Noah exited Friday’s 83-77 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the second quarter after reinjuring his left shoulder, which had already sidelined him nine games earlier this season. The Bulls called the injury a dislocation that night, and on Saturday, they announced that Noah will undergo surgery and miss four to six months.
Noah’s season is over, and so, too, might be his nine-year run in Chicago.
He’s set to hit free agency this summer, and given his unhappiness this season with his reduced role in head coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation, the writing has been on the wall for a while that a split is likely.
But that was something the Bulls and Noah would have addressed in July, ideally after one last playoff run with this core that’s been so dangerous on the rare occasions that everybody has been healthy.
"It kind of hits you in the heart seeing him on the bench, seeing him on that table like that,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said after Friday’s game. “I kind of got flashbacks to when Derrick [Rose] got hurt. You don't want to see your man go down like that. It was frustrating."
Once the emotional impact of losing Noah for the season sinks in, the Bulls will have to reckon with everything else that comes with it. And it’s a loss that has widespread implications for all facets of this season.
In the short term, the Bulls have lost their best interior defender at a particularly inopportune time in their schedule. Before the All-Star break, they have games against two title contenders (the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors), three Eastern Conference playoff rivals (the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks) and a two-week, seven-game West Coast road trip.
But beyond that, losing Noah will force the Bulls to recalibrate their expectations for this season.
Even playing decreased minutes coming off the bench, it’s hard to overstate Noah’s on-court impact. He’s the best playmaker in their frontcourt, which has allowed him to mitigate his declining effectiveness as a scorer.
And his impact on the glass is astronomical. The Bulls grab 5.3 percent more of the available rebounds when Noah is on the floor than when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com—the biggest differential for anyone on the team who has played meaningful minutes.
Even though Noah played just 21.9 minutes per game this season (the least since his rookie year), he adds a lot of things that the Bulls don’t have elsewhere on the roster, and it’s going to be a tall task to replace his impact with the personnel they have.
“Everybody's just got to be prepared to fill in for what Jo gave us, which was a lot,” Hoiberg said after practice on Sunday. “He's our best low-post defender, one of our best playmakers on the team. A guy who always generates ball movement when he's on the floor, and just passion and energy. That's going to have to be picked up by the group collectively. That's not just one guy.”
It’s not going to be easy. Bobby Portis played well in increased minutes during Noah’s first shoulder injury, but it’s asking a lot for a rookie to contribute at that level on a night-to-night basis, especially once he starts being included in opposing teams’ scouting reports.
Elsewhere, Hoiberg hinted Sunday that Cameron Bairstow and Cristiano Felicio, who have played a combined 34 minutes this season, will be called upon as rotation players. Nikola Mirotic, who has now played his way out of the starting lineup at two positions, will likely move back to power forward. And Pau Gasol, already playing 31.6 minutes per game, will have an even greater workload with Noah out.
Gasol, by the way, has dealt with shoulder and Achilles' soreness in recent weeks.
As the roster currently stands, that’s what the Bulls have to work with. Making a move before the Feb. 18 trade deadline to add depth would make sense if the Bulls had anything to trade.
Noah has no value on the market if he’s out for the season. Gasol, who can and will opt out at the end of the campaign, likely won’t draw much interest as a 35-year-old rental, despite solid per-game production.
Mirotic’s value has never been lower. And with Noah out of the picture, Gibson is too important to their defense to seriously consider moving, especially for a Bulls front office that has been historically conservative when it comes to making moves that big during the season.
So, for better or worse, this group of players will have to keep its collective head above water in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
In past years, the Bulls have been able to hang their hat on Noah’s defensive intensity and physicality pushing LeBron James’ Cavaliers and Heat teams. Now, they’ll have to find a way to compete against James without Noah, and even the most optimistic Bulls observer has to concede that that proposition isn’t a realistic one.
Through all of the Bulls’ rotten injury luck in recent years, Noah has been the constant, the spiritual heartbeat of this team. Even last season, when he was coming off knee surgery and was, at times, borderline unplayable on the offensive end, his energy and on-court leadership gave them their most consistent identity.
The Noah era in Chicago effectively ended on Friday, and not in the way anybody would have liked. Now, the Bulls are left to clean up the mess that reality has made.