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Noah still finding his way back for Bulls

This isn’t how Bulls center Joakim Noah envisioned his season going. Not after earning back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2013 and 2014 and being named Defensive Player of the Year last season.

With Derrick Rose injured and Pau Gasol still with the Los Angeles Lakers, Noah was a jack-of-all-trades last season. He averaged
career highs in points (12.6), rebounds (11.3) and assists (5.4).

This season has been a different story, though. Noah’s minutes are down, thanks to offseason knee surgery that has been a seasonlong problem, and his numbers — 7.6 points on a career-low 44.4 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists — are down, too.

Offensively, he has looked out of place at times, especially when sharing the court with Gasol. That’s why coach Tom Thibodeau is watching Noah and keeping all options open. If that means eventually moving Noah from starter to reserve, so be it.

‘‘Just trying to figure out what’s best to get him going at his highest level,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘We have to get that improved. We’ll look at everything — his minutes, what makes the most sense. We know how important Jo is to our team. We’re not ruling anything out.’’

After missing four games with a sprained right ankle, Noah
returned to the lineup in the Bulls’ 102-98 victory Friday against the Dallas Mavericks. He did so as a starter, scoring six points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots. The ankle held up, the energy was high and the smile afterward was huge.

‘‘That’s all that matters — winning,’’ Noah said. ‘‘It feels good. It was a great team effort. Just got to keep building. First game back after a little injury. A little winded out there.’’

Moving forward, though, would the Bulls be better served by
inserting Taj Gibson into the starting lineup and bringing Noah and his energy off the bench? That’s what they’re weighing. The Bulls are 7-4 in the 11 games Noah has missed this season, and Gibson has averaged 13.7 points on 49 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 13 starts.

‘‘Taj has been great all year,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Whatever he’s asked to do, he does. Maybe that’s what makes him so special.’’

The key will be Noah’s health. The Bulls have had a tendency to start slowly, and they might need Noah’s blue-collar mentality and high energy level at the beginning of games.

Noah remains on a minutes restriction and might be on it for the rest of the season, so Thibodeau has a lot to figure out, including how he can balance Noah’s playing time with the lineup he wants on the court at the end of games. All of that will come into play as Thibodeau juggles his three big men and still tries to get rookie Nikola Mirotic some playing time.

‘‘When you look at [Noah’s] rebound and assist numbers, they’re very similar to what they were a year ago [per minutes played],’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘He hasn’t scored the way he did last year, but that will come.’’

That’s why it seems Thibodeau is willing to give Noah the benefit of the doubt — at least for now.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com
Twitter: @suntimes_hoops