Joakim Noah's Ankle Trouble Will Doom Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose Sidelined

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 06: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls reacts during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 6, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers won 89-82 to go up 3-1 in the series. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Joakim Noah's ankle is feeling good according to ESPN's Jesse Rogers—now we just have to hope it stays that way.

And hope hard.

The Chicago-Tribune's K.J. Johnson reports that Noah believes he'll need to keep a close eye on that left ankle for the foreseeable future:

Noah said his ankle didn't feel 100 percent until a month ago: "Ankle rehab is something I think I will have to do the rest of my career."

— K.C Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 3, 2012

Noah sprained the ankle in Game 3 of the Bulls' first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, even attempting a fourth-quarter return before everyone realized that was a terrible idea.

Needless to say, what small chances Chicago had of making a deep postseason run after Derrick Rose's season-ending ACL tear were eliminated altogether with Noah out.

To say the club could ill-afford to lose its starting center was (and is) an understatement. Though the 6'11" spark-plug won't score many points (outside of the occasional point-blank look at the rim), he does just about everything else you could ask of a big man. Noah averaged 9.8 rebounds in just over 30 minutes a game, a rate that ranked seventh in the league per 48 minutes of action.

Though not one of the league's most prolific shot-swatters, Noah still averages 1.4 blocks and plays physical, active defense in post situations while moving his feet and using his length when guarding the pick-and-roll.

Of course, the Bulls at least had Omer Asik to replace Noah last season, and he was no slouch on the defensive end either.

They won't have that luxury going forward after the back-up signed a lucrative three-year, $25 million deal with the Houston Rockets this summer.

That makes Noah even more indispensable, with free-agent acquisitions Nazr Mohammed and Kyrylo Fesenko the only other traditional centers on the roster. Power forward Taj Gibson can man the 5 in a pinch, but he's an undersized solution against any team boasting an offensively-inclined seven-footer.

You don't want him having to defend Roy Hibbert in a seven-game series.

So, it goes without saying that Noah and Chicago's training staff will remain vigilant in their approach to keeping his ankle strong and loose.

Noah has four years and $50 million remaining on his contract, so the Bulls really don't have a choice. They're unlikely to find a better replacement anytime soon, and it's hard to imagine the organization receiving fair value in any trade if Noah's viewed as an injury risk.

In all likelihood, Noah will remain the interior presence on whom Derrick Rose depends for at least the next four seasons. 

The Bulls need him healthy.

Ankle sprains can result in a number of long-term challenges, especially if there's significant ligament damage. In that event, the ankle loses stability and flexibility, increasing the likelihood of future injury—bad news for a 27-year-old big man who makes his living with his energy and mobility.

Of course, there are ways to guard against re-aggravating the sprain, and that's exactly what Noah means by the protracted rehabilitation he mentions.

There's no guarantee that another problem will emerge in the short-term, but even the hint of a problem could lead the Bulls to sideline Noah out of an abundance of caution. With their eyes on a postseason prize, they can't afford to do otherwise.

Should it come to that, Chicago is in trouble. The team relies upon its defense keeping opponents within striking distance when Rose isn't running the show, and that defense will be essential to the Bulls maintaining a respectable spot in the standings.

Rose's much-anticipated return could be too little, too late if his club loses another key piece—especially Noah.

Fortunately, that's just a worst-case scenario. Let's hope it stays that way.