Every week, ESPNChicago.com Bulls writer Nick Friedell is joined by two other ESPN writers to weigh in on three questions that are on the minds of Chicago Bulls followers.
1. Is Joakim Noah having the most impactful season of any center in the NBA?
Friedell: No doubt. Noah is playing the best basketball of his career -- and -- he's also the most important player on his team. When the Bulls lost Derrick Rose again for the year because of a knee injury and traded Luol Deng to Cleveland, the team could have easily folded for the season, but Noah wouldn't let them. He has become an even better leader off the floor, and he's dominating in various stages on it. Along with Tom Thibodeau, Noah is the biggest reason the Bulls are having another successful season.
Jon Greenberg: We're a little biased here, so the temptation is to say, "Yes, of course." After watching him grab 17 rebounds and dish out seven assists on an off shooting night Wednesday, I'll give in to that temptation. If you look at the numbers, you can argue that more offensively gifted, less popular centers such as DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard are having slightly better seasons. They too would prosper in Thibodeau's defense. Yes, even Boogie. But ask anyone in the NBA who they would rather have as a teammate and Noah, once thought to be an unpopular goof, would win hands down. Noah is just seventh among classified centers (40 games or more) in ESPN's Player Efficiency Rating. But none are as important to a team as Noah, who is all but willing the short-handed Bulls to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Noah's defensive bonafides are well known, and of course harder to put into numbers, but his playmaking abilities continue to astound. How many centers make behind-the-back bounce passes into the post?
Noah is averaging 4.6 assists a game and a quarter of his possessions end with an assist. He leads the Bulls in total assists, a rarity for a center. Since Deng was traded on Jan. 7, he's had 14 games with six or more assists, including three double-digit games on February. He set his career high with 13 on Feb. 19. Going into Friday's game against the Dallas Mavericks, Noah was averaging 12.1 points and 11.5 rebounds a game in 34.1 minutes. But it's not just about numbers. He has eclipsed the injured Derrick Rose in current popularity, and his play this season has cemented him as an all-time Bulls great.
Scoop Jackson: With the exception of the impact Andrew Bynum's had on the Cavs by not playing ... then yes! It will be interesting to see if Noah gets any MVP votes at the end of the season. There always is this argument about the true meaning/definition of the word "valuable" and how it is implied and interpreted when voting for MVPs. I can argue that there have not been many, if any, players in the NBA this season that have been more "valuable" to their team and their team's success than Noah. Now, I'm not saying that he should be considered for the MVP, I'm just saying it's worth watching to see if anyone who has a vote is going to recognize or has a true understanding of Noah impact.
2. If you're the Bulls, who would you rather face in the playoffs, Heat or Pacers?
Friedell: The Pacers. Because they think they can beat them -- even this season. Miami is in the Bulls' head. They know they've lost to them in the playoffs two out of the past three seasons and they know there's a solid chance of that happening again this season. The Pacers are a much improved team, but the Bulls don't fear them.
Greenberg: Easy -- the Pacers. The Bulls can't beat either team in a seven-game series, all things remaining equal. Indiana might have the better team than Miami this year, but the Bulls still believe they can hang with them. Belief can go a long way, especially with a group like the Bulls that follows their scouting reports and feeds off their defense. It's more than a little psychological. The reverse is true with Miami. I think the Bulls want to beat Miami more than even winning an NBA title, but they know LeBron James is the hammer and they're the nail. And as good as Paul George is, he's not LeBron James. I think the Bulls could take the Pacers to seven games, and then, you never know.
Jackson: The Pacers. The Bulls have a better chance of the Pacers slipping up and looking past them because the Pacers' eyes and focus has been so directed at Miami this year. The Heat, even if the Bulls were healthy and the same squad was intact that opened this season, seemed to have their number in April/May, especially with the Bulls not having a legit scoring threat off the bench that cold also control/run the offense. The Pacers on the other hand, right now, run the (very small and slight, almost wishful thinking) risk of looking past the Bulls in a playoff series because, well, I think, they really want the Heat.
3. Is Luol Deng regretting not taking the Bulls' offer of three years, $30 million?
Friedell: No. Deng is still probably wishing he were in Chicago and wished it could have worked in the long term, but he doesn't regret not taking the offer. He and his reps were upset the Bulls didn't negotiate with him last summer and then gave him the offer before he left. Deng understands that this is probably the last major deal of his career, and he wants to get paid. He also has too much pride to take an offer he feels is beneath him. The Bulls have moved on and so has he.
Greenberg: Um, no. If anything, the Bulls' exiling of him to Cleveland is probably emboldening his decision not to commit to the franchise that drafted him in 2004. It's not like he's stuck in Cleveland. Deng knew he was getting dealt because there was no chance he was signing an extension before testing free agency. The Bulls' final offer sounds great to us -- Who doesn't want $30 million? -- but it was a just an offer. After dealing with his agent, they knew he wouldn't accept it. If by some miracle, he did, great. While Deng wasn't pleased to head to Cleveland -- yes, even I have a source on this -- it's only a few months in purgatory. He'll be a prize in free agency and would be a valuable addition to any title contender. If anything, getting an extra month off while the Bulls grit through a playoff series or two will allow him more rest and all but guarantee good health when free agency begins.
Jackson: He shouldn't be. Once the season is over and teams will begin looking at what they really need to get them to that next level, Luol will get his money. And it may come from a team that is in better position to win a title in 2015 than the Bulls. Who knows? I'm truly of the belief that Deng no longer being here had nothing to do -- on both ends -- with money. Philosophical, structural and personal differences were at the core of the split. Nothing that couldn't have been repaired, but nothing either side was willing to accept or change. Bottom line with Lu: It was time to go.