Bulls can be good enough minus Noah

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Lest we forget, the last time we discussed a Joakim Noah injury and whether the Bulls center should have been playing with it, John Paxson and Vinny Del Negro nearly came to blows.

So this is not déjà vu.

More like déjà whew.

Not that it is ever good news when the heart, soul and longest limbs of your franchise goes down and has to undergo surgery on his shooting hand, but this feels -- and is -- entirely different than last season. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous, either.

Thursday morning's operation to repair a torn ligament in Noah's thumb was a success, the Bulls reported, with a return still estimated at eight to 10 weeks. Noah had expressed concern that he had torn three tendons, but Bulls trainer Fred Tedeschi said the other two were merely sprained and that Noah received injections to facilitate the healing progress.

And because it's an upper-body injury, as they like to say in the United Center's other home locker room, Noah will be able to maintain his cardio conditioning until he comes back.

Last season, Noah's bout with the painful plantar fasciitis lingered, causing him to miss 18 games in all and at times to be ineffective on court when he tried playing with it. The Bulls were significantly less effective, going 6-12 without Noah, including a 10-game March losing streak that was promptly snapped the night he returned.

Unfortunately, this season now can officially be defined as hard-luck, despite the Bulls' record, by virtue of having lost acquisition Carlos Boozer for the first 15 games with a broken hand and now facing the next two months or so without the other half of their power game.

"Obviously it affects us not only from a statistical standpoint with his points and rebounds, but the energy that he brings," Bulls general manager Gar Forman said of Noah on Thursday. "He'll still be around the team. But in the short term, it's a blow. Carlos was just getting back into the mix, and they were getting used to playing with each other. But we'll get that back."

Noah is averaging career highs with 14.0 points and 11.7 rebounds, also fifth-best in the league. And you can't replace his energy and consistent will to win, not to be underestimated in a league with 82 regular-season games.

So determined is Noah that he has been playing with the injury, with barely a word of complaint, since Nov. 27, 10 games ago. But you wonder how and why that was allowed to happen with such a vital commodity.

"We knew that next week it was a problem with the ligament," Forman said. "Again, the amazing thing is that he could still play. Then what we did is take our time and do research. He couldn't hurt it any worse. And we knew that. And he was still playing and still productive, so we took our time and looked at what the options would look like moving forward if we waited. And then obviously, at the end of the day, it was all of our decision that the right thing to do was to have it done right now."

If indeed Noah comes back fully healed as expected -- Kirk Hinrich returned after nine weeks from the same injury two years ago -- the Bulls might have gotten lucky, although Tedeschi said they had a two- to three-week window in which to have surgery without making it potentially more complicated and more dangerous.

Clearly, they acquiesced somewhat to Noah's stubbornness.

"You can always tell your kids what they should be doing, but what they do and how they process the information is sometimes another story," Tedeschi said. "I think in some sense he wanted to be there for the team, he felt like he could contribute, and I think it took him a while to kind of come to grips with the fact that this is what he needed to do."

And, of course, he was playing well, which made it that much easier to wait.

"Every one of these I've dealt with, either through pain or instability, they've never been able to play and surgery was immediately called into question," Tedeschi said. "Joakim was able to function at a high level, which is very, very, very unusual for these injuries."

The tough part is that Noah and Boozer were starting to jell. But it will be interesting to see what coach Tom Thibodeau does in using Boozer at center against smaller lineups with Taj Gibson and perhaps Luol Deng at the 4 spot, along with a healthy sprinkling of rookie Omer Asik and veteran Kurt Thomas. And more than interesting, there is no reason to think the Bulls can't play .500 ball or better with frontcourt depth that eluded them in the past.

There also will be adequate time after Noah's return to jell once again and pick up steam before the playoffs.
Make no mistake, however, that Noah's injury has deeper repercussions. While Forman said he doesn't need to add a big man to the roster, this almost certainly doesn't help him find a 2-guard without Gibson to dangle.

And does the team really need Derrick Rose -- who took even more offensive responsibility than usual each night without Boozer -- to fling himself around and scrap for more rebounds without Noah on the floor?

Rose, with a sprained wrist and elbow on his shooting arm, knows how to share the load, but he won't if he can't.

"We've developed a nice chemistry, and a lot of that is Tom and his staff and putting their stamp on this team," Forman said. "Obviously, Derrick has shown at times he has the ability to take over games … but it's more about team goals and individual goals."

Sounds good, anyway. And the team did survive OK without Boozer, going 8-7. But surviving is not what this season was supposed to be about.

"It's frustrating because I feel like we have a chance to be really, really good," Noah said.

Now, just good will have to do.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.