'He's the spirit of their team'

CHICAGO -- He has become, in the continued absence of Derrick Rose, not just the face of the Chicago Bulls but their personality -- as contentious as he is skilled and as theatric as he is unselfish.

Folks frowned when Steve Kerr, calling a game on television recently, said Joakim Noah is one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now. But with every performance like Sunday's against the New York Knicks, it's an increasingly easier case to make.

And it is his newfound impact on the offensive end, without being anything remotely close to a great scorer, that has been at the forefront of the Bulls ascending to third place in the Eastern Conference by winning nine of 10, including the trashing of the Knicks. It has been more than 35 years since an NBA center handed out 14 assists in a game as Noah did Sunday. And if that's not enough, he scored 13 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked two shots and barked orders from the high-post like some hardwood Peyton Manning.

You know the last center to record a 14-assist game? No, not Vlade Divac. No, not Bill Walton. Sam Lacey is the correct answer. That's a generation-and-a-half of basketball ago.

Number of times a Bulls center has had 14 assists in a game before Sunday? None. Never happened. Remember, we're talking about the 30th-ranked team in points scored, and there are only 30 teams in the NBA.

It's not like the Bulls have had some roster overhaul in recent weeks. And it's not fair to say, "Oh, it's just the Knicks," even though the Knicks are truly stinky right now, have lost 14 of 16 games and are too far out of the playoff picture to even discuss the possibility of a postseason appearance. Hell, the Bulls scored only 70 points against the Sacramento Kings a few weeks ago and had seven 24-second violations just a week ago in Miami.

No, there's a fundamental difference in what the Bulls are doing now (except against the Heat):

They're handing the ball to Noah at the top of the circle and he's going "Omah-HA!" on opposing defenses. On the dribble handoffs with the elbow extended, Noah sets massive screens and Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and Jimmy Butler have learned to squeeze off shots in the space created by Noah.

If defenders come over the top, Noah has the skill, timing, instinct and creativity to hit those same players cutting to the basket.

If his own man sloughs back, Noah has begun doing the only thing the ball handler can do to make the defense pay: shoot.

As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game Sunday, "Our guys know if you cut and you're open, you're going to get it. So they don't stand." When asked why the Bulls were so effective and efficient offensively, beginning with a 16-1 lead that drained any drama from the proceedings, the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony said of Noah, "He was the quarterback out there, making plays for everybody. He's the spirit of their team." Noah, as a good playmaker should do, dished praised to his coach, which might surprise people who insist Thibodeau isn't even paying attention to offense.

"Thibs definitely changed his offensive system to put me in a place where I'm catching the ball at the elbow ... when in his ideal basketball world he wants to throw it into the post all night. But that's not what I do best, so Thibs made that change to the offense.

"And my teammates trust me to make the right decisions and plays up there. I know part of that involves me shooting. Derrick [Rose] is yelling at me, 'Shoot it.' That gives me confidence. I have to take that shot and that's never been a big part of my game before. It's coming. I'm working on it. I'm getting more and more confidence in my [offensive] game." Part of the reason for that is Noah is healthier than he usually is this deep into the season, though that was threatened when he rolled an ankle in the third quarter and left the game briefly for a retape. (Noah suggested he would rather shave his head than miss Monday night's game in Brooklyn.)

"I've got light feet," he said. "My feet are too light for [defenders], so they have to back up. My feet have been hurting for two years. But that's not all of it. I'm playing with people who work hard. Look at the way Taj [Gibson] has progressed, look at Jimmy Butler's progress. We have pieces here. We work hard. We want to win a ring; we want a ring here real bad." Only people inside the Bulls' camp, and probably not all of them, would argue that is within reach this season, what with Rose out for the rest of it and Luol Deng having been traded to Cleveland.

But while the Knicks have been woefully unable to find people to fill the void left by the departures of old heads Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace, the Bulls appear able to shrug off the losses of not just Rose and Deng, but Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli -- who helped them win a playoff series last spring.

The only people in the house obsessed with the Melo-to-Chicago speculation were those of us in the media and a bunch of fans who had white Bulls home jerseys emblazoned with Anthony's name and his No. 7 made up for the occasion.

