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NBA Buzz: Reflections on Joakim Noah with Bulls

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NBA Buzz: Reflections on Joakim Noah with Bulls

I remember watching Joakim Noah playing for Florida during their first national championship run in 2005-06. Noah was all arms and legs (and hair), running up and down the court with boundless energy, constantly earning extra possessions for the Gators with his offensive rebounding and hustle plays. The Bulls had a high draft pick that year, (courtesy of the Eddy Curry trade with the Knicks) and I was hoping they would get the chance to draft Noah. As it turned out, Noah decided to stay at Florida to enjoy the college life for another year and make a run at back-to-back national titles with Al Horford and Corey Brewer. The Bulls wound up drafting Tyrus Thomas after trading down with Portland to add Russian player Viktor Khryapa (that No. 2 pick turned out to be LaMarcus Aldridge). But that's a story for another day.

Noah went back to Florida and won that second NCAA championship, but as scouts took a closer look at his game throughout the season, some became convinced he didn't have enough offensive skill to merit a top-five selection. I remember hoping he would drop to the Bulls at No. 9 (they switched picks with the Knicks by virture of the Curry trade that never stopped giving), but the front office was also interested in Washington big man Spencer Hawes. Charlotte wound up taking North Carolina forward Brandan Wright at No. 8, and the Bulls went with Noah over Hawes at No. 9. Even though a lot of Bulls fans weren't thrilled with the selection, I told John Paxson I was excited about Noah, thinking he could become the active, rebounding big man the Bulls lost when they traded away Tyson Chandler the previous summer. Little did we know he would become so much more.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

After a rocky rookie season, which included a two-game suspension for an argument with assistant coach Ron Adams, Noah became a fan favorite with his all-out hustle and enthusiasm. Who will forget the steal and fastbreak dunk over Paul Pierce, pony tail flying in the breeze, to clinch a Game 6 win over Boston in the 2009 playoffs?

Or Jo bashing the city of Cleveland before the 2010 first round postseason match-up?

Or the double-double in Game 7 of the first round series against Brooklyn in 2013 that carried a beat-up Bulls squad (no Derrick Rose or Luol Deng) to an unexpected series win?

Noah had his best year in 2013-14, when another season-ending injury to Rose led Tom Thibodeau to experiment with Jo as a point center. The results couldn't have been better as Noah averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists to earn first team All-NBA status. He was also voted the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Unfortunately, a knee injury greatly reduced Noah's effectiveness in the playoffs, and the Bulls were upset in Round 1 by Washington.

That knee injury wound being a lot more serious than anyone realized. Noah had surgery that summer and spent most of the 2014-15 season in rehab mode, taking a backseat to free agent addition Pau Gasol. And, just when Noah started to look like the old Jo again this past December, he suffered the initial tear in his left shoulder during a game against Brooklyn on the 21st. His season virtually ended with the dislocation against Dallas last Friday.

As valuable as Noah was on the court, he also made a connection with the people of Chicago with his frequent praise of the Bulls' fan base, and his charitable work in the community. His Noah's Arc Foundation became involved in a number of important projects citywide, with an emphasis on reducing gun violence in Chicago.

The long-haired guy with the odd draft night wardrobe became one of the city's most popular athletes over the last nine years. And strangely enough, Noah's injury might actually improve his chances of returning to the Bulls next season. While there will be a ton of free agent money available this summer, it's unlikely many teams will offer a big contract to a 31-year-old center coming off shoulder surgery. With Gasol expected to opt out of the final year of his contract, the Bulls might be able to work out a short-term, team-friendly deal with Noah to bring him back as the man in the middle next season.

All-Star Starters

The NBA will officially announce starters for this year's All-Star Game during a 6 p.m. show on TNT this Thursday. Here's a look at the players I would select, with the qualifier I still prefer including a center in the starting line-ups, while the league recently changed the voting policy to selecting three frontcourt players, regardless of position.

For the East, I'd have Andre Drummond at center, LeBron James and Paul George at the forwards and Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler in the backcourt. Drummond has been providing almost nightly double-doubles for the much-improved Pistons and leads the NBA in rebounding. James and George are obvious choices, while Lowry and Butler deserve starting spots for their all-around excellence, but could lose out to Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving in the fan balloting. Butler has a chance to move up from fourth place in the final returns after his 53-point game in Philly last week.

[MORE: What's next for Joakim Noah, Bulls after season-ending shoulder surgery]

Out West, I'd go with the erratic, but extremely talented DeMarcus Cousins at center, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at forward, and Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook at the guard spots. Durant, Curry and Westbrook are three of the top five players in the league, and no-brainer selections as starters. Kobe Bryant will get voted in to a starting spot at forward by the fans as a reward for his spectacular 20-year career. I agree with Kobe being on the team, but it should be as a 13th man named by the Commissioner as a career achievement honor, not at the expense of a more deserving player.

In case you haven't noticed, Leonard has broken out this season as one of the best two-way players in the league. More on him below. Cousins still loses control of his emotions at times, but he's the most dominant offensive center in the league, averaging almost 26 points and 11 rebounds a game.

