Joakim Noah, starting center for the Chicago Bulls, underwent surgery earlier today to repair a torn ulna collateral ligament in the thumb on his right hand. All reports indicate that the surgery was a success, and the big man in the middle with the crazy hair will now face an eight- to 10-week rehab process to get back out on the floor. The news that Noah would be disappearing from the team's lineup for a good two months or so was, indeed, devastating. But it also highlighted the fact that, in case you haven't noticed (and I know you have), the Chicago Bulls are back. They have been reborn.
Since the team won its last NBA Finals in 1998, it's been largely a struggle for the Bulls to regain the respectability that Michael wrought. Season after season -- with a couple of hopeful blips -- has gone by with little to really get excited about. That's different this year. Derrick Rose is now almost universally accepted as a legit future superstar. And, despite his own injury issues, Carlos Boozer seems to be well on his way to cementing his reputation as a solid free agent addition who neither wants nor needs the hype.
And then there's Noah. He represents youthful energy at its best, stellar defense and, so we've learned in the last 24 hours, pure competitive heart. After suffering the thumb injury in the Bulls' Nov. 27 game against the Sacramento Kings, he's played through incredible pain to stay productive over the past few weeks.
Yes, there's something different and exciting about this particular team that has a lot of people paying attention. The question is: Can the reborn Chicago Bulls cope with Noah's loss as well as they coped with Boozer's?
The good news is the Bulls have depth. But having depth doesn't necessarily mean having the perfect fit for a replacement -- just options to consider.
Taj Gibson stepped up big time in Boozer's absence, but he doesn't really bring the size of a true center. Omer Asik has the size but remains a relatively positive work-in-progress who doesn't shoot with much confidence and can seemingly foul out in the blink of an eye. Boozer himself may assume the (undersized) center role, but he seems to be finally getting his groove back at his current position. Why mess with it? Same thing for Luol Deng, asking him to step out of his current role to play center would seem to be asking too much. Of course, the 230 lb. elephant in the room is Kurt Thomas, a bona fide center who's also 38 years old and has played all of 12 minutes this season.
There's no obvious answer. So head coach Tom Thibodeau will probably be best off mixing and matching the lineup as best he can on a game-by-game basis. In the meantime, general manager Gar Forman has hinted that he might explore the trade/free agent market. But, based on that tweet alone, don't expect any quick moves.
On the bright side, the Bulls have at least built up a nice cushion in their division. As of this writing, they're 16-8, five games ahead of the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Central and only four games back of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference overall. If they can tough out Noah's injury as they toughed out Boozer's, they should have Joakim back in time for the stretch run. This team has already made great strides in regaining Chicago's attention, and they'll have to make a big one to keep it after this crushing injury. But I think they've got it in 'em.