Under Thibodeau, the Bulls won 50-plus games three times and made the Eastern Conference finals in 2011. Yet, even though Derrick Rose and Butler carried the Bulls on the court, the heart and soul of those teams was Joakim Noah, who was sent home by the Knicks last month and now awaits a resolution on his NBA future.
Turning 33 later this month and with his physical skills in decline after the accumulation of numerous injuries over the years, Noah is no longer the player he once was. But just four years ago, an argument could have been made that he was the best big man in the league, with his ability to facilitate the offense, alter the game on the defensive end, and make an impact as a rebounder and protector of the paint.
The 2013-14 season still stands as Noah's best individual campaign. In retrospect, it was one of the most remarkable seasons put together by any big man in NBA history.
Noah averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Sam Lacey, Kevin Garnett (who did it three times), and DeMarcus Cousins (this season) as the only players to ever average 11 rebounds, five assists, and at least a block and a steal per game. Noah had 11 games in which he recorded at least 15 rebounds and five assists, and he had four triple-doubles, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and David Robinson at the only centers in NBA history to record at least four point-rebound-assist triple-doubles in a season.
Noah also led the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares, as the Bulls finished with the second-best defensive rating in the league. Despite Rose's season ending after 11 games due to injury and the team trading Luol Deng to Cleveland in January, the Bulls kept winning. Noah ran the offense while simultaneously being the most impactful player in the league on defense. Chicago won 48 games and made the playoffs before losing in the first round.
Noah was the Defensive Player of the Year, named to the All-NBA first team, and finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting behind Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Blake Griffin. He also left an impression on opposing bigs, who were starting to adjust to the league moving toward smaller lineups, which required centers to be more than just low-post threats.
One of those players who took notice was Marc Gasol, one of the best passing big man in the game.
"He was a great passer," Gasol told theScore. "It was important, especially with the NBA going to more of a positionless game. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the better chance you have of staying on the floor. You want to continue to evolve and not just be one-dimensional."
Noah's evolution into the most versatile and effective two-way big man in the game was something few could have predicted when he entered the league. While winning two national championships at the University of Florida, Noah was the loud, brash, dancing big paired alongside Al Horford, the quieter, more methodical partner who ran through the competition for two seasons.
"(Noah) was the heart and soul of the team," Brewer said. "Just how hard he played every night and the emotions he brought, everyone fed off that."
Horford also remembers Noah as someone who only cared about team goals.
"He's the kind of guy you want on your team," Horford said. "He's a competitor. He’s a winner. He cares about his teammates. I was very lucky to have learned a lot playing with him at Florida. He's probably one of the favorite teammates I’ve ever had."
Horford and Brewer both went ahead of Noah in the 2007 draft, as there were questions about Noah's ceiling as an NBA player. He could outwork everyone, but the league might outskill him.
And early on, it looked as though he might not even stick in the league. In his rookie season, Noah was suspended one game by the Bulls after an incident with assistant coach Ron Adams at practice. His teammates then voted unanimously to increase the suspension to two games.
Noah showed signs of improvement in his second season. He averaged 7.9 points and 10.3 rebounds in a first-round series against Boston, including a signature moment at the end of a triple-overtime win in Game 6, when he stole the ball on defense and dunked over Paul Pierce at the other end.
Paired in his fourth NBA season with Thibodeau, who'd replaced Vinny Del Negro, Noah became the perfect player to emulate his head coach's identity on the floor, especially as the team dealt with Rose's injuries and declining production.
And even as Noah developed his offensive skills, it was his intangibles that left an impression on his teammates.
"Derrick led by example, Jimmy brought the hammer and nails to each game, but Joakim was the vocal leader," said guard Aaron Brooks, a teammate of Noah's for two seasons in Chicago.
"He smiled every day," Gibson added. "He came in and competed and he was all about winning. When you have those attributes, that means you’ll do whatever it takes and be very unselfish."
The togetherness of the those Bulls teams is what Gibson remembers the most, and something he's trying to replicate in Minnesota.
"We held each other accountable," he said. "But we always had fun. We were young and we loved to hang out after games, especially if we won on the road. It would be like a big middle finger to the city we played in."
That Bulls squad remains one of the greatest what-if teams of the modern era. Before Rose's injuries, they were poised to challenge LeBron and the Miami Heat in the East. Imagine a Bulls team with Rose at his peak at the point of attack, and with Noah and Butler as elite two-way players. It's not far-fetched to fathom that they could have made a Finals appearance and competed for a championship.
It's something Gibson still thinks about. "Every day," he said. "I was too young to appreciate it."
By the time Noah signed a four-year, $72-million contract with the Knicks in the summer of 2016, he'd played in just 29 games in his final season in Chicago and was recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery. In his first season with New York, Noah averaged five points and 8.8 rebounds in 46 games before knee surgery ended his campaign in Februray. In March, the league suspended him 20 games for violating its anti-drug program.
And with Phil Jackson no longer with the franchise, and with the Knicks ushering in a rebuilding plan around Kristaps Porzingis, Noah found himself out of the rotation this season, appearing in just seven games before being sent home after a heated verbal exchange with coach Jeff Hornacek during practice.
With his diminished skill set, Noah is no longer a starting center in the NBA. But plenty of players - for example, Udonis Haslem in Miami - have accepted a reduced role toward the latter stages of their career, and have still made a positive impact in the locker room. If Noah is willing to take that role on elsewhere, he has all the qualities of a player who can provide those intangibles in a winning environment, regardless of how poorly things played out in New York.
Former teammates believe the same thing. Brewer, who still chats with Noah regularly on FaceTime, joked with him recently that the time off will allow him to add an extra year to his career.
"I told him to stay positive," Brewer said. "You’ll get to a situation where you’re needed."
Horford also believes Noah can still contribute to an NBA team.
"No question about it," Horford said. "He’s a guy you want on your side and in your locker room. There’s not a lot of guys I would say that about."
As Gibson finished reflecting on his time with the Bulls, he shared an important lesson he learned from Noah, which he still carries with him today.
"Nothing is guaranteed," Gibson said. "He taught me to leave it all on the court, and play as hard as you can, so you don’t have any regrets when you come into the locker room after the game. Because when you're done playing, you're done."
Thursday's trade deadline passed without a resolution on Noah's situation with the Knicks. Once the unlikeliest superstar in the league, he'll continue to wait and see whether he's finished, or if there will be one more chapter added before the book closes on his remarkable career.
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)