- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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As the media horde waited for Joakim Noah to address the media after Monday's post-All-Star break practice, two reporters stood around debating on whom would ask Noah the most important question of all: Where did he get his tan?
"Why do I have to ask?" the female reporter said.
"Well," a male media member said. "He would look at me pretty weird if I told him I noticed how tan he was."
"You're right," she replied.
We solved the great mystery minutes later. Noah, we found out, relaxed at a "very, very nice" beach in the Bahamas with his phone off and his hobbled feet in the ocean.
Needless to say, he wasn't watching Taj Gibson in the Rookie/Sophomore Game on Friday. Nor did he catch any of Sunday's festivities.
"I was focused on other things," he said.
How did his weekend compare with Rose's?
"I definitely had a better time," said Noah, one of the All-Star snubs.
If there's one thing Noah can do, aside from rebound, it's have a good time.
"I did a lot of resting," he added. "I was on the beach, so I did a lot of things on the sand, which is actually pretty good for it."
Of course, the last time Noah relaxed on the beach, he made TMZ.com and every sports blog, so we can probably rule out any Rocky-style training montages.
The most important question, of course, was how Noah's foot, plagued by plantar fasciitis, responded to a few days off. While Rose is the team's head, Noah is its heart. If he can't play, and the Bulls dump salary, you might as well kiss this season good bye.
But Noah sounds ready to work again after missing the past four games. While coach Vinny Del Negro said he wasn't sure if Noah could play against the Knicks, the fun-loving center told reporters he was planning on suiting up.
"I'm not 100 percent yet," Noah said. "But it feels better than it did a couple weeks ago when I was playing. It feels a lot better. I'm not in great shape, but I'm trying to get back as soon as I can."
If Noah can't handle his plantar fasciitis the next couple months, you might as well kiss this season good bye. And yes, this season still counts for something besides a countdown until free agency. While salary cap machinations may take up most of our attention right now, it would be nice to see the Bulls challenge a team in the first round again, if only to get the younger players more playoff experience.
That's why Rose, who bruised his hip driving on the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard last week, is so intent on playing Tuesday, just like Noah. He only logged 15 1/2 minutes in the East's nail-biter win Sunday, scoring eight points and adding four assists. He sat out practice Monday after flying back in the morning.
"This is the NBA," he said. "I got to fight through it no matter what. We need these games. I've got to play."
It's a great attitude, and a needed one right now. With the trade deadline fast approaching Thursday, the Bulls could be distracted as the front office is supposedly trying to unload salaries. Tyrus Thomas, Kirk Hinrich, John Salmons and Brad Miller (maybe Luol Deng as well) are all in play, as John Paxson and Gar Forman wheel and deal with a league that might have more interested sellers than buyers.
"There's going to be a lot of things out there, rumors and things being said," Del Negro said. "As things get put together, if they make sense, we're always looking to improve our team and give us flexibility moving forward."
The influx of leaks and innuendo around the league, which all had Del Negro toe-tagged a couple months ago, make it tough to discern realistic potential deals, but it's obvious that Hinrich and Thomas are the most tradable components, for teams that care about more than expiring money anyway. Thomas is extraneous, and the team treats him as such, but I still can't see getting rid of Hinrich without getting a quality point guard in return. The Bulls owe it to their fans to compete and they can't run Rose into the ground.
Del Negro's standing in the organization is still publicly murky enough that a reporter asked him, with a straight face, if he's kept in the loop on possible deals. Imagine someone asking Phil Jackson that? Or even Scott Skiles? But Vinny, who's growing on me like a three-day-old beard, took it in stride, as usual.
"Absolutely," he said. "I have to coach them. I want to know who I'm coaching and who we're getting. But my focus is on this team."
Although Noah and Rose, the only players to talk Monday, said the right things about ignoring the Jerome James-size cloud over the team's collective head with four games in the next five days, there is no question it will affect the players in question. But signs are looking good right now. Thomas, who was suspended for a game for yelling at Del Negro before the break, was going hard Monday, Rose said.
"His attitude has been great around here," he said.
This is a pivotal week in the Bulls' season, with all four of their games coming against teams with sub-.500 records. Three of their next four after that also come against losing teams. But with Noah and Rose less than 100 percent, the Bulls will need at least two good efforts from the players in question to beat New York in back-to-back games before the deadline.
"I don't think anybody should be nervous," Noah said. "I think we should be focused on the Knicks. I think we've been playing good basketball. If we can get D-Rose healthy and me healthy, have everybody on the right mindset, I think we'll be a tough team to beat come playoff time."
"We're not worried about it until the trade actually happens," Rose said. "It's up to the front office to make that decision. Right now we'll go with the team that we have."
The Bulls have the day off Thursday in Minnesota, where they play Friday. Last year, the Bulls practiced on deadline day. Larry Hughes, Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden were all traded that day. Reporters were waiting at the Berto Center so late into the night that Miller actually met with them after flying in from Sacramento.
Those deals not only provided them with two expiring contracts in Miller and James, but it also sparked the team to a playoff berth. Salmons and Miller were vast improvements on Gooden and Hughes, on and off the court. The team jelled after they came on board.
The Bulls are in better shape this time out with a 25-26 record that has them near the bottom of the playoff pecking order. With two games against New York and the Indiana Pacers, road games at the woeful Washington Wizards and Minnesota and home games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers, the Bulls have a chance to finish February with a decent record. Then again, who knows who will be around by the weekend?
"This is a big month for us, and we've just got to come ready to play every day," Noah said. "It's a tough stretch because we just came back from the All-Star break. Everybody got a little rest and sometimes that rest isn't a good thing. But I know I needed it."
As Noah talked, a light snow was falling outside the gym, a sure sign that it's back to reality for the Bulls. After two against New York, we'll know what team the Bulls will have going into the home stretch and the summer. It's truly time for the speculating to end.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Between injuries and the trade deadline, this week is pivotal for future of the Bulls.