Around the Association

Recently named 76ers front office chairman Jerry Colangelo made the media rounds last week, and told reporters the turnaround in Philadelphia could happen a lot faster than people expect. Colangelo referenced 7-foot center Joel Embiid, who has yet to play with the Sixers because of foot injuries, and European forward Dario Saric as players who could improve the team's talent base. Colangelo also cited the Sixers' abundance of cap room, and said the team would be aggressive in pursuing impact free agents this summer.

It all sounds good, but unless Embiid turns out to be the next coming of Hakeem Olajuwon and Saric is the next Toni Kukoc, AND the Sixers are able to sign Mike Conley AND DeMar DeRozan in free agency, the good fans of Philadelphia might have to wait a little bit longer before thinking playoffs again.

Incidentally, Colangelo was at the Wells Fargo Center to witness Butler's career-high 53 point explosion last week, and since Colangelo is the head of USA Basketball, you'd have to think Butler's chances of making the Olympic team for the 2016 games in Rio improved dramatically.

[RELATED: Joakim Noah's injury produces somber tones for teammates]

With Golden State showing signs of vulnerability for the first time by losing two games in a week, San Antonio is starting to close in on the top seed out West. The Spurs quietly extended their homecourt winning streak to 32 games with a win over Cleveland last Thursday. And, just when you thought the championship trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker was getting too old to contend again, Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. A lot of Spurs fans were disappointed when the team dealt productive reserve George Hill to Indiana in the trade for a quiet, little-known forward from San Diego State, but Leonard is now one of the best two-way wing players in the game. He's averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds a game, while shooting 51 percent from the field and almost 48 percent from the 3-point line (second in the league behind J.J. Redick).

In case you forgot, the Bulls still hold the rights to Sacramento's first round pick in 2016 (top 10 protected) from the Luol Deng trade with Cleveland. And, it looks like they actually might get it this year with the Kings playing a lot better under George Karl. Cousins has developed good chemistry with rejuvenated point guard Rajon Rondo, and the Kings have some firepower on the wings with Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, former Bull Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi. Add in a couple of active bigs in Kosta Koufos and rookie Willie Cauley-Stein, and the Kings just might make the playoffs in the watered down West. Sacramento was just one game behind Utah for the final playoff spot heading into action on Monday.

Warriors chase for 72

The defending NBA champs hit a major bump in the road in their pursuit of the 1995-96 Bulls record of 72 wins. Golden State decided to give Draymond Green a couple games off to rest and the Warriors immediately suffered their third loss of the season to a bad Denver team. Then, with Green back in the lineup, they were beaten soundly in Detroit on Saturday. For the first time this season, the Warriors at 37-4 are now behind the Bulls' record pace, and they've got road games coming up this week against the Cavs and Bulls (who always seem to rise up against the league's elite). All of a sudden, 72 wins is looking a whole lot tougher with four games against the Spurs and three against Oklahoma City still on Golden State's schedule. I'm putting their chances of getting to 72 wins at 40 percent, significantly down from last week's 55 percent.

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11-year-old steals Curry's routine

Have you seen this amazing video yet? 11-year-old Noah Cutler doing a spot-on impersonation of Steph Curry's pre-game ballhandling routine.

We didn't get to see young Noah shoot the ball, but I'm guessing he's a big hit in his grade school league!

Stats of the week

With the All-Star starters being announced on Thursday, here are some nuggets to enjoy, courtesy of Comcast SportsNet's stats' whiz, Chris Kamka.

Most career points in All-Star Game history:

280, Kobe Bryant

278, LeBron James

262, Michael Jordan

Three players have made only one career All-Star appearance with at least 20 points in that game:

27, Dale Ellis (1989)

24, Adrian Smith (1966)

21, Kyle Korver (2015)

[MORE: Joakim Noah prognosis 'tough on everybody right now']

Michael Jordan led all NBA guards in All-Star voting in 1993. But who led the next year when M.J. retired to play baseball?

Another Bulls' guard, B.J. Armstrong with 529,065; the next most in the East was Kenny Anderson with 493,690. Clyde Drexler led the West voting at 493,204 (thanks to basketball-reference.com for listing the vote totals).

Paul Pierce (2002 & 2003) & Vince Carter (2003) are the last remaining active players to appear in an All-Star Game as Eastern Conference teammates of Jordan.

The last active former teammate of Michael Jordan (not counting All-Star Game) was Brendan Haywood, who played his last game 5/26/2015 in the playoffs.

All 10 starters from M.J.'s All-Star Debut (1985) are in the Hall of Fame.

West: Magic Johnson, Ralph Sampson, George Gervin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Adrian Dantley

East: Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving & Michael Jordan

Quotes of the week

The Brooklyn Nets could have somewhere around $40 million in cap room this summer, but will any star player want to sign on with a team that has very little talent on the roster besides Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson?

Here's what Young told Andy Vasquez about how he and Lopez are already recruiting "superstars" to come join them in Brooklyn next season. "We've been talking to a lot of different guys: Hey, there's a condo available next to mine, you might want to start picking out a spot."

I'm guessing Kevin Durant is thinking a little bigger than that.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”