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Joakim Noah energizing the Bulls' frontcourt

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It’s the elephant in the room for the Bulls. Well, probably more so the gazelle in the room, that being the swift, long striding speedster that is Joakim Noah. Then there’s the giraffe, the graceful long limbed Pau Gasol.

It’s getting difficult to overlook after the Bulls impressive 105-89 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Monday.

With Gasol joining Derrick Rose out injured, Noah had arguably his most complete game of the season with 11 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. And certainly the first all around game like that combined with his most emotional, reminiscent of last season’s fiery Noah who was named Defensive Player of the Year and all-NBA first team center.

“Jo’s the head of this train going full steam ahead and when he’s like that it’s easy to follow,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the team with 22 points and eight assists.

So the Bulls went out in free agency and signed a center, Gasol.

Gasol can come dressed as a forward at times with his good shooting range. But with limited mobility and his inside play he’s best playing center. And that’s where the Bulls have primarily used him.

This is no surprise and why Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau especially at media day to opening training camp in late September in his check your egos at the door speech said this season would be about sacrifice if the Bulls hoped to be a title contending team.

It’s a general message, but likely aimed at Noah and Taj Gibson, who with the acquisition of Gasol—even as Noah recruited him—knew it would mean a different and less substantial role for Noah, especially regarding statistics.

That’s because Noah on defense would have to guard the power forward, many of whom in this NBA are so called stretch fours who play outside. So Noah often has to chase smaller and quicker players. Being out of rebounding position has led to some of the Bulls early season rebounding deficits. And on offense, the Bulls for years searching out a post player now in Gasol have someone who can play that role. So they have tilted the offense, especially to start games, to run through Gasol inside.

And Gasol hasn’t disappointed, leading the team in rebounding and blocks and second to Butler in scoring at 18.6 points and 10.6 rebounds. Gasol’s interior play against the Raptors last week was a clinic on post offense. But Gasol with a sore calf missed his first game of the season against the Clippers Monday.

Noah went on to have his best game, though Noah has been improving the last five games. And it was in Los Angeles before a rare two-night stay and full day off before heading to Sacramento for Thursday’s national TNT game.

“He was pumped up,” laughed Gibson.

But Gibson, who had 20 points and six assists starting for Gasol and who has had to address his own disappointment at not being able to start with the acquisition of Gasol, summarized the change for Noah.

“Thinking about last year, he had to be the guy at the elbow making a lot of plays,” said Gibson. “Now he had to adjust his game to playing with Pau. So it is kind of different. He is there with another seven-footer, so it kind of clogs up the paint. He is finding his way. He is taking his time, working on his leg, getting his body stronger again, especially his lower body, and he’s just getting better and better.”

But it raises the question of whether Noah loses his effectiveness as an all-league center playing that way. Of course, in the season Noah played that way the Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Noah never says much about the changes, though his uncertainty seems apparent at times. But he’s also coming back from off season knee surgery that has resulted in him wearing a brace and going through extensive regular rehabilitation.

“Jo’s timing is coming around,” said Thibodeau. “He’s feeling a lot better. It’s been slow. But you can tell; he’s got the bounce back. He was great.”

What was most striking, however, was the unrestrained joy and enthusiasm Noah brought to Monday’s game, something that’s not been as noticeable this season. Noah was immersed in Monday’s game, waving a towel standing in front of the bench, jumping into defensive crouches like Thibodeau does to encourage teammates, shouting defensive instructions and at opponents, talking constantly, gesturing with his made shots. It’s easy to jump to the connection that back in his familiar role in the center of the Bulls offense, Noah was a better player.

Of course, Noah, asked about that after the game, tried to deflect any potential conflict.

“Sacrifices must be made,” said Noah. “To get to where you want to get to, you have to make sacrifices. Overall, we know in the big picture we need all our guys. Whenever Thibs calls my number, I’ll be ready.”

It thus raises the obvious question—anyone see a gazelle streaking through the locker room?—of whether that number should not only be called first to start but with Gibson.

“Jo and Taj have great chemistry together,” noted Thibodeau.

So start them?

Play Gasol off the bench with Gibson and Nikola Mirotic?

That’s not really the answer. There are no easy and certain answers since Gasol is one of the best centers in the league and it’s generally not a good idea to play an older veteran off the bench after he warms up and then sits. Start Mirotic with Noah? A rookie isn’t starting for these Bulls if it’s not Doug McDermott, and it seems unlikely to be McDermott as well the way Mike Dunleavy has played.

It’s just 11 games in, and this is a Joakim Noah who was eased in during training camp, missed a few early season games and has had his playing time limited for health and recovery reasons. So as Thibodeau noted, it’s been more difficult to work in offensive sets for Noah compared with Gasol. And Noah is improving.

In his first four games, Noah averaged six points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

In his past five games (with two missed in between), Noah is averaging 10 points, 10.6 rebounds and six assists, the exact same number in each of the last five games. Noah is now averaging for the season 8.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Last season, he averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. His picture introduces the players’ section of the team’s media guide.

“He’s been coming real fast,” said Thibodeau. “The last three or four games really coming on.”

Though as Butler and Thibodeau note, it’s also Noah’s energy and enthusiasm that motivates and inspires his teammates. Can Noah maintain that level of zeal in a less demanding and involved role?

These things obviously can be worked out in rotations during the game to pair Noah with Gibson. For now given Noah’s playing time restrictions, Thibodeau generally takes out Noah late in the first quarter and has Gibson play with Gasol and then rotates Noah back with Gibson some though more so again with Gasol. As Noah’s physical condition improves, that could change with playing time. And the more confidence Mirotic develops with his shot, perhaps he’ll play more with Gasol, who also is an excellent passer out of the post when he draws double teams. Though if Noah’s minutes increase, perhaps Thibodeau will stay primarily with the three big men, whom he calls starters for any team in the league.

For years, the Bulls have been seeking more depth, more size and a post option on offense. You don’t want to inhibit that even if occasionally it doesn’t smell exactly right.