship.

And it’s well-documented Noah didn’t love that Fred Hoiberg concocted a story last October about Noah wanting to come off the bench. That relationship improved as the season progressed, though, especially because Noah did tell Hoiberg he enjoyed playing with Taj Gibson — although Noah expected to be finishing games.

But Noah’s appreciation for being a one-franchise player is genuine, as is his love for the city in which his Noah’s Arc Foundation has done extensive work promoting nonviolence initiatives for youth.

Duffy spoke in part to respond to a Chicago Sun-Times story stating Noah has told teammates he’s done with the Bulls.

“He has great respect for the city, the fans and the organization,” Duffy said.

Beyond Paxson’s strong feelings for Noah, Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf long has had a strong relationship with the franchise’s emotional leader. Beyond his on-court contributions, Noah has been one of the more active community service-minded players in franchise history.

“We are going to sit down with Jo and his agent,” Paxson said in April. “In situations like this, it’s got to be right for both sides. Anyone who has spoken to either (general manager) Gar (Forman) or me about Joakim, they know how we feel about him. He represents a lot that we believe in. To me, he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever been around in this business.”

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©2016 Chicago Tribune

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