Joakim Noah was noticeably hurting at the tail end of last season's playoff series against the Wizards, and shortly after the Bulls bowed out in five games, the big man had what was deemed a "minor" knee surgery that had an expected rehab time of eight-to-10 weeks.
Over five months later and on the cusp of the 2014-15 campaign, Noah still doesn't appear to be 100 percent. The Bulls have smartly limited his minutes, although he did play both nights of a back-to-back several days ago, which was a positive sign.
Noah is a notoriously slow starter, and after the not-so-glowing talk about his injury at Media Day, I figured it would take some time before he looked like himself. But should there be a greater worry when it comes to his health?
That answer is yes, at least according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
"Jo's [left] knee is going to be an issue all season,'' the source said. "He has played through pain before with the plantar [fasciitis], but this is completely different, a different level.''
The source wouldn't go into detail on what exactly was the lingering issue with Noah's knee, especially after he had exploratory surgery in May that was deemed minor. He was asked if Noah's knee would be a problem beyond this season and said, "I'm not getting into that.''
Cowley's source also claimed that Noah was "panicked" entering training camp because he was worried that he wouldn't be ready for the regular season. This would kind of match up with some of the gloomy stuff said at Media Day about the lengthy and "boring" rehab process, although it also sounds a bit overdramatic.
So what gives here?
Clearly the injury was a bit more serious than initially thought, and that was confirmed when Noah gave a status update on Wednesday:
Noah's knee surgery took more rehab than Bulls projected. Noah will wear brace all season. Noah said difference between pain/maintenance.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 22, 2014
Noah said he hasn't been dealing with any pain, which would seem to go against the idea that it's on a "different level" of pain than his previous bouts of plantar fasciitis. He admitted he wasn't feeling great at the outset of camp, and he said he still needs to build up more strength in his leg. However, he's not upset with his progress and believes he can handle extended minutes once the season starts, per KC:
"In the beginning I was a little bit more uncomfortable," Noah said. "I was a little limited. I still have to get my strength back in my leg. Just trying to manage practicing, playing. But overall I'm happy with where it's at."
Asked if he's confident he could handle extended minutes once the regular season began, Noah answered briefly.
"Yes," he said.
Noah's comments are somewhat promising, although with his injury history, it's only natural to have some lingering concern about his health. After all, he hasn't ended a season healthy in years. So when a guy with numerous prior lower-body injuries takes quite a bit longer than expected to recover from another lower-body injury, there's reason to take notice.
While the Bulls didn't expect Noah's rehab to take so long, perhaps their actions in free agency gives a bit more insight into their thinking on his situation, as Cowley speculates. After missing out on Carmelo Anthony, the Bulls immediately turned to Pau Gasol, something I found a bit odd at the time. Carlos Boozer was on the outs, but Noah and Taj Gibson remained in the fold, while the Bulls were also working hard to bring over Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls could have used some help on the wing, but instead they fixated on adding Gasol to an already strong frontcourt.
Did they do this over concerns about Noah's health this upcoming year and moving forward? Gasol is 34 and has injury concerns of his own, but with three quality bigs plus a high potential player in Mirotic, the Bulls could run a rotation that could help limit some of those concerns. Limiting minutes never guarantees perfect health, but it should at least help.
Now, I'm operating under the assumption that Gasol is still a "quality" big. He produced when healthy last season, and although his defense has slipped considerably, the hope is that he'll at least be an upgrade over the dreadful Boozer.
Thus far, the results have been rather underwhelming. Gasol's length has been an asset at times on defense, as he has racked up 15 blocks in the preseason. Boozer blocked 22 shots all of last season. But Gasol has issues moving laterally, and he was torched by Anderson Varejao in the loss to the Cavs.
I'll forgive Gasol for the defense, though, because I'm not really expecting much on that end anyway. Again, if he can at least be better than Boozer (low bar, right?), I'm fine with it.
What I wouldn't be fine with is crappy offense, and that's what we've kind of gotten thus far. The Bulls have run a lot of stuff through Gasol in the post, and while we have seen his superb passing ability create some good looks, we've also seen a lot of bricked jumpers (but two corner threes!) and not enough easy baskets in the post.
For the preseason, Gasol is shooting just 41.4 percent from the field, and he hasn't been getting to the line much outside of the game against the Bucks when he went 12 times. He's also had a couple five-turnover games and a four-turnover game.
I'm going to go the optimistic route and say Gasol's struggles are just a function of finding his way in a new offense. It likely doesn't help that Noah isn't himself yet, and it may take some time before these two figure it out. There have been some issues with spacing, but once they gain some chemistry together, hopefully things run more smoothly. This is especially the case if Tom Thibodeau is going to use them as the primary closing bigs.