MIAMI -- The latest voting returns for February's NBA All-Star Game in Houston were announced by the league Thursday. Among Eastern Conference frontcourt players, Bulls center Joakim Noah currently ranks seventh, while teammate Luol Deng is 13th in the recent tabulation.
Neither player is likely to be voted in by the fans as a starter, but as the Bulls remain in the early-season race for the Central Division (entering Thursday, they're a game behind Indiana and a game ahead of Milwaukee), as well as firmly in the middle of the pack in East playoff contention (currently fifth in the conference), it's increasingly more probable that Deng will make a return All-Star appearance and Noah will be honored for the first time.
The Bulls duo might not have the national recognition of some of their peers, but around the NBA, they are highly respected.
In the case of Noah, his health has been the key to his emergence, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau frequently refers to.
Discussed by observers as an early-season candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year, his offensive development as a consistent scoring threat, the more obvious display of his unique playmaking acumen with point guard Derrick Rose sidelined and ability to absorb heavy minutes -- an overlooked aspect of Omer Asik's offseason departure to Houston -- have also been factors in what has thus far been a career-best campaign.
Noahs gotten better every single year, so now hes one of the more complete centers in this league. He's relentlessness on the glass, hes an improved post player, he puts so much pressure on you in the paint and then one of the most underrated things always about him is his passing ability and his vision, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra observed. He makes other players better and now the balls finding him more often with Rose out, where he has to make plays. You cant be surprised by that.
Miami big man Chris Bosh added: Joakim presents a lot of challenges and hes a good basketball player, so any time youre up against other good ballplayers, its a lot of fun.
For Deng, it's largely been more of the same, as he's established himself as perhaps the NBA's premier ironman over the previous two seasons -- two years ago, he led the league in total minutes, while he was the minutes-per-game leader last season, something he's currently on pace to do again -- burnishing that reputation by playing through multiple injuries, not to mention garnering praise for his understated style of play.
But while he's received acclaim for being one of the league's top defenders and most versatile offensive players, in Rose's absence, he's also willingly stepped into the role as the Bulls' go-to scorer.
Explained reigning league MVP LeBron James, whos faced off with Deng since the pair were the top-two players in the same high-school class: Its the same for him. Hes approached the game at a high level each and every night defensively, offensively. It doesnt change for him. He doesnt ever step outside of his box, he plays inside his comfort zone and hes a really good player.
Perhaps thats why Deng still remains an unheralded star, as his consistency has been taken for granted, prompting the likes of Miami's Shane Battier (widely acknowledged as the "fifth starter" for the defending-champion Heat), New York's Amar'e Stoudemire (who only made his regular-season debut this week) and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum (who hasn't played at all for the 76ers) to be ranked ahead of him in fan balloting.
The players above Noah are more predictable -- Miami's LeBron James and New York's Carmelo Anthony far outpace their competition, with Boston's Kevin Garnett holding a lead over the Heat's Chris Bosh, trailed by Knicks center Tyson Chandler for the final starting frontcourt spot and Paul Pierce of the Celtics in sixth place.
Deng, who plays just over 40 minutes a night, is averaging a team-leading 17.7 points per game, along with seven boards, 2.8 assists and a steal per contest. Noah, currently third in the league at 39.2 minutes per game, also sports averages of 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 blocked shots and 1.4 steals a night.
More significant than their numbers, with Rose out of the lineup, the duo has truly kept the Bulls afloat, raising their level of play and despite being selfless players, taking on more of the offensive burden. Noah has long been regarded as the heart of the Bulls, but has developed into more of a mature leader, while Deng, the longest-tenured player, has become more vocal.
They took the responsibility to shoulder a little bit more, Spoelstra said. Thats what great players do.
However, if theyre not selected to the game which isnt a lock, as Noah has to deal with the removal of the center designation, giving way to three frontcourt starters; otherwise, hed be in the running to be a starter and the trickle-down effect impacts Deng they wont be overly concerned. At least they wont show it publicly, as neither professes to be playing for that type of recognition, though one can be sure it would fuel their fire in the second half of the season.
Still, as Bosh who trails future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett for the final frontcourt starting nod in the East, despite the fact that the Heat big man has superior statistics and Miami has a far better record than underachieving Boston said Friday, when asked about his own chances: Its a popularity contest. Im not running for President.