NEW YORK -- Should Joakim Noah be considered in the MVP conversation?
The mere fact that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau entertained that question before Monday's game shows how much Noah's game has developed over the last two seasons, especially this one. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant playing at their usual high level, few, if any around the league are wondering whether Noah should actually be named the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
"You get into that debate about -- what is it?," Thibodeau said. "Is it the most valuable player in the league? Is it what a guy does for his team? Is it the winning component of it? To me, it's what Jo's doing for the team, and that's why I was so pleased with him being named to the All-Star team because statistically you could look at it and they're good, but it's his ability to lift a team up. Some aspects, you look at his jump shot and you could pick that apart, but the ball goes in. And he wins, that's the most important thing."
There's no question about that. Noah won two national titles at the University of Florida and has been a key cog in the Bulls' resurgence over the last few years. He's made it his mission this season to make fans remember this Bulls team because of the way so many pundits and fans gave up on them after the injury to Rose and the Deng trade. He is fueled by the motivation that his doubters provide and that passion has permeated throughout the Bulls locker room.
"So it's all the things he's doing for the team," Thibodeau said. "And I think he's starting to be recognized for that. And guys love playing with a guy like that. It makes the game fun. It's about winning and his defense, he helps on defense, he guards his own guy, he rebounds the ball, he'll get it out quick. And then he wants to make the right play on offense. I think his screening is much improved, his rolling to the basket is much improved. And his ability -- he's always had good vision, he's always been a good passer, but he's making much quicker decisions and that's probably his biggest area of improvement."
So is that a yes for MVP consideration?
Thibodeau finally said it was, but he's been around the league long enough to know that Noah doesn't have the type of eye-popping offensive stats that usually sway voters, although he has racked up the biggest numbers of his career this season, averaging 12 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists a game. He's also earned praise throughout the league for his play. TNT analyst, and former Bulls' guard, Steve Kerr, tweeted recently that aside from LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Noah would be the guy he would want on his team in a Game 7 on the road.
New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony praised Noah after Sunday's game saying that the All-Star center is the "quarterback" for the Bulls and that his teammates fed off him. That's been a common refrain from players and coaches throughout the NBA this season.
"He's an All-Star in this league," Anthony said. "He's proven himself for what he can do. Hell of a defender, great passer, great leader out there, vocal leader. I think he's the spirit of that team."
Thibodeau feels the same way. Without Noah buying into Thibodeau's system, the Bulls wouldn't be winning the way that they have over the past two months. He knows that Noah sets the tone, on and off the floor, and the rest of his teammates follow.
Noah is averaging 12.7 points, 11 rebounds and six assists a game since Feb. 1, and the Bulls are 11-6 during that stretch.
"Any time you can get somebody to pass the way he's been passing -- what it does is it makes everyone else better," Thibodeau said. "That's why when you have a skillset of a big that can play away from the basket and create easy offense, it's a huge plus."
Noah is trying to take his recent great play in stride. After dealing with foot problems off and on for the past few years, he has stayed healthy throughout much of this season. He doesn't care much for personal accolades, but he does appreciate them. Still, after all his success in college, Noah knows that a player is ultimately judged on how many championships they win. Votes for the MVP award would be nice, but they wouldn't be as sweet as an NBA title to Noah.
"Everybody knows what this team is going through," Noah said recently. "Playing without our best player. And we feel like we've come so close to getting that ring so right now our mentality is we just want to get better, play in those big games, and do everything we can to play the best basketball possible so that when our young boy comes back we're ready. I want a ring. I want a ring so bad. And I know that one day our time will come."