Chicago Bulls: Dwight Howard
If a franchise had to pick one center to build a team around, the odds are still higher that many around the league would take Howard. After all, he is an eight-time All-Star and carried the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2008-2009.
He may not be the most complete center in the league, a title for which Noah could make a claim. But despite a tumultuous two-year stretch during which he forced a trade out of Orlando, then left the Los Angeles Lakers after a season, Howard is largely regarded as the better player as his Houston Rockets come into town to face Noah and the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.
Maybe Noah isn't the best statistical choice to build a team around, but the argument already has been made by some, including TNT analyst and former Bull Steve Kerr, that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant would be the preferred choices over Noah in a Game 7 situation.
The fact that Noah has even closed the gap to the point that questions like this can be bounced around indicates how far he has come in his development during the past two seasons. While Howard became a fixture on the All-NBA team during his time in Orlando, Noah has blossomed to the point that it's likely he will earn some votes for the coveted position at the end of the season.
"I'm biased, so I'm probably not the right guy to ask that question," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday after practice when asked who he would vote for between Noah and Howard, if he had a vote. "But for what Jo does for our team, I don't think there's anyone better for that."
No matter what direction the NBA writers and broadcasters vote at the end of the season, it's clear both players have earned respect throughout the league. They've also earned each other's respect over the years, speaking glowingly of one another.
"I think he's a great player and he's been playing great all year," Noah said of Howard on Wednesday. "His team is playing great. He's in a good place right now. I think he looks pretty happy to be in Houston. He's happy with his decision. I'm just trying to focus on us and what we've got to do to find a way [to] win."
Noah said he thought Howard was the best center in the league when asked, but he doesn't believe that. He believes that he has put in enough time and work into his game that he can beat anybody in the league with his teammates. In many ways, the biggest change between the two players’ games is that Noah has developed into the type of leader the Magic and Lakers always wanted Howard to become.
When Derrick Rose went down with another major knee injury earlier this season and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland, it was Noah who elevated his game on and off the floor.
He has become a de facto point guard for the Bulls, as the offense continues to run through him each night. He's also become a sounding board for his teammates -- the guy that everybody takes their cues from on the floor.
Thibodeau said he believes Noah, who isn't playing quite as many minutes this season, has found a sweet spot in terms of his nightly output.
"He's done a good job with it," Thibodeau said. "I think he's at a good number. We just want to make sure he can play hard on every possession. I think he's in great shape. He's done a really good job of preparing himself for the season. So I like where he is right now. But he's got to keep grinding. I think he can go to another level."
Does Thibodeau worry his leader may get mentally fatigued because of all the emotion he pours into each game?
"No, because I think you train yourself for that," Thibodeau said. "That's the nature of this league. If you want to do something special, I think you have to commit to that. That's building the right habits throughout the course of the season.
"The teams that achieve in this league are able to sustain their concentration level and their effort level over a long period of time. So hopefully we're building the right habits and he can do it."
Noah and his teammates know that in order to get back on track Thursday, they've got to do a solid job staying in front of Howard. He may not play with the type of fire that has come to define Noah, but he can still play as well as any big man in the league. Gibson spoke of Howard as if he were "The Incredible Hulk."
"I feel that you don't want to make him mad," Gibson said. "Once you make him mad he's going to call for the ball mostly every time he's down in the paint. He's going to bang you, just try to dominate you in a lot of different fashions."
So what's it like trying to guard Howard?
"It's like a tractor trailer backing [up] a small car," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "His strength is crazy."
Howard's strength and length are what have given Noah problems in the past. It will be a challenge to stay in front of the Rockets' big man, but it's just the next thing on a list that Noah has pushed past this season.
Noah may not have the type of gaudy numbers Howard produces, but Noah’s teammates and coaches don't care. They know that for what the Bulls want to do, there's nobody better.
"I like the guy we have," Thibodeau said. "The guy we have is pretty special."
Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 22 against the Portland Trail Blazers. He missed all of last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during the 2012 playoffs. Howard said he has not spoken to Rose yet after his latest injury but hopes he will at some point. Rose and Howard have shot commercials together in the past and are both sponsored by Adidas.
Howard thinks Rose can get back to the player he used to be if he focuses on his rehab.
"I hope he does," Howard said. "It just takes time. In this age, people don't want to hear it takes time, they want it now. But with injuries, for us, we have to make sure with our career that we take our time to get back right, and that's what he should do. He didn't rush last year, and he shouldn't rush now. They're going to put a lot of pressure on him to play, and just because you see somebody out there working and jumping and running, that doesn't mean that they're game-ready. It's a big difference, so hopefully he takes his time and he comes back when he's ready to play."
In the meantime, Howard is trying not to underestimate a battered Bulls team that comes into Wednesday's game against the Rockets having lost 11 of its past 14 games.
