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.
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.
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.
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)
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.