CHICAGO — When Joakim Noah went down with a season-ending shoulder injury last Friday, the concept of “life without Joakim” went from being a speculative wonder to a harsh reality in the matter of seconds. Sure, the former Defensive Player of the Year is in the last year of his contract, and with a massive logjam in the frontcourt, many believed 2015–16 would be his final season in Chicago. Some even believed he would be gone before the trade deadline. But no one could have imagined that his season, and perhaps his nine-year tenure in Chicago, would end with him writhing in pain, sprinting towards the locker room like he did against Dallas.
In the Bulls training facility on Wednesday, hours before getting blown out by the Golden State Warriors 125–94, the players were feeling his absence.
“It’s hard when a player and a brother goes down like that, when he needs surgery and has a long way to get back on the floor,” forward Pau Gasol said after the team’s shootaround. “It’s not pleasant, it’s hard, but you got to keep going.”
“It’s real frustrating,” forward Taj Gibson said. “I’m frustrated for him. A guy like that puts in a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of energy. For him to go out like that, it was frustrating. He felt great the night before. The same day of the [Dallas] game, he told me, ‘I’m ready to do whatever it takes to win this game.’ For him to go out like that, it’s hard.”
Gasol didn’t play well against the Warriors on Wednesday, finishing with eight rebounds and just one point on 0-of-8 shooting. Gibson didn’t fare much better, scoring four points and adding seven boards as the Warriors became the fourth team ever to start 39–4 or better.
Wednesday was another example that these Bulls aren’t the Bulls of old where Noah brought the intangibles and hustle few other players matched, and a contagious energy that defined the Tom Thibodeau era in Chicago. These Fred Hoiberg-led Bulls are still adjusting to a changing roster and a changing league. At 24–17, these Bulls are a work in progress.
Two years ago, no Bulls fan could have imagined Noah in another uniform, but his struggles adjusting to the offensively-minded Hoiberg have been well documented: He made just 38.3% of his shots this season, his offensive rating is tied for last on the team and his inability to score landed him on the bench for the first time.
But what happens now? Even as the sixth man, Noah was averaging nearly 22 minutes a game, and those minutes aren’t going to replace themselves. With Noah done for the season, the Bulls can’t trade him, and they’ll have to rely on the roster they already have to pick up the slack. Luckily, they’ve got plenty of big men, and they’ve been here before. Noah has already missed eleven games this season, including a nine-game stretch where the Bulls went 7–2 and averaged 107.6 points per game, 5.5 points above their season average. It’s a small sample size, but that stretch included games against Oklahoma City, Indiana, Atlanta and two games against Toronto.
In the two games since his second injury, the results have been mixed. In the first, a convincing road win in Detroit, they looked sharp and cohesive. Gasol, whose fit with Noah had been questionable since arriving from L.A., poured in 31 points and 10 rebounds, and four other Bulls scored in double digits. But if there was ever a game that would test how the Noah-less Bulls would match up against elite competition, it was Wednesday against Golden State, and they were no match for the defending champs. The Warriors shredded Chicago’s interior defense and out-hustled them on the boards, resulting in a second straight beatdown of a top team in the East. The Bulls looked flat and unmotivated, and they surely missed Noah’s energy in a game where they showed few signs of life.
The young bigs behind Noah will need to prepare for an increased workload in big games like these, especially if Gasol and Gibson can’t help ease the burden. Noah’s first injury was somewhat of a blessing in disguise in that it gave rookie Bobby Portis a chance to play. In the nine games Noah was out of the starting lineup, Portis averaged 20.6 minutes a game—this after logging a combined 63 minutes throughout the entire season. The early returns were spectacular, and after lighting it up against the Knicks on New Year’s Day, Hoiberg stated he was “going to continue to find minutes for Bobby and there’s no doubt about it.”
But then, Portis hit the metaphorical “rookie wall,” and his play started to decline. Since recording a double double against the Knicks, he hit just 9-of-30 shots leading up to Wednesday’s game, and on the season, he’s tied for the worst net-rating on the Bulls. In Detroit on Monday, Portis played only three minutes and didn’t make a shot. He did play a much more significant role against Golden State, scoring 16 points in 24 minutes, and threw down an emphatic putback dunk in the fourth quarter. For stretches, he looked like the best player on the floor not named Rose.
“Bobby will keep himself ready, he’s been working extremely hard,” Hoiberg said before Wednesday’s game. “When Joakim had that nine-game stretch where he was out, Bobby had some very good minutes for us. But he’s going to have to play well. If we want to have a good year, it’s going to be a big stretch for Bobby Portis.”
Portis will have a bigger than expected role for the rest of the season, and will need to build off of his performance Wednesday if the Bulls want to compete. And he’s not the only one who needs to improve. Nikola Mirotic, Noah’s replacement in the starting lineup, has been dealing with inconsistency all season. Mirotic went scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting in 14 minutes and looked completely lost trying to defend Harrison Barnes.
All things considered, it’s hard to deny the Bulls are a better offensive team with Noah on the floor. His 4.3 points per game are the second worst on the team among players getting significant minutes. The Bulls are scoring about three more points per 100 possessions with him off the court compared to with him on it, and the team’s field-goal percentage with Noah off the court is higher than that of any other player. Noah thrived in the Thibodeau era, but Hoiberg has installed a far more complex offensive system, and some pieces left over from previous years just didn’t fit the scheme. Noah, as talented of a player as he may be, happened to be one of them.
Offense aside, there is a huge hole in the middle and the locker room for now.
“The things that Jo contributes—intensity, aggressiveness, rebounding, defense, passing, all of those things—we have to pick up the slack and bring those aspects to the game a little more,” Gasol said.
“He’s the guy that loosens up the bunch,” Gibson said. “[When he’s] in the locker room, or a huddle, or a meeting with the team, he’s always going to be that one guy that says that one funny joke that loosens up everybody. After the surgery, hopefully we can get him back right away, just to have him around us.”
Noah will be back in the locker room as soon as he recovers, hopefully by the upcoming weekend, according to Hoiberg. And he will no doubt bring that personality with him when he returns, but he will not be back on the court, at least not this season, and maybe never again in a Bulls uniform. Time will tell where the Bulls go from here. If they play like they did against Detroit, they have a chance to be an elite team. But if they play like they did against Golden State, you can forget about it.