NEW ORLEANS -- Joakim Noah's second consecutive All-Star berth was more than just a recognition of personal accomplishments this season. It was also a nod to coach Tom Thibodeau and Noah's Chicago Bulls teammates for the job they have done to remain competitive after Derrick Rose was injured again and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland. The organization is ecstatic that its emotional leader got the All-Star call, but Noah & Co. are even more thrilled because of what his performance, in the midst of what many thought was a lost season, represents.
"Just thrilled," Thibodeau said before Friday's practice. "He earned it. He's played great, he's lifted the team up. And I was just telling our team, it's what he's done for the team, but also the team is being recognized for the way they play. And that's the beauty of our group. I think all the things that Jo excels at makes his team better, and that's why I think he's deserved it so much. He started off the season slowly because of the injury in training camp, but he's been on a tear. This is his best stretch of basketball. He's playing great on both ends of the floor. But more importantly, it's what he's doing for the team."
The team aspect is something the 28-year-old center is most proud of. He's the man who wouldn't let the Bulls fold after the various twists and turns that could have derailed their season, and he's the one who will represent the team, and the city, with great pride Feb. 16 on one of the league's biggest stages.
"It feels really good," Noah said. "It's an unbelievable honor to play in the All-Star Game. I'm just going to represent the team the best way I can. I'm happy. I'm really happy to be a part of it, and it's for my team and the coaches and everybody."
Noah, in his seventh NBA season, is appreciative because he knows he wouldn't be heading back to New Orleans in a couple of weeks without the sacrifices made by those around him. Once Rose and Deng left the picture, it was Noah who had to elevate his game the most. And it was Thibodeau who got the emotional big man to buy into the fact that the season wasn't over. In many ways, Noah's selection by the coaches is a tip of the cap to Thibodeau for the job he has done saving the season.
"I think it's the coaches recognizing what he does for the team," Thibodeau said. "And I think the team has brought the best out in Jo also, because I think they helped him to be recognized. I think the fact that we've dug out of a big hole, Jo's been the leader, and I think when the team plays the way our team is playing right now, the players will get recognized. Jo's success is our success, and we feel great about him being recognized. He's earned every bit of it."
For a player who many thought might have hit his ceiling a couple of years ago -- and one who has battled injuries throughout the past couple of seasons -- the acknowledgement that he is one of the best players in the league still hasn't quite set in for Noah.
"I feel good, man," he said. "It feels great to be selected. And I couldn't do it without my teammates, so I want to thank them. I'm not like a guy who's going out there and scoring in the post and just demanding the ball and scoring. It's all my teammates, really. I feel like I'm proud of the way we're fighting, and for us to beat anybody in this league, everybody has to have this like fighter mentality, and I think that we've been doing that so far."
Thibodeau said he isn't quite sure how much better Noah can be, but he is looking forward to finding out. He appreciates how much work Noah has put into his game in recent years, and Noah respects how much work Thibodeau continues to put into making the Bulls as solid as they can be. It's a relationship that continues to benefit both men in many ways -- as evidenced by Thursday's announcement.
"The one thing about him is he's driven and he's very intelligent," Thibodeau said. "And I think those type of players always improve. Each year they add. This year I think he's gotten much better offensively -- and probably the biggest improvement is the quick decision-making. And that's made our team a lot better. And I want him to keep striving to get better. Who knows where the ceiling is? But if he approaches it the right way, which I think he will, it will be good."