Chicago Bulls: Big Men Having Big Nights, Joakim Noah Can't Get Back Soon Enough

Ed LeiserCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21: Injured player Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls watches as his teammates take on the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center on December 21, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 121-76. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The news out of the Chicago Bulls headquarters regarding Joakim Noah's health is very promising, and the young center could return as soon as the team resumes play following the All-Star break.

Noah, out since Dec. 15 with an injury to his right thumb, was having an All-Star-caliber season, averaging 11.7 rebounds per game, and 14 points per game.

When he's on the court for the Bulls, Noah is one of the top rebounders in the league, and this season he even chipped in offensively for the Bulls while current No. 2 scorer Carlos Boozer rehabbed from a preseason injury.

Noah's other significant contribution, however, is what the Bulls are presently missing: his defense.

The Bulls had been playing terrific basketball without the fourth-year center from Florida, winning nine of 10 ball games before their current two-game skid on a West Coast road trip, but there have been alarming offensive performances recently from opponents' big men.

While it's admirable that the Bulls were able to stay more than afloat in Noah's absence, there is no doubt now that Noah needs to return to the paint soon for the Bulls to maintain their grip atop the Eastern Conference standings.

The first sign of trouble came at the United Center Jan. 28, when Orlando's Dwight Howard put on an epic performance on the offensive side of the ball, dropping 40 points on 14-of-20 shooting.

The Bulls won that game 99-90 based on the fact that although Howard had a fantastic night, the Bulls held the rest of the Magic in check, allowing just one double-digit scorer other than Howard (Gilbert Arenas, 11 points).

Howard, a perennial All-Star and one of the game's elite, will have those kind of nights—and his 14-of-20 shooting is on par with his .581 field goal percentage this season.

Therefore, the Bulls were able to chalk that game up as a win despite an outrageous performance from one of the game's greats.

But the events of last night's disappointing loss to the Portland Trail Blazers definitely support the idea that Noah is needed back—and fast.

LaMarcus Aldridge, a fine player in his own right, had a 42-point outburst not many would have seen coming.

Aldridge, a 48 percent shooter, got his 42 points on 15-of-23 shooting, and was simply not challenged enough by a timid Bulls defense.

Portland executed a flawless pick-and-roll game throughout the night, and the Bulls were either too confused or disinterested in stopping the All-Star snub out of the Western Conference, who came into play averaging just over 20 points a night.

Kurt Thomas, who has played well defensively at times this season, only played 22 minutes, and power forward Carlos Boozer played very poorly on the defensive side of things.

Aldridge, to his credit, played one of the best games of his young career, but allowing anyone not named Dwight Howard to go off for a 40-plus outing is no longer acceptable for the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls have the league's top defense from an opponent field goal percentage standpoint (.425), but these recent outbursts are beginning to make the Bulls look very beatable.

Noah will need at least two more weeks before he's back in the fold, and even then won't be up to full speed until the end of February at the earliest.

When he does return, however, the pressure will be on him to limit other teams' big men and make them work for their points.

With Noah manning the paint, Boozer will be able to more freely roam and use less energy on the defensive side of the court, which could hopefully lead to better offensive numbers.

On Monday before the loss to Portland, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau spoke:

“Again, he's got a very small cast on his hand, once that comes off then he'll be able to practice and take some contact on. Once he does that, he can get through that, then he plays. But right now, he's right on schedule. Most likely, right after the All-Star break."

If Thibodeau is accurate, then the Bulls may finally be able to take the court with their original starting five, and will hopefully challenge for a top three seed in the East.

The Joakim Noah watch officially starts. 

Hurry back, Joakim.