As the season opener approaches, the Chicago Bulls may not be playing with a full deck. Again.
This time around, it's Joakim Noah who could start the season in a suit. Noah's been dealing with a groin injury during the preseason, and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't sound overly optimistic about a speedy return.
"When a guy has basically missed all of training camp, we have to proceed with caution," Thibodeau told the Chicago Tribune. "He'd have to be cleared by our medical team. I'll leave it at that."
Noah missing a few games to start the season would be a little disheartening after the long wait to see the Bulls at full strength with Derrick Rose, but it's not the end of the world.
Groin injuries can be reaggregated fairly easily, so playing it safe with Noah until he's back in game shape is probably the best course of action.
Of course, this injury for Noah isn't an isolated incident. On average for his career, Noah has missed a little more than 13 games a season, which is a fairly substantial amount of time.
If this injury turns out to be a lingering one that shelves Noah for an extended period of time, what can the Bulls do to fill the void?
Because of Noah's past injury troubles, the Bulls won't be flying blind to start the season. Backup center Nazr Mohammed, who is entering his 15th season in the NBA, will likely start games at center again and give the Bulls traditional size up front.
Mohammed doesn't bring half of what Noah does to the table in terms of mobility and positioning, but he's at least serviceable.
Although Mohammed will start, super-sub Taj Gibson stands to soak up most of the minutes when Noah is out. Not many teams have the luxury of a frontcourt player who can play both the 4 and 5, but Gibson's athleticism and range offensively allows him to fill in at either spot admirably.
Over the last three years, the Bulls have been better defensively with Gibson on the floor instead of Carlos Boozer, for a few obvious reasons. Gibson is by far the superior weak-side shot-blocker, averaging 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Gibson's mobility also allows him to stymie the pick-and-roll and load up on the strong-side a little quicker with help.
While he's the superior option to Boozer defensively, filling Noah's shoes is a much tougher task.
Perhaps the biggest discrepancy is on the glass. Gibson's career defensive rebounding percentage of 18.4 percent pales in comparison to Noah's 22.6 percent, and even though Gibson is technically the better shot-blocker, Noah's size and sublime awareness allow him to protect the rim more effectively.
Can the Bulls survive with Gibson at the 5? Yes, but it quite literally makes Gibson the last line of defense. Mohammed shouldn't play much at this stage of his career, and the only other "big" guy off the bench on the active roster for Chicago is rookie forward Erik Murphy, who specializes in stretching the floor more than anything else.
The Bulls can handle a short-term injury to one frontcourt player, but that's still teetering dangerously close to the worst-case scenario. Although Boozer has been a workhorse for the Bulls the last two seasons, historically he's been an injury-prone player. Gibson can cover one hole, but certainly not two.
With that in mind, it's a little surprising that the Bulls haven't given Dexter Pittman or D.J. White any real playing time this preseason. If Noah is going to be sidelined for the opener and maybe a few games afterward, you would think the Bulls would want an emergency option at center prepared and ready.
Maybe that speaks to the confidence the coaching staff has in Murphy to help hold the fort down. Alternatively, perhaps the Bulls would be willing to slide Deng down to the 4 and stick Mike Dunleavy, an underrated rebounder and player in general, at the 3. That lineup would need the right matchups, but you could steal plenty of minutes with that group.
In addition to playing Gibson starter's minutes, that smaller lineup is probably the best option at this point should Gibson, Boozer and Mohammed get dinged up or in foul trouble in the absence of Noah.
Free Agent Pickups
What happens if Noah is sidelined for much longer than anticipated? Chicago could bring back Malcolm Thomas, a 25-year-old forward who can really clean the glass. Thomas played with the Bulls last season and excelled in summer league this year, but his partially guaranteed deal made him a cap casualty.
If the Bulls want more true size and don't trust Pittman, free agent big man Chris Wilcox was a pretty solid frontcourt option last year with the Boston Celtics.
Still, the chances Chicago adds another guaranteed salary are slim. Pittman and White are both on non-guaranteed deals until January 7, so any free agent additions before that date are highly unlikely.
You can safely rule out any trade idea that has the Bulls adding salary. Paying more luxury tax is something the franchise wants to avoid at all costs, and it stands to reason that Thibodeau will fight tooth and nail to keep his core together for this season.
Tax payments and a lack of movable salaries outside of the core players probably limits the Bulls from doing anything substantial, and the Bulls front office probably feels they extended Gibson for a reason, after all.
If anything, Chicago would look to trim salary in any trade made this year to lessen the luxury tax hit. If Noah's injuries persisted, perhaps the Bulls would be interested in a deal that would satisfy both needs.
Chicago has $78.1 million guaranteed money on the books this year, while the luxury tax line is $71.7 million. Cutting $6.4 million and getting under the tax while keeping Rose, Deng, Boozer, Noah and Gibson is just about impossible, but moving Kirk Hinrich's salary ($4 million) could at least lessen the blow.
With Marquis Teague emerging a bit and Dunleavy providing outside shooting off the bench, Hinrich is probably the most expendable option for the Bulls, barring the Bulls finding a taker for Boozer.
There are limited options out there, but perhaps the best target would be Houston Rockets big man Greg Smith. The third-year center is likely buried behind Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, and the power forward spot is still completely up in the air with Asik, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas all scrapping for minutes. Don't forget about Marcus Camby, either.
Smith has the potential to break out with extended minutes, though, as he showed off his skill by putting up a 16.1 PER and averaging 13.7 points and 10.4 boards per 36 minutes on 63 percent shooting last year.
If the Rockets wanted an extra perimeter shooter and a great defender against the pick-and-roll, Hinrich would be a great guard to add to the rotation of Jeremy Lin, James Harden and Patrick Beverley, particularly if Lin and Beverley struggle to space the floor adequately this year.
Something along the lines of Ronnie Brewer, Reggie Williams and Greg Smith for Kirk Hinrich, Dexter Pittman and a 2014 second round pick might do the trick for both clubs.
It's important to note that this trade couldn't happen until after December 15 because Williams and Brewer were free agent signings.
Also, it would need to happen before January 7 so the Bulls could waive Brewer and Williams and not be on the hook for their salaries, as the league determines the amount of luxury tax owed based on the team salary on the last day of the regular season. This is why it makes sense for the Bulls to target non-guaranteed contracts in trades that can be released before January 7.
After this hypothetical deal with the Houston Rockets, the Bulls would cut their luxury tax payment from $10 million (where it stands now) to $5 million, which is a nice chunk of change to save.
Much ado about nothing?
In the grand scheme of things, the Bulls just need to be healthy for the postseason. Even if Noah misses significant time to start the season, this team is good enough and has dealt with enough injuries in the past to be considered a shoe-in for the postseason.
Chicago will have one internal option (Gibson) and a few external options if Noah goes down for an extended period of time. That said, the Bulls will probably ride out this current injury and any non-season-ending injury that happens this season, just like they always seem to do.
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