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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.

Kawhi Leonard joins Raptors in the East; it could be good news for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Kawhi Leonard joins Raptors in the East; it could be good news for the Bulls

The best player in basketball left the Eastern Conference two weeks ago when LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Now another top-10 player in the league is on the move, as the Spurs dealt All-Pro Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan.

The Raptors, in essence, are going for it. General manager Masai Ujiri made a calculated decision that his current core - or more accurately, his top combination of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan - couldn't get over the hump. They've bowed out to LeBron James and the Cavs each of the last three years (including two sweeps) and, despite James moving to the West, now face legitimate tests in Boston and Philadelphia.

That's why Ujiri was willing to move DeRozan, the face of the franchise who had been with the team since he was drafted there in 2009, for a shot to get over the hump in the East. As talented as the four-time All-Star DeRozan is, he can't match what Leonard brings to the table on both sides of the ball. They also added wing Danny Green in the trade, making them a better team in the short-term.

That's where the Bulls come in.

Both Leonard and Green have one year remaining on their contracts. It's been well-documented that Leonard wants to play in his hometown of Los Angeles, meaning there's a better-than-not chance he plays just one season with the Raptors. Of course we saw what happened with Paul George and the Thunder, so never say never. It just appears likely at this point. Also, Green was more a function of making the dollars and cents work out in the deal; the 31-year-old probably isn't part of Toronto's long-term plans.

In other words, this could be Toronto's last shot. DeRozan had three years left on his contract, and Jakob Poeltl (also part of the deal) is entering the third year of his rookie contract. If the Raptors don't win in 2018 and Leonard bolts for the Lakers or Clippers, Toronto is looking at tearing it all down and entering, more or less, a rebuild phase. Both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka will be on the final years of their contracts, and the team might be willing to build around young role players in Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and Norman Powell.

That's certainly a team the Bulls could move past in the following two seasons. With a young core that includes Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn and Jabari Parker - plus next year's first-round pick - the Bulls will be trending upward as the Raptors attempt to pick up the pieces on a potentially failed dice roll on Leonard. Had the Raptors run it back with DeRozan they'd at least have their core in tact through 2020 (and DeRozan has a player option for 2021).

So while the Raptors were going to be ahead of the Bulls in the standings regardless this year, their window to compete in the long-term closed by swapping DeRozan for Leonard. That's good news for the Bulls in the coming years.

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: 'There's no fear'

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: 'There's no fear'

The Chicago sunlight followed Jabari Parker as he walked through the East Atrium doors of the United Center, facing Michael Jordan’s statue before meeting with the media, introduced as a member of the Bulls for the first time.

For his sake, the brighter days are ahead instead of to his back as he’ll challenge the perception of being the hometown kid who can’t outrun his own shadow.

Parker re-enters Chicago as the No. 2 pick of the the 2014 draft the Milwaukee Bucks allowed to walk without compensation despite holding the cards through restricted free agency, damaged goods on the floor but not giving the Bulls a discount to don that white, red and black jersey he’s always dreamed of wearing.

“There were other teams but as soon as I heard Chicago, I just jumped on it,” Parker said.

It took a two-year, $40 million deal (2019-20 team option) to get Parker home, along with the selling point that he’ll start at small forward—a position that’s tough to envision him playing with on the defensive end considering three of the game’s top six scorers occupy that space.

It was a dream come true for his father, Sonny Parker, and high school coach, Simeon Academy’s Robert Smith, who both couldn’t hide their joy following the first question-and-answer session with the media.

“This is where he wanted to be,” Sonny Parker said. “His family’s happy, the support is there. All I know is the United Center will sell out every game. He can’t wait.

“Normally guys get drafted here. He signed to come here. He had a couple offers from other teams but he wanted to come here.”

The biggest examples of Chicagoans who arrived with outsized expectations for this franchise had varying results, but Derrick Rose and Eddy Curry both came away with scars of sorts that had many wondering why any hometown product would willingly choose to play for the Bulls.

The risk seems to far outweigh the reward; the emotional toll doesn’t seem worth the fare. And with the roster makeup not being ideal for Parker, no one could blame him for going to a better situation—or at least one more tailored to his skills rather than his heart.

