CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah stood in front of his locker on a left leg that has been bothering him for a while, trying to put a broken season into perspective late Tuesday night.
He was sad. He was frustrated. But underneath all the emotions that occur after a season comes to an abrupt close -- the Chicago Bulls' All-Star center was proud. He was proud of the way his team fought until the end. He was satisfied with the effort that was exerted over the course of arguably the most emotional season of his professional career.
"I don't know what the future holds in terms of who's going to be here and stuff," Noah said. "All I can say is I appreciate the guys who were here this year. I've never been around a group of guys who work their asses off from beginning to end."
All seasons end at some point; the Bulls' season just ended earlier than they expected. The reasons the season ended remain the same for Tom Thibodeau's team: They don't have enough elite offensive talent; they looked gassed in the the playoffs after a hard-fought regular season -- again. The ending looks and feels the same as it always does, but Noah and his teammates should remember the journey after the sting of this defeat wears off.
They could have rolled over and called it a season after Derrick Rose went down at the end of November with another season-ending knee injury. They could have mailed it in when the front office decided to trade veteran leader Luol Deng for cap space and draft picks. But Noah and Thibodeau convinced the rest of their team to fight. The pair embodied the type of working-class mentality that the veteran coach wanted to establish when he came to Chicago four years ago.
No team has played with that spirit more than this team did.
The second Rose went down again was the second this team's championship aspirations disappeared. That's why whether it was a first-round loss to the Washington Wizards or an Eastern Conference finals loss to the Miami Heat, the eventual ending didn't matter in the grand scheme of things for this team. They maximized the talent of a depleted roster and went as far as they could.
The questions regarding the roster, free agency, amnesty clauses and riding players too hard can wait for another day. This team deserves to be praised for the way it stood up to adversity and fought back.
"Losing is draining," Noah said. "I really care about this. I give everything that I have. When you care then it hurts to lose. I think we're disappointed, but all these challenges and all this adversity that we've gone through I think is going to make us -- is going to get us over that hump one day."
For as much pride as the Bulls showed, there is also a new reality that is hovering over this team. The young players that have developed such a strong core for Thibodeau in recent years aren't as young anymore. Noah will be 30 next year. Gibson will be 29 in a couple months. Rose will be 26. That group isn't getting any younger -- a fact that Gibson alluded to after the game.
"The future's bright," he said. "But it's been bright for a while now. We just got to take the opportunity to overcome. We've been saying the future's bright for us for a while. But we just got to get healthy. We got to take advantage of things and we got to put in more work."
The future of this organization will be defined in the coming months. They need more offense. They've needed more offense for the past four seasons. But the one thing this squad has never been in short supply of is heart. They have plenty of it -- and the hope is with Rose coming back next season that they can combine that heart and talent into something even better.
"It means everything," Noah said of the Rose return. "We feel like he's one of the most talented players in the world. You take off the top player on any team -- I don't care -- it's a tough blow. You know what I'm saying? And we had to deal with that two years in a row. But I think going through all that, I think that this team never gave up, that's something that I'm proud of. I'm proud that, through all the adversity, we never gave up. We lose in the first round -- it is what it is. This is who we are. We didn't lose from lack of effort. That's for sure."
The Bulls never do, and they should be applauded for that. They lose for a lack of talent -- and that's something that the front office must fix as soon as possible, or else Noah will be left to wonder again next season what might have been.