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Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and the Cost of Sacrifice

David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

No other sport asks its players to sacrifice personal accomplishment in the way basketball does. Football is punishing – to say the least – on the body, but if great players come together, that simply carves out larger pieces of the pie for everyone (consider this year in Green Bay, where the absence of Jordy Nelson’s vertical element hasn’t expanded roles for others, it’s shrunk the pie for literally every other player in the offense). In baseball, not only is each plate appearance a relatively isolated incident, the better each hitter is at not creating outs, the more at-bats that will create for the offense as a whole, and for pitchers, starters don’t cannibalize each other in any way while relievers are a problem not when they don’t pitch, but rather when they’re forced to pitch too often.

However, in basketball, possessions will always be even between two teams. Not even a hyper-caffeinated Rio Grande Valley Vipers squad could tilt possession like in football, where, for example, Denver’s defense shut down the Packers on Sunday to the point that the Broncos ran 63 plays to Green Bay’s 46. Now, pace can inflate the overall number of possessions, but there’s only 240 minutes on a mostly running clock to go around, which confines the proceedings in a way that incomplete passes in football or the lack of a clock in baseball do not.

All of this brings us to the Bulls, who, for a franchise that revels in idle stability (the front office is entrenched for the foreseeable future, Nazr Mohammed was their singular offseason departure and there hasn’t been a relevant midseason trade acquisition this decade), have a surprising amount of uncertainty on the roster. Other than Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic, there isn’t a player assured to be on the roster for the long haul.

Surely though, the most muddled area is the frontcourt, where Mirotic is surrounded by three decorated veterans on the downside of their careers. Pau Gasol found a second wind to his career when he came to the Windy City, staying mostly healthy and propping up the offense for games at a time to offset his immobility on defense and sporadic effort boxing out on the glass. His campaign, while occasionally frustrating, also saved Chicago’s season as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, once the pillars of the impenetrable Bulls defense, clearly played through injuries that sapped them of explosiveness on defense while dealing with presumably natural loss of skill on offense (Noah’s shot and Gibson’s coordination seem at least somewhat unrelated to their lower-body ailments).

Despite a minor controversy when he made it clear to reporters that he didn’t volunteer his starting spot to Mirotic, Noah has accepted a role coming off the bench alongside Gibson, a pairing that deserved to be together in the starting lineup over the back half of the Carlos Boozer Era. Now they find themselves in the NBA version of wondering if it’s better to have loved and lost or if it’s better to have loved at all, as Noah faces the reality of a permanent transition and loss of status within the grand scheme of the league hierarchy, while Gibson sacrificed all of that from the get-go, seeing as he started more times as a rookie (70) than he has in the five-plus years since (49).

For all they have and will give up, they won’t be appreciated for it by fans, who so easily type platitudes about unselfishness and teamwork from their computers out of their own selfishness for watching their favorite team win. No player was in more fake trades this offseason than Taj, while the optimism of Noah regaining his form thanks to working with the trainers at P3 has largely faded already. The fan base crushed Derrick Rose for not playing through injuries and his various comments about his future and next contract, yet are more than willing to cut bait on the old guard, largely to see what rookie Bobby Portis can provide.

The sad part is those fans very well might be right, which is a good lesson that not all sacrifices are equal. LaMarcus Aldridge undoubtedly uprooted his life and added pressure on himself by moving to San Antonio, but if that doesn’t result in a ring, well, he’s still one of the most decorated Blazers ever making max money for a contender and a top flight organization. In Miami, although LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all had to alter the way they played, a slight dip in shot volume (that aging might have induced anyway, particularly for Wade) guaranteed a half-decade, at minimum, of chances at the title in the diluted Eastern Conference.

There are no such guarantees in Chicago. The frugal Bulls offered no loyalty bonus to the fiercely loyal Gibson, squeezing him down to the wire at the extension deadline years back, and he’s received just one conference finals in exchange for giving up a chance at pursuing his full potential. As for Noah, he’s now playing career-low minutes, under 20 a night, in a contract year, and the smaller a player’s role, the easier it is to doubt that he can still play. Even Rose faces this paradox, as the more he satisfies his critics by scaling back his ownership of the offense, the more skepticism he’ll receive over whether that’s simply the best he is capable of being at this point.

Butler, Mirotic and Rose (once he can see straight) are the bones of an explosive offense, yet the 2016 Bulls will come down to Noah and Gibson. If even one of them can recover their form, that gives Chicago a chance they don’t have right now with Gasol. (A telling exercise: estimate the number of teams that would have interest in a Noah that’s at least an approximation of his old self. Now try to find a contender that would benefit by trading for and starting Gasol. Right.)

It’s one thing for Andre Iguodala to embrace a sixth-man role in just his second year with the Warriors, and another entirely for the heart, soul and longest-tenured member of a team to not just accept a demotion, but even be amenable to the discussion in the first place. From a basketball standpoint, it makes more sense to pair Mirotic with Noah, which presents at least the possibility of a strong defense, and forms two balanced tandems. Instead, benching Gasol was seemingly never even a consideration, which isn’t shade at Pau so much as it is an appreciation for Noah, who could’ve easily made waves with his future earnings jeopardized.

Though they aren’t playing well at the moment, the unselfishness of Noah and Gibson buys first-year coach Fred Hoiberg time to figure out exactly what he has on his roster, rather than deal with locker room politics right off the bat. At the beginning of a marathon 82-game season, that’s just as important as anything that happens on the court.

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