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Joakim Noah on LeBron James' return to Cleveland: 'I really hope that we can kick his ass'

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Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol battle for space. (Getty Images)

In a league that’s getting smaller and quicker, the need for a knockout low post presence at center and power forward has been minimized. The NBA, more than ever, values spacing and sharing, and less of the low post hoggery that dominated the league’s first few decades or dull two-man game’ry that dominated the 1990s and early aughts.

The Chicago Bulls boast what is probably the league’s deepest frontcourt, but it hardly reminds of the sluggo outfits from days of NBA yore. With Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic up front, the team is able to field four players with fabulously versatile games that could produce a ferocious array of passing, finishing, shooting from the outside and the ability to make life hell for opposing offenses.

The one problem? None of these guys should be playing small forward, and there are only 48 minutes in a game, and just two positions to fill. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau discussed as much in an interview with Chicago-area 87.7 The Game on Thursday morning, via Pro Basketball Talk:

"I'm not sure on who's starting and who's finishing yet," Thibodeau told the Kap & Haugh Show on 87.7 FM The Game on Thursday morning. "Here's the thing, I know all three are going to have a significant role. I have 96 minutes there and I look at all three of those guys as starters. We'll see how it unfolds when we get to training camp and we let them play together."

Regardless of how the minutes are divided up, Thibodeau only has one goal in mind.

"We're always going to do what's best for the team and make us function at the highest level."

Thibs went on to confirm that his current situation is “a great problem to have,” and he’s not wrong in that regard. The question that most Bulls fans fear, however, is whether or not Thibodeau will actually be faced with this “problem.”

Joakim Noah missed just two games last season and in 2012, but he ended this year limping with a knee injury (that eventually required surgery) the Chicago medical staff allowed him to play through, and he had to gut through severe plantar fasciitis in 2012-13 when Thibodeau played the spindly center too many minutes. Pau Gasol recently turned 34, and he’s missed a combined 55 games over the last two years with a variety of injuries and sicknesses.

If history is any indication, this lovely litany of capable big men could spend some time on the shelf this season. Luckily, that’s where Gibson and Mirotic come in.

Neither are facsimiles of the players that they back up off the Chicago bench, but they’re not far off. Gibson isn’t the rebounder or passer that Noah is, but some Chicago observers believe that Gibson (and not Joakim, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year) is the best defender on the Bulls. Mirotic has yet to prove anything at the NBA level, he isn’t as tall nor as composed as Pau Gasol (who is?), but he does bring shooting and a fantastic and creative offensive touch.

Longtime readers are aware of my Chicago affiliations, but fandom isn’t the reason behind my giddiness in the face of this frontcourt’s prospects. As an NBA fan above all, to me this is the most fascinating lineup of any crew in the league. As someone who adores high and low post passing and offense initiated by big men, the thought of Noah and Gasol whipping the ball around the court (and Gibson and Mirotic acting as the finishers on some of those passes) is incredibly compelling. And that’s without getting into the eventual return of Derrick Rose. For real this time. We swear.

The overriding question, launching ahead of worries about health and minutes, has to do with this roster’s fit in the modern NBA. We just watched the San Antonio Spurs win a title based around spacing and the extra pass, and are the Bulls attempting to emulate that, or just sign as many darn good players as it can in the wake of Carmelo Anthony choosing money and security in staying home in New York?

Whatever the impetus, Joakim Noah digs the advancement. From a talk with K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

"Pau is somebody who is very, very smart," Noah said. "He’s somebody who comes with a lot of experience. He’s not just a great player. He’s somebody who cares about the community as well. I’m excited to see him help us as well in trying to slow down the violence and help the kids out here in Chicago. It’s very humbling to play with somebody who has won championships with his pedigree. He’s somebody I can really learn from.

[…]

"I’m happy for LeBron James," Noah said Friday. "He gets to go home. People are happy over there. But I really hope that we can kick his ass as many times as possible."

With LeBron’s return to Cleveland, the Central division just perked up with another contender, a contender that still has a chance to improve were it to add Kevin Love in exchange for two rather raw (though promising) prospects. Indiana lost Lance Stephenson, but if it can return to its defensive-heavy ways, it should battle to defend its Central crown. Milwaukee and Detroit are rebuilding with youth and appear to finally have their collective heads on straight.

Can Chicago battle each of those outfits with a smartly placed bounce pass and subsequent lay in? Can one of the more miserable offensive teams to behold, that 2013-14 squad was brutal, turn into the Eastern Conference’s prettiest offense? Can the big men hold up?

It’s a fun set of problems to have. October can’t get here soon enough.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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