Third of a series
Joakim Noah did something no one thought he could this month.
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Not fans, opponents and certainly not his own coaching staff.
He put the Bulls on his back and carried them to a victory in Game 7 at Brooklyn; outdueling Brook Lopez to the tune of 12-of-17 shooting for 24 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists.
This came after he didn't exactly guarantee a road win in Game 7, but predicted as much while sitting at his locker following a Game 6 loss.
So what did that performance mean for Noah's future as an NBA player? Tough to tell.
Overall, his playoff numbers were not great, especially the final two games against Miami when he hit 2 of 11 shots from the field and scored a total of 9 points. But it's tough to fault anything he did after it appeared plantar fasciitis might knock him out of the entire first round.
There is no doubt that Noah, 28, has plenty of value. He was an all-star this season and made the all-defensive first team. If not for the foot problems knocking him out of 15 games, he probably would have been one of the top vote-getters for defensive player of the year.
He's also the primary team leader, whether that's done through words, emotions, energy or example. He's signed through 2016 and figures to stay in Chicago for a long time.
The biggest issue with the Bulls and Noah is playing time. He set career highs in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1), assists (4.0) and blocks (2.1). Clearly, he's getting better, but those improved numbers are also a function of more playing time -- 36.8 minutes per game, easily the highest of his NBA career.
There's no way to prove the extended minutes led to his foot problems. But it would be a smart move to limit his workload next season and see what happens.
The Bulls lost backup center Omer Asik in free-agency and coach Tom Thibodeau didn't use Nazr Mohammed early in the season. There needs to be some sort of plan, whether that's re-signing Mohammed, playing Taj Gibson at center against smaller teams or using the No. 20 draft pick on a big man competent enough to spell Noah for 15 minutes a night.
If he can stay healthy, Noah should be able to continue his arc of improvement. He keeps getting better offensively, whether it's by draining his planet-spinning jump shot, throwing in those lefty bank hooks or making more free throws.
Defensively, he can still get overpowered by bigger, heavier players, but no 7-footer in the league is quicker laterally, which is what makes Noah such a devastating help defender.
Noah is not going to shut down Indiana's Roy Hibbert in the post, but he'll usually slide past Hibbert for 6 or 8 offensive rebounds. Noah ranked third in the league this season in offensive boards, behind Zach Randolph and Tyson Chandler.
Since he has high trade value and a big contract ($12.1 million next season), it's possible the Bulls will listen to offers. But it's more likely Noah will stick around long enough to see his No. 13 hanging from the ceiling.
•Next: Kirk Hinrich