“I think every situation is different. Derrick was excelling,” Bulls executive vice-president John Paxson said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “MVP of the league in his hometown before the injury. Eddy was just a young kid who didn’t have the savvy Derrick had. I think every situation is different. Jabari is such a grounded, solid person that he’s gonna be just fine.

“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with him to figure out he’s got it together. He knows who he is. Comfortable in his own skin. A quiet guy. Hopefully he’ll thrive here. The goal is it works great for him and works great for us.”

It seemed like he was bred to be a pro—and not just any pro, but the type Chicago demands of its own when a covenant to play 82 nights a year has been reached. If the constant prodding from his father didn’t break his façade, or older brother Darryl doing everything he could to coax emotion from the most gifted of the Parker clan couldn’t do it, two ACL surgeries on his left knee may pale in comparison.

The numbers from Parker’s recent stint with the Bucks don’t bear it out, but Smith sees a player who’s back on track to being what his talent has always dictated he should become.

“Even watching him work out lately, it’s like whoa,” Smith said. “But of course, everything with Chicago period you have to be cautious. With his family and the support system he has, this thing is about winning basketball games and giving back to the community.

“He’s had that (target) on his back since he stepped on the court at Simeon, coming behind Derrick and being one of the top five players as a freshman and No. 1 player as a junior. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, it can help him a little bit. If he has those moments if something doesn’t go right, he has someone to help him.”

Parker is more known for his restarts than his unique skill set in his young career, but even at 23 years old speaks with a sage of someone 20 years his senior, unwilling to tab this portion of his journey as a fresh start.

After all, it would be easy to envision his career beginning from the moment he left Simeon as a phenom followed by his one season at Duke—having two games where he totaled just 24 minutes with just two points to start the Bucks’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics isn’t typical of a star’s story if he sees himself that way.

“I don’t. I don’t want to forget all the hard work I had,” Parker said. “To forget I hurt myself and came back is to discredit my success. That in of itself is something outside the norm. I want to always remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far. I want to use that as a sense of motivation.”

Bringing up his awkward pro beginnings in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to an unexpected strata mirrored thoughts he might’ve had of himself before his injuries, didn’t cause him to growl.

“I’ve never got jealous a day in my life. That’s why it wasn’t hard because I wasn’t jealous,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “My journey is my journey. I gotta be proud of that and be patient. I took that and I move forward.”

The mention of his defense didn’t make him defensive, either, as he definitively pointed out the truth as he saw it, that today’s game is far more offensive-minded than the bruise-fests of the previous decades. Telling by his words in subsequent interviews, the best defense is a great offense and when he’s right, there aren’t many who can get a bucket as easily and with as much diversity as himself.

The only time Parker broke serve was at the notion he’d be following in the footsteps of Rose’s perceived failures, the setbacks Rose suffered when his knees began to fail after reaching inspiring heights players like Parker wanted to emulate.

At the podium for all to see, he corrected a question formed around Rose’s “rise and fall”, a sound byte copied and pasted by a couple Chicago-bred NBA players on social media in support of Parker’s words and feelings.

“Derrick had no lows. He didn’t. He still maintained. Derrick’s a legend, no matter what…no rise and falls. Injuries are part of life. Derrick is one of the best icons in Chicago. He accomplished his duty already.”

And later, he wanted to set the record straight again, drawing a line from how the media has presented Rose compared to how the people of Chicago see him, and vice-versa.

“We didn’t turn on Derrick, the media (did),” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re hometown. I speak for everybody, we love our hometown.”

The love of Chicago meant more than the prospect of not being able to live up to a glorious prep past, even though he should be well aware wanderlust can turn to villainy in a heartbeat—or the wrong step.

“There’s no pressure for me,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “I’m just happy I get to play with some young guys, and I don’t harp on the negative. Anybody and everybody is gonna have an opinion. I value more my dreams than their opinions.”

And the dreamer steps forward, with a confident gait, eyes wide open and a city hoping it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of its past.

“There’s no fear,” Parker said. “I haven’t faced any other pressure than bouncing back. I’m back on my feet and moving on.”

“When you struggle more, you succeed more.”