If only for a couple fleeting weeks, Joakim Noah's shoulder injury looked like a blessing in disguise for the Chicago Bulls. When Noah went down Dec. 21, the Bulls responded by reeling off six wins in their next seven games, a stretch that included victories over the Thunder, Raptors and Celtics and saw the team score 100 points or more in every contest.
It didn't take long before the Bulls realized what they were missing.
At the time of Noah's initial injury, the Bulls were No. 2 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to 97.8 points per 100 possessions. From that point on, the Bulls were the league's eighth worst defensive team, allowing 106.9 points per 100.
Noah wasn't entirely responsible for holding the defense together -- opposing teams were also missing a lot of open looks during the start of the season -- but his absence was definitely a major reason the Bulls devolved into a sieve as the season went on.
Noah is now set to enter unrestricted free agency at age 31 and there's a good chance he's played his last game in Chicago. That is an extreme bummer for one of the great players in franchise history, but basketball will forever be a young man's game. It's time for the Bulls to find their next defensive anchor, their next emotional leader and their next starting center.
Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis could be that player.
With Domantas Sabonis, the Bulls would be getting rebounding, toughness and a potential two-way big man who is just starting to realize how good he can be at 20 years old. Watch what he did to projected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl in the NCAA Tournament and you'll quickly realize this dude is someone you want on your side.
At 6'10, 240 pounds, Sabonis has NBA strength from day one. He was an elite rebounder in college, finishing No. 14 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage (28.2) and No. 126 in offensive rebounding percentage (11.6) last season. The Bulls badly need help on the glass after finishing No. 21 in defensive rebounding percentage last year.
Sabonis is not a rim protector in the traditional sense (more on that later), but he might bring something even more valuable in today's NBA: the lateral quickness to defend the perimeter. It would be too much to expect him to become the same pick-and-roll destroyer as prime Joakim Noah, but he has good balance and quick feet. If nothing else, he should be solid defensively, which is a higher floor than Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic have on that end.
Where Sabonis can be an improvement over Noah is offensively. Sabonis excels at establishing deep post position and has great touch around the rim. He finished his sophomore season with an incredible 65.1 true shooting percentage (No. 19 in the country, per KenPom) and made 61.5 percent of his attempts on two-pointers. He has a solid right-handed hook shot and some crafty up-and-under moves when he gets in close.
It would be a reach to call Sabonis a stretch big at this point in his career, but his jumper seems to be projectable. He made 76.8 percent of his free throws last season (up from 66 percent as a freshman) and knocked down five threes at a 35.7 percent clip. He only attempted 14 threes the entire season, but his low volume-solid efficiency profile isn't all that different from Portis' entering the league.
Sabonis also projects as a solid passer. He had 10 games of three or more assists this season, including seven in a close loss against rival St. Mary's.
Domantas Sabonis has alligator arms. There's nothing he can do about it.
Sabonis skipped the draft combine, but measured at a 6'10.5 wingspan a year ago. That means he lacks NBA length for a power forward and would be at a pretty sizable disadvantage for a center. To put that limitation in perspective, 6'4 Vanderbilt point guard Wade Baldwin IV (another possible draft target) has a 6'11.25 wingspan. Noah measured at a 7'1.25 wingspan, which is only about average.
While Sabonis is a good athlete, he definitely isn't an elite athlete. Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond have elite athleticism for an NBA center. Not only are all of those guys way bigger and longer than Sabonis (Drummond has the shortest wingspan of the three at 7'6!), they are also way more explosive, too.
In Portis and Mirotic, the Bulls have two good, young offense-first bigs. The question is whether those two play enough defense to co-exist on the floor full-time.
If the Bulls draft Sabonis, they would get someone who could give them solid play on both ends of the floor while complementing the games of both Mirotic and Portis. At that point, the Bulls would have a solid three big rotation in the front court locked down for the foreseeable future.
I think Sabonis would be a great pick. If there's two things the Bulls have lacked in recent years, it's a) two-way players, b) passion and intensity. Sabonis would check both of those boxes. There are just a couple things that give me hesitation:
a) How good is Cristiano Felicio?
I was fully on-board the Felicio bandwagon at the end of last season. The Bulls must like what they see in him considering they kept him on the roster as the 15th man the entire season, and they never do that. It's entirely possible this franchise has a young two-way center already on the roster. At which point ....
b) Would the Bulls be in danger of stacking the front court too much again?
This is a real concern. The Bulls need a young point guard with Derrick Rose entering free agency a year from now. They could use a two-way wing with Mike Dunleavy being too old, Tony Snell being trash and Doug McDermott only profiling as a one-way player.
If the Bulls take Sabonis, I think that means you have to trade Taj Gibson. Gibson will be 31 next season and should still have a few good years left. Taj is one of my favorite athletes ever, but at this point I almost want to see him traded for his own sake. Taj is way too good for this situation, and I think it's at least possible the Bulls could grab a late first rounder for him with one year remaining on his contract during an offeseason everyone is going to have cap space.
Even during a time when the league has gravitated to perimeter play instead of interior play, an average center is still a lot more valuable than an average point guard. Sabonis has a chance to be much better than just average. If the Bulls don't draft him, they are likely looking at throwing a $15 million per season contract at Bismack Biyombo or Ian Mahinmi in free agency. Sabonis could fill the same need for much cheaper, with a lot more offensive potential.
When the Bulls were among the best teams in the NBA, many of us rolled our eyes at concepts like toughness and intensity. In the last two years, both of those intangibles have been missing in a major way. Sabonis would give the Bulls a fighter, someone who could conceivably be their heart and soul the next time they are ready to contend.
You don't just replace a player as great as Joakim Noah, but drafting Sabonis would go a long way toward restoring some of this best qualities to this franchise. To me, that's worth the No. 14 pick in the draft.