Coach Fred Hoiberg mentioned rookie big man Cristiano Felicio twice during his post-practice remarks Sunday, an indication of how quickly Joakim Noah's impending shoulder surgery affected the Bulls' big-man depth.
Hoiberg said Taj Gibson, who also happens to be the starting power forward, is the Bulls' backup center. Minutes are definite for first-round pick Bobby Portis (Arkansas Razorbacks) and possible for the untested Felicio as well as Cameron Bairstow. The Bulls, Hoiberg said, also can play small with Portis at center and Nikola Mirotic at power forward.
They'll need to come up big to overcome the emotional hangover of losing a teammate as popular as Noah, who's working with his representatives to determine which doctor will perform the surgery that will sideline him four to six months.
Noah, who's is expected to make a full recovery, will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his nine-year career this summer. How that plays out will be fascinating as Noah, who genuinely loves Chicago and playing for the Bulls, may need a short-term deal to restore his standing in the league.
But that's long-term stuff. The short-term impact is as real as Hoiberg's matter-of-fact claim that Noah is the Bulls' "best post defender" and, along with Jimmy Butler, one of the team's two best overall defenders. Hoiberg also praised Noah's playmaking ability.
"It's hard to accept the news," Pau Gasol said. "Jo brings a lot to our team, a lot of energy, great spirit, great competitiveness, intensity. But in sports, these things happen. It's unfortunate. It can happen to anyone. I'm sorry it happened to him."
Noah passionately recruited Gasol in free agency during the 2014 offseason. The two veteran big men talked Friday night after Noah's injury and exchanged text messages over the weekend.
"Injuries are probably the worst moment for an athlete," Gasol said. "Because it stops you from doing what you love to do. You become sad and bitter. At least that's what I feel. But hopefully he heals well and whenever he does get surgery, the surgery goes well and it doesn't become a long-term issue for him."
Playing Gasol more also is an option, but for now it's not a great one. He's playing through a sore left shoulder that, in his words, "is going to be sore for a while" and also a painful Achilles.
Overall, Gasol is averaging 31.6 minutes. Of the 10 times he has played 35 or more minutes, five have come when Noah was sidelined.
"I don't know how much they can or will increase [minutes] at this point," Gasol said. "I like to compete. And I like to push it until the wheels fall off. Hopefully, it won't get to that point. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team as much as possible. If I play a couple more minutes a game, so be it."
Portis played well when Noah missed nine games after his left shoulder separation Dec. 21. The rookie's production has been uneven since Noah's return, in part because of uneven minutes, in part because Portis has landed on scouting reports now.
"He's going to have to perform," Hoiberg said. "Obviously, now it's different."
Everything is different now. Noah isn't coming back, as he was following his last injury. His emotional leadership will come when he's in street clothes.
"It's tough," Hoiberg said. "Jo is such a passionate kid, a big-time leader of this team with so much energy. Even when he wasn't playing, he was always keeping guys' spirits up, and I know he'll continue to do that when he's around. But I really feel bad that he's going to have a surgical procedure. It's tough on everybody right now."
Sports on 01/18/2016