It easily could have gone the other way for Joakim Noah this season.
The Bulls center sat by his locker after a bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in late November, almost despondent as reporters pelted him with questions. When the group moved on, Noah was again asked about his mind-set.
‘‘What do you want me to say?’’ he snapped back at one point. ‘‘We just lost a player for the season that I feel is like my little brother. How do you think I feel?’’
It was just two days after Derrick Rose’s other knee betrayed him, ending his season — the first sucker punch for Noah and his teammates. In early January, they found out forward Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland.
Noah didn’t speak to the media for days after that, seemingly distraught over a 14-18 season headed for disaster.
‘‘I knew the fight the core guys had,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘When Derrick went down this year, I knew the disappointment that we had because of the closeness the guys had to Derrick, but I knew once we got past that, the fight would come back because that’s in them.
‘‘The trade of Luol, you’re looking at these guys like, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ A lot of people would have just laid down, but our team didn’t do that.’’
Noah was a huge reason why. He turned his season around, averaging a career-best 12.6 points and 11.3 rebounds, and emerged as a facilitator in the offense as well as the best-passing big man in the NBA with 5.4 assists per game. He was rewarded with the Defensive Player of the Year Award and finished fourth in the MVP race.
Bigger picture for the Bulls is that when Rose returns next season, it’s no longer his team.
The Bulls belong to Noah.
Who’s coming back
Joakim Noah. Coming off an All-Star season, he could have his best work in front of him this summer as an active recruiter in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
The big man is signed through the 2016-17 season, and at 29 is entering the prime of his career when he should be collecting rings, not early playoff exits.
Taj Gibson. The reserve is still more power forward than center, but in finishing second for the Sixth Man Award, he served notice that he has a high ceiling. He established career highs in scoring (13 points per game) and was the most efficient fourth-quarter scorer on the roster. The best part about Gibson is a contract that has him in a Bulls uniform through 2017 at a very reasonable average of about $8.5 million a year.
Nazr Mohammed. The veteran is again a free agent, but he’s a great teammate and a Thibodeau favorite. Never quit on the idea of another year of Mohammed.
What’s out there
Not much, especially at the price tag the Bulls would be seeking. That’s why Mohammed and a player such as Jason Collins (right) or Greg Oden could get a call. As long as Mohammed’s body allows, the Bulls might stick with whom they know.
This won’t exactly be the ideal draft to grab a center, even with the Bulls owning two first-round picks. Joel Embiid is a top-five pick, and after him, there’s a big drop-off to Jusuf Nurkic, who might end up being an early second-rounder.
POSSIBLE DRAFT TARGETS: None.