Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s dreams were supposed to end on November 22, when superstar point guard Derrick Rose, just 10 games into his illustrious “Return,” went down with another season-ending knee injury. The scrappy, defensive-minded team he hoped to captain to a championship was, at best, cannon fodder for the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heats of the world, and at worst … well … much, much worse.
Worse, however, happened to intrigue the Chicago fan base in a year with franchise-changing talents like Jabari Parker (a Chicago native), Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Embiid available in this year’s NBA Draft. In a city desperate for a return to basketball prominence, blowing up a perennial playoff squad in favor of rebuilding around an ideally healthy Derrick Rose seemed the quickest and most logical route back to the top.
After the injury, the team silently slipped into the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. They traded away NBA All-Star Luol Deng in favor of a protected pick that may yield a lottery bid down the road. It seemed like the proverbial towel was waving.
But then, something interesting happened.
A reworked bench mob began to find themselves comfortable in their new roles and a patchwork starting lineup began to adopt the energy and enthusiasm of their new—and at this point, I’d say unquestioned—leader, Joakim Noah.
The fiery seven-footer formerly of the University of Florida wasn’t exactly a favorite when he was selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, but Noah managed to win over Chicago with his gritty (an adjective the city is enamored with), energetic play. Still, with Rose as the clear centerpiece of the franchise, Noah’s play served as more of a spark in Chicago than its lifeblood. Now, with Rose sidelined and Deng gone, the role of Joakim Noah has changed.
Luckily, Joakim Noah didn’t.
Rather than morph into some reticent version of himself, Noah has imposed his will upon his teammates. Now, the Chicago Bulls are winning, and they’re doing so with a little bit of Joakim’s swagger.
Chicago currently sits one game behind the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings, and they’re comfortably ahead of the Washington Wizards in pursuit of home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The Bulls have won seven of their last eight games and they’ve done so, in large part, because Joakim Noah isn’t only playing with constant non-stop energy—they’re also doing so because he’s playing incredibly well.
New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is scoring even more prolifically than he did in January, when he won Eastern Conference NBA Player of the Month honors, but Noah’s play in the last eight games alone should earn him consideration for the honor in February.
As the Bulls surge in the standings, losing only to the Heat in Miami over the last three weeks (a game in which Joakim had 20 and 15 to go along with four blocks), Noah has done absolutely everything for the Bulls on both sides of the floor. During the aforementioned eight-game stretch, he’s averaged 14.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists with two blocks and just under a steal per night. And, oh-by-the-way, he’s shooting 56 percent from the floor.
Even on nights where Noah has been off, he’s finding ways to help the team win. A week ago, in a pivotal win over Toronto, Joakim Noah was an essential non-factor offensively in a 3-for-7 night from the floor and surprisingly didn’t influence the game on the glass with just four rebounds. What he did do was dish out a career-high 13 assists, further establishing himself as one of the best passing big men in the game. And, to top it all off, he didn’t even get T’d up in a game where three of his teammates and Tom Thibodeau did. Maybe he is growing up, if only a little.
Regardless, the evolution of Joakim’s game is continuing, and now, coupled with the structure of the organization changing to thrust him into more of a leadership role, Joakim Noah is clearing the path for the Chicago Bulls to get back into contention in the East. Of course, the word contention is shadowed by the issue of relativity.
The Heat and the Pacers are still the two best teams in the East. However, the Bulls, despite the odds, are looking more and more like a team capable of pushing either to a six- or seven-game series.
And while that’s not a championship, the fact that they’ve become this team while adding cap flexibility and draft picks bodes well for the organization’s future.