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Steve Aschburner

Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah
Dwight Howard (left) and Joakim Noah are arguably the two best centers in the NBA.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Break up the Bulls? Chicago brass had better think twice

Posted Mar 8 2012 12:53PM

Joakim Noah will win an NBA championship before Dwight Howard.

There it is, pure idle speculation, befitting the final 168 hours before the league's trading deadline. It's offered here not so much as a Vegas-worthy prediction or a curse to the Orlando Magic's strongman alumnus-to-be, but as a reminder to the Chicago Bulls and their more impatient fans to be careful what they wish for. Even if Chicago were on Howard's short and exclusive list of acceptable markets -- and it isn't -- it's important to remember that upgrades aren't always what they seem.

There are plenty of folks around the NBA, especially in the media, who are talent groupies, pure and simple. They worship at the knee of the vertical leap and the advanced metric. It's all a matter of tangibles, tip-slamming and shot-blocking, to be plugged into any of 30 lineups with wondrous results.

Others tilt toward intangibles; chemistry, familiarity, trust, sacrifice, shared goals, energy and passion. That's where addition can become subtraction, black ink can turn red and bringing in someone like Howard -- who has all but abandoned intangibles this season in Orlando -- could flummox even a group as solid as the Bulls.

Any hypothetical trade wouldn't require just a swap of centers, Howard for Noah. Chicago would have to build out its package to include, at least, All-Star forward Luol Deng. Maybe big men Taj Gibson or Omer Asik get tossed into the mix. Maybe a Draft pick or two, or cash, or somebody deeper into the rotation to balance out, say, Hedo Turkoglu's contract.

Even if we limit the discussion to Noah and Deng, the Bulls' two most coveted players after reigning MVP Derrick Rose, opinions about making such a deal seem to range from cautiously willing to determinedly reluctant.

Talks with three Eastern Conference insiders this week ran the gamut. One GM thought long and hard, then said, "Yeah, I guess finally you'd have to do it. He [Howard] just has such an impact on the game, offensively and defensively."

A personnel man, on the other hand, was dead-set against it: "No way. Look what you'd be giving up. They've tried to win around him in Orlando and that wasn't good enough. I'm not sure if Dwight gets it."

And an assistant coach, asked for his overall impression of Howard this season, said simply: "Silly."

Many question his seriousness of purpose, the order of his priorities and his reasons for seeking greener grass outside of central Florida. Some folks have taken a longer, harder look at his game, his improvement to this point (he's 26), the ancillary things that seem to matter most to him and the ways in which a title contender would need to be built around him ... and reached a reasonable conclusion that he simply would not be worth it.

Granted, there's no predicting how he might be around a player like Rose, who would instantly become the highest-level and most driven teammate Howard ever has had. The guy who seldom seems to have a serious bone in his body -- unless it's navel-gazing time again about his own future branding potential -- might be transformed by a young man who appears to have nothing but serious bones. Surely the talent combo of a lethal, lightning-quick perimeter player with Dwight's dominance inside would suggest a pairing for the ages and, maybe, render intangibles immaterial.

Even an avowed chemistry guy like Brian Scalabrine, coach Tom Thibodeau's trustee/reserve in Chicago, admitted: "As much as I think we have the best -- of all the teams I've been on, we have really good chemistry -- I don't think it's as important as people make it out to be. There are some teams that have terrible chemistry and they still win championships. Look at the Lakers with Kobe and Shaq -- they dominated. It's one of those things that, you need to come together for sure in the playoffs and be on the same page and be able to speak to each other. You can have bad chemistry if you have high character guys. Talent in the playoffs, man, talent is big."

Scalabrine is an unabashed Noah fan. He knows what the Bulls would lose in swapping the tangle-haired, sideways-shooting, high-energy center for that brawnier, more decorated replacement from Orlando. He -- and Thibodeau -- see Noah to the Bulls as what Kevin Garnett has been to the Celtics and for a dozen years before that to the Timberwolves.

"They hate each other," Scalabrine smirked, thinking of Noah and Garnett. "But if they were on the same team, they'd love playing with each other. Every night, people would be like, 'Man, I've got to go up against these guys?' The energy would be off the charts! One guy would raise it, the other guy would raise it higher. Wow! They would compete against each other more than against the other teams -- in a good way."

Noah's value includes a few tangibles too. "Obviously, he's great with offensive rebounds, he's really active to the basketball," Scalabrine said. "And over time, you see how he plays harder [than others] every minute out there, and it's not hard for him to raise his level against big-time opponents. For a big, that's huge.

"He's a much better basketball player than what people think. Making decisions. Dribbling. Handoffs. Passing. He's really good at those things, maybe the best center in the NBA. You don't understand. He's a 7-footer who can defend Dwight Howard. But he can take the ball in the open court and find a guy and know to pass it in the corner. You guys watch from the stands and that stuff looks easy -- it's not. It's hard. Usually the guys making those plays are elite guards."

Said Noah, smiling: "I'm from New York City. All New York City players can dribble the ball and take it to the basket. None of us can shoot."

Noah's performances are back to where he was last winter before surgery on his right hand gouged 30 games out of his season. Nine of his double-doubles have come in the last 15 games, and he is averaging 11.1 points and 13.6 rebounds over his last eight games. Sure, Howard's numbers are bigger -- but after you factor in Deng's, are they really?

Last season, 15 of Noah's 21 double-doubles came in the 24 games before the surgery. He played 24 more before the postseason but his minutes were cut because his conditioning was off. He and Carlos Boozer still had to learn to co-exist, and the center hit a wall offensively in the second-round series against Atlanta. After that, he averaged just 5.4 points and Chicago went 4-5 in its final nine playoff games.

This offseason meant a long layoff again and a summer that went from intensive, one-on-one gym sessions with Thibodeau to no contact with the coach whatsoever. Then the rushed training camp and the breakneck schedule. Thibodeau believes big men have taken longer to adapt than small to the season's pace, but Noah is finally back to where he was.

"I thought I worked as hard this offseason as I've ever worked," Noah said in a nearly empty Bradley Center locker room late Wednesday. "But it shows you, you can do all the things but there's only one way to get in real basketball shape, especially the way I play, and that's just playing.

"This isn't easy, y'know. ... There's a reason why it's so rewarding to win an NBA game or to win a series. To get that sweet taste of victory. Because it's really hard. Really hard. I feel, like, so blessed to be a part of this team, one of the few teams that, I can say, we're competing for the real thing. You don't know what's going to happen, but just to be a team where we can say, yeah, we're fighting for our goal -- and that's to win the whole thing -- not every team in the NBA can say that.

"I'm feeling more confident. I feel like I have a little more pep in my step. I'm not the most skilled guy out there, actually. But I'm competitive. I just want to win."

It says here Noah will. Before Dwight Howard.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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