A first-time All-Star in 2013, Noah missed all but three of the Bulls' final 15 games with plantar fasciitis in his foot. Though he played in each of the season's final two contests, Noah looked noticeably hobbled when on the floor and lasted only 14 minutes each time out.
It was a disconcerting sign, Noah limping around and obviously in serious pain. But the Bulls remained hopeful that at least a semi-healthy version of Noah would be available for their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.
Coach Tom Thibodeau said Thursday that the team was planning on having its seven-footer in the lineup but acknowledged the possibility lingered that Noah would sit.
"It's possible, yeah; he's still day to day," Thibodeau said (via ESPN's Doug Padilla). "If he has soreness, we're going to take it as it comes."
Twenty-four hours later and the prognosis has only gotten worse. According to Nick Friedell of ESPN, Noah had a setback with his injury and is currently listed as doubtful for Game 1 in Brooklyn Saturday:
Noah later went into full detail about his injury to reporters, expressing frustration that he tried playing through pain.
“I’ve got a tear in my foot," said Noah (via Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago). "It is what it is. I’m upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time and I have no one to blame but myself. I just wish that I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I shouldn’t have played."
Barring a miracle, it seems Noah has traded regular-season games he shouldn't have played in for ones where his team will desperately need his presence. This injury doesn't just put the Bulls in jeopardy of losing; a long-term absence from Noah puts them on life support.
With apologies to Luol Deng, Noah became the driving force behind the Rose-less Bulls' run to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Often criticized for his lack of development offensively, Noah was vastly improved on that end this season—especially as a passer. The 28-year-old big man posted 4.1 assists per game this season, besting all other players at his position. He showed a Marc Gasol-like ability to pass from the elbows, albeit a slightly less refined version. That improvement allowed Chicago to get critical open shots, improving spacing for a team that desperately needed that help.
Of course, touting Noah for his offense is like touting The Walking Dead writers for their creative dialogue—it misses the point.
Noah is first and foremost a defensive stalwart: a seven-foot menace in the middle who is arguably the most active and energetic big man this side of Kenneth Faried. He was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before going down, with the Bulls allowing 98.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 102.9 with him on the bench. For perspective, that's the difference between being the third-best defense with Noah and 13th in the league without him, per NBA.com.
Though most would point to Noah's two blocks and 11 rebounds a night, Chicago will miss the little things Noah does more than anything.
Noah is the traffic cop in the middle for the Bulls, barking out screens and constantly keeping the communication for Chicago going. That's critical for a Tom Thibodeau defense, which is predicated on constant talking and smart rotations—especially in pick-and-roll sets.
What's more, the problems Noah's injury creates are only exacerbated by the questionable health of Taj Gibson. Chicago's bench defensive ace has missed much of the last month-plus with a knee injury, and he'll be wearing a bulky knee brace during the postseason. A healthy Gibson could theoretically slide over to the 5 if Thibodeau wanted go small; his toughness down low and understanding of rotations could have made him a Noah-lite.
A hurt Gibson and an injured Noah, though? That's a recipe for a Thanksgiving-sized portion of Nazr Mohammed, about as tasty of a treat as your great aunt's canned yams. At 35 years old and a decade-and-a-half into his NBA career, Mohammed is frankly dreadful offensively and understandably doesn't pack a prime-level defensive punch anymore.
In the macro sense, this will put a glaring spotlight on the Bulls' decision to not match Houston's offer on Omer Asik. A financial call made mostly to avoid the luxury tax, Asik's departure left Chicago without a defensive anchor to its Bench Mob. It will be wonderful fodder for revisionist historians to stand on a mountain of pious glee if Noah's injury costs the Bulls this series.
It's not an unfair position. Even with Rose still sitting out as his return saga continues, the Bulls had a very good chance of unseating the favored Nets.
Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng are outstanding perimeter defenders and could have given Joe Johnson and Deron Williams fits had Thibodeau gone that route. Reggie Evans is a complete non-entity on offense, the type of one-ended player who perfectly contrasts with Carlos Boozer's slow-footedness. And with the Noah-Gibson duo pounding Brook Lopez in the paint, this series had all the makings of a knockdown, drag-out defensive battle that plays right into Chicago's hands.
Any speculation beyond this series is not needed—Brooklyn and Chicago are both playing for the right to get splattered like a gnat on the runaway train Miami Heat's windshield. And considering Rose's season-long absence, a championship went out the window a long time ago for the Bulls this season.
Nevertheless, success is all relative. The Bulls failed to make the second round without their superstar last postseason, crumbling under the enormous weight of Rose's injury. If Chicago fails to do so 12 months later, it'll likely have another star's injury to blame.