DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Joakim Noah plays with the type of consistent fire and passion that fans and coaches have been wanting to see from Dwight Howard for years. But does that make Noah the better player?
If a franchise had to pick one center to build a team around, the odds are still higher that many around the league would take Howard. After all, he is an eight-time All-Star and carried the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2008-2009.
He may not be the most complete center in the league, a title for which Noah could make a claim. But despite a tumultuous two-year stretch during which he forced a trade out of Orlando, then left the Los Angeles Lakers after a season, Howard is largely regarded as the better player as his Houston Rockets come into town to face Noah and the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.
Howard is averaging 18.7 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. That's a little more day-to-day production than the 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists that Noah has put up this season -- the best of his six-year career.
Maybe Noah isn't the best statistical choice to build a team around, but the argument already has been made by some, including TNT analyst and former Bull Steve Kerr, that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant would be the preferred choices over Noah in a Game 7 situation.
The fact that Noah has even closed the gap to the point that questions like this can be bounced around indicates how far he has come in his development during the past two seasons. While Howard became a fixture on the All-NBA team during his time in Orlando, Noah has blossomed to the point that it's likely he will earn some votes for the coveted position at the end of the season.
"I'm biased, so I'm probably not the right guy to ask that question," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday after practice when asked who he would vote for between Noah and Howard, if he had a vote. "But for what Jo does for our team, I don't think there's anyone better for that."
No matter what direction the NBA writers and broadcasters vote at the end of the season, it's clear both players have earned respect throughout the league. They've also earned each other's respect over the years, speaking glowingly of one another.
"I think he's a great player and he's been playing great all year," Noah said of Howard on Wednesday. "His team is playing great. He's in a good place right now. I think he looks pretty happy to be in Houston. He's happy with his decision. I'm just trying to focus on us and what we've got to do to find a way [to] win."
Noah said he thought Howard was the best center in the league when asked, but he doesn't believe that. He believes that he has put in enough time and work into his game that he can beat anybody in the league with his teammates. In many ways, the biggest change between the two players’ games is that Noah has developed into the type of leader the Magic and Lakers always wanted Howard to become.
He has become a de facto point guard for the Bulls, as the offense continues to run through him each night. He's also become a sounding board for his teammates -- the guy that everybody takes their cues from on the floor.
Thibodeau said he believes Noah, who isn't playing quite as many minutes this season, has found a sweet spot in terms of his nightly output.
"He's done a good job with it," Thibodeau said. "I think he's at a good number. We just want to make sure he can play hard on every possession. I think he's in great shape. He's done a really good job of preparing himself for the season. So I like where he is right now. But he's got to keep grinding. I think he can go to another level."
Does Thibodeau worry his leader may get mentally fatigued because of all the emotion he pours into each game?
"No, because I think you train yourself for that," Thibodeau said. "That's the nature of this league. If you want to do something special, I think you have to commit to that. That's building the right habits throughout the course of the season.
"The teams that achieve in this league are able to sustain their concentration level and their effort level over a long period of time. So hopefully we're building the right habits and he can do it."
Noah and his teammates know that in order to get back on track Thursday, they've got to do a solid job staying in front of Howard. He may not play with the type of fire that has come to define Noah, but he can still play as well as any big man in the league. Gibson spoke of Howard as if he were "The Incredible Hulk."
"I feel that you don't want to make him mad," Gibson said. "Once you make him mad he's going to call for the ball mostly every time he's down in the paint. He's going to bang you, just try to dominate you in a lot of different fashions."
So what's it like trying to guard Howard?
"It's like a tractor trailer backing [up] a small car," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "His strength is crazy."
Howard's strength and length are what have given Noah problems in the past. It will be a challenge to stay in front of the Rockets' big man, but it's just the next thing on a list that Noah has pushed past this season.
Noah may not have the type of gaudy numbers Howard produces, but Noah’s teammates and coaches don't care. They know that for what the Bulls want to do, there's nobody better.
"I like the guy we have," Thibodeau said. "The guy we have is pretty special."