It has been a wild ride for the fans of the Chicago Bulls so far in their 2010-11 campaign. We endured the disappointment of losing, our new acquisition, Carlos Boozer for the first 15 games of the regular season. We then witnessed the emergence of Derrick Rose as an MVP award candidate and watched him become one of the league's best players. And now, just as the Bulls were beginning to hit their stride after winning their seventh straight game, we learn that the Bulls will lose their starting center Joakim Noah—just as he was putting forth his first All-Star caliber season...
Noah's vibrancy, rebounding, interior defense and his all-around stellar play will make a void that is impossible for Chicago to completely fill for the next 30-plus games, as he recovers from thumb ligament surgery. But there is plenty of reason for Chicago fans to stay optimistic about the Bulls' season, as it moves forward...
Since Boozer's return from a broken right hand nine games ago, Luol Deng has begun to adapt to a role which he has never had to deal with before: being a third scoring option for the Chicago Bulls.
Most fans of the Bulls are painfully aware of Deng's huge contract and limited set of skills. But we do realize that Deng has served us well as a second option scorer for the team, since we acquired him from the Phoenix Suns in 2004 on Draft Day.
Now, the 25 year-old small forward has stepped out of the spotlight and into the background of the Bulls' success. Deng is averaging a stellar 15.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per-game as a third option scorer alongside Rose and Boozer.
Now, in the absence of Noah, Deng will likely boost that production as he will play more minutes at the power forward position, according to head coach Tom Thibodeau. This could only mean good news for the Bulls' offensive output, as we will be likely to see more playing time out of sharp-shooter Kyle Korver at the three-spot.
Playing small with Deng at the four will likely mean faster offense and more easy baskets in transition—as Deng is much more mobile there than at his natural "three-man" position.
The Chicago Bulls do have two centers left on the roster, even after the Noah injury: the 24 year-old Turkish export, Omer Asik, and the well-preserved 38 year-old Kurt Thomas.
Kurt Thomas has only appeared in five games so far this season for the Bulls. But the 15-year veteran served as a respectable replacement for the Milwaukee Bucks, when their starting center Andrew Bogut went down for the remainder of the season with an elbow injury. Kurt Thomas averaged 5.7 points and 8.6 rebounds in the last 14 games of the season/playoffs for the Bucks. They went 5-2 in their last seven regular season games and forced the Atlanta Hawks into a seven game series with Kurt Thomas as a starter.
Asik also brings defense and shot-blocking to the table. But he has shown that he is still a very raw NBA talent. Every few possessions, he seems to either commit a foul on defense or travel on offense.
Though he has shown that he has plenty of length to alter shots and rebound.
Taj Gibson has benefited from the Boozer injury earlier in the season to grow accustomed to playing under, first-year Head Coach Thibodeau. Since Boozer's return, his playing time has only decreased from 27 to 23 minutes per game.
But, without Noah's interior defensive presence, his minutes are likely to rise to 30 or over.
This will also give Gibson a chance to play some quality minutes with new teammate, Boozer. Gibson will definitely benefit from starting some games alongside the former All-Star power forward. It should allow the two to learn how to play together more effectively.
Teams not named the Chicago Bulls (16-8) in the Central Division have a cumulative record of 36-63. This bodes well for the Chicago Bulls' playoff hopes if they are counting on finishing with a high seed. It appears that the other half-way respectable looking teams in the division are the Milwaukee Bucks (10-14) and the Indiana Pacers (11-13).
But can either of those teams consider themselves up-to-par with the Bulls—even without Joakim Noah?
And if the Bulls do finish atop of the Central Division, they are guaranteed no less than a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls currently boast a record of 16-8 after playing the Lakers twice, Denver twice, Oklahoma City twice, Boston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Orlando.
Over the next 34 games, up to the month of March, the Bulls will play 26 of those games against teams who currently stand at a sub-.500 record. And those first six games against teams with winning records will all be home games.
This means that Chicago could potentially run the table for the next three months, even without the services of Noah...
Boozer is beginning to come along nicely as a member of the Chicago Bulls. He is averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, on 52% shooting from the field, for the Bulls over his last five games. In his past three games, he has increased his scoring output in each game from 17, to 22, to 34 (in three quarters) in Wednesday's victory in Toronto.
Now that Noah is absent, Boozer's now become the pick-and-roll option for the Bulls to run along next to Derrick Rose.
We have seen Boozer develop do this countless times with Deron Williams while with the Utah Jazz. Now, he and Rose have a chance to gain the rapport with one another, and strike fear into defenses around the NBA. This could be a deadly one-two punch with either Deng or Gibson also in the game and stretching the floor for the Bulls.
Chicago may still have two players representing them in the All-Star game for the first time since the 1996-97 season, after all, despite the injury to Noah.
No longer will the Bulls need to ward off speculation that they are the "next big thing" in the Eastern Conference. Noah did it earlier in the season when TNT's Charles Barkley boldly stated, "I think the Chicago Bulls are going to win the East. I love what they're doing in Chicago."
"Poison," Noah said with a smile. "We're not in the Finals yet. I love Chuck. I think he's great for the game. I love his honesty. He always tells you how he feels. But it's poison."
Clearly, the Bulls want the pressure off their backs on those of the much-hyped Miami Heat and defending Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics.
And who can blame them?
We all witnessed this happen to LeBron James and the heavily favored Cavaliers last May. Most "experts" and analysts picked them to beat Boston in four or five games and make it to the NBA Finals, but they lost in the Conference Semi-finals...
Noah's return will only mean good things for the Bulls whenever it happens. Three months may seem like a long time for fans to sit and wait for him to come back.
But our patience may be rewarded by watching a suddenly revamped Bulls team running out of the gates.
Three months of experimenting with different line-ups that lack, the double-double machine, Joakim Noah is a lot of time to fine-tune an offense that has had its high and lows...
If the Bulls hit their stride just in time for the final stretch of March and April, teams in the catbird seat, like the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, better beware.