Usually the Knicks are the third most unpopular team in Chicago, behind the Heat and Pacers. But Melo was, interestingly enough, cheered quite a bit in the United Center on Sunday. Chicagoans may, as tradition demands, hate New York. But they know Anthony in a Bulls jersey for real could change the conversation in the Eastern Conference. Melo, when asked about the love he got in Chicago, wisely said, "I can't see next year. I can't even see tomorrow at this point." It's not that Anthony was bad against the Bulls; he hit eight of 17 shots and scored 21 points. But if Anthony outscores his opposite number (Butler) by just two points, the Knicks are in all kinds of trouble.

Two numbers that jump out at you from Sunday's game: The Bulls committed a franchise-record low of three turnovers. And Noah had nearly as many assists by himself (14) as the entire Knicks team (17), which ought to tell you something about the Knicks' lack of defense and lack of ball movement. The postgame conversation really did keep coming back to Noah. Thibs talked about his intelligence leading to instantaneous decision-making, which in effect makes Noah seem quicker on the court than he really is.

With his build, sometimes bad feet and the pony tail, it's entirely possible if you're of a certain age to compare Noah to Bill Walton -- perhaps the best passing big man ever. When I asked Noah who he thinks of when he hears the phrase "great passing big man," he listed Divac and Brad Miller. The question now becomes how long and how consistently Noah can have this impact on the game offensively, which the Bulls absolutely need if they're going to score against defenses much better than that of the Knicks. And if Noah does keep rolling along at this clip -- this was his second triple-double in three weeks -- is he really one of the 10 best players in the NBA?

"I think that he's playing phenomenal," Bulls forward Gibson said Sunday following the game. "I think that he could have had a couple more triple-doubles this year if he really wanted to. He's so unselfish as far as his rebounding ability every night. And his scoring ability now this year, I think that he could do that every night.

"He's having a hell of a year. He's pushing us, we're pushing him. We're having fun. We're making each other better. And the sky's the limit for him. He still hasn't even reached his ceiling yet." Increasingly, however, even the sharpest basketball insiders have taken to eliminating big men from certain discussions. The recent Mount Rushmore discussions focused almost exclusively on all-court players and ran away from Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan and Shaquille O'Neal. Most award ballots don't even require voters to include centers, which is a dramatic deviation from decades past.

But if centers are part of the discussion, I'd have Kerr's back in making the case that Noah is having at least as big an impact on the game right now as Dwight Howard. The easy thing is to throw Howard's numbers out there because his 19 points, 12.5 rebounds per game and 55 percent shooting trump Noah in those departments. However, Noah isn't a liability at the foul line (72.4 percent to Howard's 54.8 percent) and his assist numbers (4.6 per game to Howard's 1.9) are tangible statistical advantages.

But here's what the numbers don't tell you: Howard is playing with a full complement of teammates, notably James Harden and Chandler Parsons. Noah is playing without what figured to be the two best players on his team, Rose and Deng.

And it would be damn near impossible to make the case that Howard makes Harden better. We know from what we've seen since Christmas that Noah makes Butler and Dunleavy and Augustine better offensive players.

The Rockets, who are good enough to perhaps win the Western Conference, are playing about as expected. The Bulls, who still don't figure to be a threat to Miami or Indy, are playing beyond expectations now that they're tied with the Toronto Raptors for the No. 3 spot in the East. And Noah is clearly the MVP of the team, the Bulls' spirit, as Carmelo Anthony suggests. Even if you think Howard is having a better season, Noah isn't far behind him and probably has had a better season than Indiana's Roy Hibbert. And perhaps the best thing about Noah, among all of his intangibles, is that he couldn't give a damn about any of the comparisons.

This hasn't been the season he expected, once Rose went down again and Deng was traded, and inside its killing him. Noah knows he needs Rose, especially to get past the champs, so this whole stretch of nine wins in 10 games and improved offensive play have to be assessed in relative terms.

"It's exciting," Noah said, "coming from where we came from ... to be in this position. But we're not satisfied. We're fighting. We're the hungriest team in the NBA. Everybody knows what this team is going through, playing without our best player.

"When our young boy comes back ... I want a ring. I want a ring so bad. When he comes back, I know our time will come."