This should be the time for unbridled optimism for the Chicago Bulls.
Between the long-awaited return of former MVP Derrick Rose and the improved supporting cast around the explosive floor general, Chicago should be finalizing plans for a prolonged postseason stay.
But those plans are on hold indefinitely, just as Chicago's All-Star man in the middle Joakim Noah is. Limited by a sore groin to less than 20 minutes so far in the preseason, it doesn't sound like his condition is improving:
Thibodeau said Butler will play vs. thunder. Hinrich, Noah out and "not doing well."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 23, 2013
Just a few exhibition games, right? No harm in that is there?
Well, it's not quite so simple. He just got back to doing basketball drills on Oct. 23, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, and may wind up missing meaningful games:
Noah said "it's possible" he will miss Heat opener but he's "not there yet."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 23, 2013
After the injury problems this team had to endure last season—none greater than the torn ACL that cost Rose the entire campaign—the 2013-14 season has started on an ominous note before it's even officially gotten underway.
But while the Bulls have surely spotted the panic button, they're not ready to push it just yet.
More Caution Than Concern
Whether by free will or force, this franchise knows all about the importance of patience when it comes to rehab.
Peppered by will-he-or-won't-he-return questions surrounding Rose last season, the franchise resisted temptation to rush the matter and stuck to the high ground. Coach Tom Thibodeau deflected as much of the mounting pressure from the media as he could.
The Bulls took the next-man-up approach and responded with an inspirational journey to 45 regular-season victories and a first-round upset of the far-better-on-paper Brooklyn Nets.
Patience is truly a virtue. For waiting until Rose was both physically and mentally right, the Bulls were rewarded with a new-and-improved version, an electric mix of his old explosiveness and new-found shooting form.
Noah isn't Rose in terms of production. His scoring ceiling likely hovers around last season's performance (career best 11.9 points per game). His rapid rise in distribution (4.0 assists) could be headed in the opposite direction with Rose back running the show.
In terms of value, though, Noah's an integral piece of Chicago's championship picture.
While casual fans gushed over his offensive improvement last season, hoops heads salivated over his defensive exploits. After setting career marks in blocks (2.1), steals (1.2) and rebounds (11.1) while compiling his third straight sub-100 defensive rating (99), he garnered the fourth-most votes in the Defensive Player of the Year award race.
Throw in the fact that he's perhaps Chicago's only player who can match Thibodeau's fiery intensity and you're left with a player who's worth the wait.
His situation demands attention, but for now feels more cautionary than concerning. If he misses a handful of games now, that's a far better option than a lengthy absence down the road. As fierce as his fire burns, it's best kept to a controlled blaze for the time being.
Noah told Johnson that he has no choice but to agree. "I want to be out there as soon as I can," he said. "I just don't want it to linger...It sucks. There's nothing more that I want than to be out there on the court."
Making the smart choice isn't always easy. But the difficulty rests more with Thibodeau than it does with a restless Noah.
The word "replacement" is a stretch. It's more like finding viable options to hold Noah's spot.
The Bulls don't have another player who combines rim protection, high-post offense and frantic glass work the way Noah does.
Depending on the situation, though, Thibodeau has specialists who can fill in wherever needed.
For rim protection, bruisers Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed can seal off the paint. Both bring something unique to the hardwood.
Gibson's physically intimidating, even more so this season. While his physical profile is the first thing that catches the eye, his leaping ability is what makes opposing drivers take note of his presence.
The 36-year-old Mohammed is much more grounded than Gibson, but his wide body (6'10" 250 lbs) makes the paint equally uninviting. A crafty veteran, he's not above shoving the limits of the rule book if he deems it necessary.
A little bit of nasty is always a good thing, right Gregg Popovich?
Offensively, the Bulls don't have another big like Noah.
Carlos Boozer can create his own offense away from the basket (44.4 percent from beyond 16 feet last season), but his passing is, well, you can judge for yourself.
Gibson's a decent shooter (43.0 percent from 10-16 feet), but his range is more limited (31.2 percent beyond 16 feet). As the first big off Chicago's bench, his passing game is either nonexistent (career 0.8 assists per game) or underused.
But Thibodeau has options without Noah.
With Rose back in the mix, Chicago's offense should have all the creativity it needs. That means Thibodeau can opt for a scoring frontcourt with Boozer and Gibson, a defensive group with Gibson and Mohammed or an undersized unit with one of these bigs paired with a stretch 4.
Rookie Erik Murphy has an intriguing mix of size (6'10") and shooting ability, but by Thibodeau's assessment he has "a long way to go," via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
That leaves Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and newcomer Mike Dunleavy to fill that spot. Dunleavy's the best shooter of the bunch (42.8 three-point percentage in 2012-13), Deng is a two-way force from anywhere on the floor and Butler has the necessary athleticism to handle the position in spurts.
None of these are permanent solutions, but again, they don't have to be. If Thibodeau finds something in these expanded roles, that only adds another layer to Chicago's already potent attack when Noah's ready to go.
So, When Should We Sound the Alarms?
Great question, although I am partial to the one asking it.
The Bulls didn't wait an entire year for Rose to lead them to a dominant regular season. The 2013-14 campaign will be graded on the championship-or-bust scale, so anything short of a disastrous start to the season won't be too alarming.
If you want to pinpoint the time of panic, you'll have to wait until Noah's back in action first. The threat of his injury isn't how many games he'll be forced to miss; it's what, if any, ramifications exist when Noah's out on the floor.
Where will the Bulls feel Noah's absence the most?
The Bulls might cash their checks on the defensive end, but they're a sneaky good offensive team with Rose at the helm. The Bulls had the eighth-lowest offensive rating without him in 2012-13 (103.5) but the sixth-best rating the previous season (107.4).
A key component of Thibodeau's attack is the transition game, something the Bulls couldn't get off the ground last season (9.8 fast-break points per game, 27th in the NBA, via TeamRankings.com). Running the floor with a sore groin doesn't sound like much fun; truth be told, I can't think of one thing that does.
If Noah's still hobbled when healthy enough to play, if he's not putting pressure on opponents with his frantic, energetic play, then it's time to panic.
For now, though, keep those alarm bells silent. And while you're at it, take a moment to savor the play of Derrick Rose 2.0.