"They're going to go out and play hard," Howard said. "They got a lot of those guys that want opportunities. Jimmy Butler, he's been trying to get an opportunity to get the ball and score. So with Derrick out, these guys are going to play extremely hard. They've had to deal with playing without Derrick for a couple of years. So they know how to play without him, and it's sad to see him hurt. But they're going to keep playing hard and we have to really watch out for the guys that are going to be out there playing."
He's gone -- as is coach Stan Van Gundy -- but the Magic, under rookie coach Jacque Vaughn, are off to a 2-0 start heading into their game against the Chicago Bulls (2-1) on Tuesday night at the United Center.
"They've always had a very strong organization," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after a shootaround Tuesday morning. "The strengths of the team have changed. It's no longer Dwight and everything feeding off of that, but they still have very talented players."
The Chicago Bulls have racked up the most wins in the NBA the past two seasons. They've been the No. 1 seed two years in a row in the Eastern Conference. Now, given the uncertain status of Derrick Rose and the ongoing injury concerns of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believes the Bulls can achieve the same kind of success this season.
I picked them to win 50 games and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy wondered if I had fallen on my head. The point is that without a healthy Rose in play, and with so much uncertainty surrounding the rest of the roster, the Bulls have gone from being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference to being one of its biggest question marks.
While the rest of the teams near the top of the conference have improved, the Bulls have seemingly stood in place, angering fans in the process by not wanting to go deep into the luxury tax. While nobody knows exactly where the Bulls will fall, it's clear that the gulf between the Miami Heat and everybody else in the Eastern Conference is bigger, at least on paper, than it's been in two years.
To that point, let's take a look some of the teams the Bulls will be contending with and what they have done to improve themselves in the past few months, especially now that the Dwight Howard deal has finally gone down:
Miami: The clear cut favorite in the East. Veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen took a pay cut to play with LeBron James. They added another shooter in Rashard Lewis for the veteran's minimum to go along with a core of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Yeah, they're pretty good.
Boston Celtics: Allen left, but they still have Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They also added Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and rookie Jared Sullinger. With Doc Rivers running the show, they'll always have a chance to contend.
Indiana Pacers: They still have Danny Granger, locked Roy Hibbert up to a max deal, and have George Hill and Paul George which helps form a solid young core. They added D.J. Augustin and will get better from their playoff experience last season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Andrew Bynum, acquired in the Howard trade, gives them one of the best young centers in the league. They lost Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, though. Aside from Bynum and Jrue Holiday, where is the offense going to come from? Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner are nice pieces, but I believe they need to do more work before they elevate to the step below Miami.
Brooklyn Nets: The Nets had a solid summer adding Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace while locking up Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to max deals. The Nets have a solid team moving into Brooklyn, but they were banking on getting Howard. Now that he won't be there, they look like they have flipped roles with Atlanta as the team that will be knocked out of the second round for years to come.
New York Knicks: Yes, they added Jason Kidd to a roster which already included Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire, but the Knicks looked lost for most of the season and just don't seem to fit together. They lost Jeremy Lin and Mike Woodson is now charged with meshing everything together with a 39-year-old point guard leading the way. Good luck.
Atlanta Hawks: The fact that the Hawks got rid of Johnson's contract is a victory all by itself. New GM Danny Ferry still has Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague -- plus a lot of potential cap space in the future -- but they aren't going to be all that great this season.
The Bulls are in a precarious position heading into next season, but they aren't unlike the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference assuming, of course, that LeBron and the rest of his teammates stay healthy. They're all playing for second place. Only time will tell just who that second team will be.
The Bulls, which had conversations regarding a potential deal with former Orlando GM Otis Smith, continued kicking the tires on a potential swap with new Magic GM Rob Hennigan after he was hired in late June.
The Bulls do not want to deal for Howard unless they know for sure that he will sign an extension in Chicago. And that’s the right move.
Let's say the Bulls traded for Howard despite the fact he won't sign an extension. Like other teams around the NBA, they were banking on the fact that once Howard played with their team for a year and was embraced by a new fan base, it would be hard for him to leave. OK, fine. But remember, this isn't Otis Smith running the show anymore in Orlando. New Magic GM Rob Hennigan, he of the Oklahoma City and San Antonio pedigree, seems intent on getting back young cheap players and draft picks.
"There's only one team on my list and if I don't get traded there, I'll play the season out and explore my free agency after that," Howard told Yahoo! Sports Monday.
Howard did not specify which team, but multiple league sources say that it is the Brooklyn Nets.
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Our panel of experts discusses Luol Deng's sore wrist, the Bulls' trade prospects and Derrick Rose's MVP candidacy.
Fact or fiction: Luol Deng made a mistake by not having surgery immediately after injuring his wrist.
