DEERFIELD – Bulls center Joakim Noah had a pretty good Monday.
First, Bulls coaches cleared Noah to travel with the team during a five-city, 12-day road trip as he continues to recover from a torn ligament in his right thumb. He will spend this afternoon on a plane bound for Los Angeles, thereby missing a blizzard forecast for northern Illinois.
“What a bummer,” Noah deadpanned.
Next, Noah practiced one-on-one against Bulls legend Scottie Pippen at the Berto Center. He wore a cast on his right hand but practiced hook shots, dunks and drives to the basket with his left hand while Pippen played light defense and stopped between plays to provide pointers.
“What does Scottie teach you?” Noah said, repeating a reporter’s question as a smile crept across his face. “He has a lot of knowledge of the game and just a little bit of experience.”
“He’s sharing some of the info with the young guys, man. It’s a beautiful thing.”
But the best part of Noah’s day came last.
Doctors removed Noah’s cast after practice Monday, which marked a big step forward in his recovery from an injury that has sidelined him since Dec. 15. Noah will take part in non-contact drills during the road trip and could be ready to return after the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 20.
The Bulls’ fourth-year center cannot wait.
“This month has been a little bit tough for me, not being able to travel with the team and things like that,” said Noah, who averaged 14.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game before he was hurt. “But I think that in watching and not playing, I was able to see a lot of things. I think that we have a chance to do something special, and I want to be as ready as possible for this.”
Even without Noah, the Bulls have showed signs of being special.
In coach Tom Thibodeau’s first year with the team, the Bulls (33-14) have weathered injuries to Noah and Carlos Boozer, beaten top-tier teams such as Boston, Miami and Orlando, and established a 13-game cushion atop the Central Division by dominating lesser opponents. Only nine times in 47 games have Noah and Boozer started alongside each other.
Imagine what Thibodeau could do with a fully healthy roster.
The Bulls’ coach might get a better idea with Noah on the practice court this week. Noah will wear a splint as he works on his timing, his touch and regaining strength in his hand.
“If he couldn’t practice, we probably would have kept him back [during the trip],” Thibodeau said. “But the fact that he can start practicing, I think it’s important for him to be with the team.”
It’s a team that Noah has watched like an ardent fan for the past month. He has liked what he has seen, with the Bulls winning 17 of 23 games during his absence.
“I saw that we’re a two seed right now,” Noah said. “I saw that. I saw that we’re winning against some high quality teams. I saw that, too.
“And I see that we still have a lot of potential and there’s still a lot of areas that we can get better at, which I think is pretty scary.”
The rest of the NBA probably would agree.