Monday, Oct. 4, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
Remember when Joakim Noah was first drafted back in June of 2007? Fans and media members ridiculed the pin-striped seersucker suit and the wild hair. Sure, the guy was a part of two NCAA championship teams at Florida, but what kind of skills would he bring to the NBA? Yes, he played hard and was a good rebounderdefender, but did he have any kind of offensive game that would translate at the NBA level?
The concerns didnt go away when Noah got off to a shaky start in his rookie season as a limited minutes back-up to Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. Noah was too weak to hold his position under the basket and got pushed around by bigger and stronger NBA post men. And then came the infamous argument in Philadelphia with assistant coach Ron Adams. Head coach Vinny Del Negro suspended Noah for one game, but the players, led by Wallace and fellow-veteran Adrian Griffin, convinced Del Negro and then general manager John Paxson to double the penalty to two games. That had to be the low point in Noahs introduction to pro basketball, suspended by management and disrespected by his own teammates.
But to Noahs credit, he just got down to work on improving his game. He earned more minutes after Wallace and Joe Smith were traded to Cleveland, and had a positive finish to his rookie season. The following season he came back stronger and more confident, and started to establish himself as a difference maker on both ends of the floor. Noahs tireless effort and end-to-end hustle also won over the fans and some members of the media, who had labeled him as a first round bust the previous year.
The flashpoint for Noahs development came in the playoff series against Boston in 2009. Noah played brilliantly against the Celtics beefy frontline, and provided Bulls fans with an unforgettable memory with his steal and breakaway dunk to clinch a triple overtime win in Game 6. He had finally arrived as an NBA center, and had become a fan favorite at the United Center.
The improvement continued last season when Noah led the NBA in rebounding, before a battle with plantar fasciitis forced him to spend two stretches on the sidelines. But Noah recovered in time to lead the Bulls on a strong closing run to qualify for the playoffs, and he was outstanding in a five-game loss to Cleveland in the opening round. He earned recognition around the league as one of the emerging big men in the game, and possibly a future All-Star.
Now, Noah will be paid as one of the leagues top centers after agreeing to a five-year contract extension on Monday, reportedly worth 60 million. The Bulls never had any intention of including him in a trade offer for unhappy Denver superstar Carmelo Anthony. Hes highly valued by the front office and new coach Tom Thibodeau as the anchor of the defense and a rapidly-improving player on the offensive end. Derrick Rose is the Bulls best player, but Noah is the inspirational leader. You can look for those two guys to lead the franchise over the next decade.
Back to the drawing board
For all the talk about Carlos Boozer giving the Bulls their first legitimate low-post scoring threat since Elton Brand (and very briefly, Eddy Curry), Thibodeau and his staff will now need to re-design their offense to rely more heavily on Roses talents in the screen and roll game. Boozers broken hand will hurt the team in more ways than just the eight weeks hell be out of action. His work in training camp with all the young players like Noah, Taj Gibson, James Johnson and Omer Asik would have been invaluable to getting the Bulls off to a fast start. Sure, Boozer will be with the team, but he wont be able to scrimmage against the Bulls young post players.
Thibodeau wanted the Bulls offense to be inside-out, with Boozer getting the chance to make plays out of post-ups and high screen-rolls. Now, a lot of that low post offense will have to be put on hold until Boozer comes back. That could mean an expanded role for Kyle Korver, who is clearly the teams best shooter after setting an NBA record for three-point accuracy last season. Keith Bogans will start the pre-season opener in Milwaukee, partially because Ronnie Brewer has been battling a hamstring injury, but also because hes a good three-point shooter who can play off Roses penetration skills.
Dont be surprised if the Bulls make a trade for another proven outside shooter before the regular season begins. They have talked with the Trail Blazers about dynamic perimeter player Rudy Fernandez, but Rudy seems to have his heart set on getting back to Europe, not going to another NBA team that will offer more playing time than his current home in Portland. The Bulls coaches will also experiment with playing Rose and C.J. Watson together in the backcourt to create a faster, more attacking tandem.
And, Boozers injury means the return of Taj Gibson to the starting lineup. Gibson came out of nowhere to make the All-Rookie first team last season, and his versatility will help the Bulls survive Boozers absence. Johnson could wind up getting some backup minutes at power forward, as will veteran Kurt Thomas. Its not the ideal way to start a season with expectations of a division championship, but the Bulls should be okay.
What are your expectations for the first month without Boozer? Will the Bulls have a losing record heading into December? How many wins can they get on the brutally tough circus trip in late November? Please post your comments in the section below, and dont forget well have the pre-season games from Milwaukee and Dallas this week on Comcast SportsNet.
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.