Nick Friedell: Fact. It's admirable Deng decided to postpone the surgery to help the Bulls win a title and play in the Olympics, but if he can't perform up to the same level he did before he tore the ligament, what's the point? Deng's wrist is obviously bothering him, and if he had the surgery right after the injury, there was a chance he would be ready to play at some point in the playoffs. He would have been fine for the Olympics. Now, whenever he takes a fall on the wrist the pain starts all over again. Plus, if he still decides to have the surgery, he would miss at least one month of the beginning of next season. Deng's heart was in the right place, but he might not have been doing the best thing for his team.
Marc Silverman: Fiction. Bottom line: If Luol Deng had surgery, there would be no guarantee that he would've even been available in time for the playoffs. Deng should be applauded for the way he's played through the pain. It's not easy, and there's going to be setbacks along the way -- such as the current situation, when he must rest the wrist and avoid contact. While his points and rebounds are down--Deng has never shot better from distance. When he returned from the injury, he shot 46 percent from 3-point land in February. So far in March that has increased to a white hot 52 percent. Even in "down" games, Deng was able to right the ship by hitting key shots on the road against the Spurs and 76ers. I'm OK with him missing a few games here and there much like an important pitcher who must miss a turn in the rotation. The Bulls aren't winning a title without Deng. Even with a torn ligament in his left wrist, I'm confident he'll provide outstanding defense, clutch shooting and overall smart play.
It's hard to say. Before their 99-94 home loss to the Orlando Magic on Thursday night, the Bulls had the league's best record despite a season-long plague of injuries to key players.
Yet that loss illustrated the dangers of Chicago's one-star system. Derrick Rose was flat broke (6-for-22). Ditto for Joakim Noah (3-for-7) and Luol Deng (1-for-9). Carlos Boozer picked up some slack by scoring 26 points on 12-for-20 shooting, but he has always been the kind of player who provides numbers without controlling tempo or dictating outcome.
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CHICAGO -- After missing his fifth wide-open 3-pointer of the fourth quarter in Thursday’s loss to the Orlando Magic, Kyle Korver slowly trudged back to center court in disbelief. He put his hands on his hips and shook his head.
The owner of one of the NBA's smoothest shots looked off in the distance with the countenance of a man who wished he could be anywhere other than where he was standing.
About 20 minutes later, that expression hadn't left his face. Korver, with a sizeable pack of ice wrapped around his elbow and knee, sat in front of his locker staring into space. He couldn't stomach the fact that he might have just cost his team the game because of the fact he was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc in the final 12 minutes.
"All right," he said in a tone that made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t looking forward to the forthcoming Q-and-A.
"A couple of them felt good," he said in a hushed voice. "A couple of them maybe not quite as good, but I thought at least three of them were at the bottom of the bucket. You've got one play where everyone falls down and you're left wide open for a corner 3 and it goes in and out. I need to come through in those [situations]."
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There have been reports recently that adidas did not want Rose and Howard, their top two basketball endorsers, playing on the same team in the same market, but adidas' Vice President of Global Basketball, Lawrence Norman, who has been in Orlando for All-Star Weekend, made it clear that wasn't the case. He and his team have represented the pair since both came into the league, and he said adidas would have no issue with Howard playing wherever he wanted.
"We support Dwight no matter where he plays," Norman told ESPNChicago.com during a phone conversation on Sunday afternoon. "He's playing in Orlando right now and he's number two in the MVP voting. He's number one in All-Star votes. He's incredibly popular every year when we bring him to China. He's got worldwide appeal. He's doing just fine in Orlando. But we would support him in any decision that he makes."
The 26-year-old Howard seemed open in January to the idea of playing with the Bulls, expressing his "love" for Rose and calling him his "brother" in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, but up to this date he has made no other indication that he would like to be dealt to the Bulls and would sign an extension to stay long-term. He can opt out of his contract and the end of the season and has deflected almost every question about his precarious situation throughout the weekend.
When asked about the prospect of playing with Howard during Friday's media session, Rose admitted that it would be 'crazy' to play with Howard.
"I'm cool with the teammates that I have," Rose said. "But if you want to make up your own fantasy and say 'Would it be crazy if we played together?' Yeah ..."
The 23-year-old Rose, who has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to recruit players, said he hasn't spoken to Howard about the situation and that the Chicago market “speaks for itself.”
"I try not to think about it because he's not with us," Rose said. "But just knowing what type of player he is and how he is playing with his team right now, I think we will be pretty good if he chooses to come."
Norman understands that he has two superstars just entering the prime of their respective careers and he wants to do whatever he can to make them happy, whether they end up playing together or not.
"We've been around a lot of athletes and loyalty is important to all of them," Norman said. "Whether it's Derrick or Dwight, these are very loyal, great athletes and we're lucky to be with the best center and the best point guard in the game."