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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.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”