By: mitchell felker
Teams: Houston Rockets (44-19) @ Chicago Bulls (35-29)
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: United Center
- The Bulls had won six of their last eight prior to Derrick Rose's most recent injury back in November, but they were just 3-10 following the injury and still learning how to function without their point guard when Chicago came to Houston on December 18. The Rockets won, 109-94.
- Houston's dynamic duo were awesome that game, as James Harden and Dwight Howard combined for 42 points on 18-27 shooting, with 13 boards, 4 steals and a +/- of +41. The rest of the Rockets had their way as well; the team shot 53.7% from the field (36.4 3pt%), but no other Rocket had a double-digit plus/minus.
- After a stellar February in which they were 9-4, the Bulls have cooled off and are just 3-3 so far in March, including a 104-96 loss to the Spurs on Tuesday.
- The Bulls acquired Jimmer Fredette, formerly of the Sacramento Kings, on March 2nd. But he has yet to make an impact with Chicago, averaging under three minutes in six games (3 DNP's).
- One last note that isn't really game specific, but does anyone else remember the circumstances of the 2011 draft that led to Chandler Parsons and Donatas Motiejunas landing with Houston? In a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Rockets acquired Johnny Flynn, the 20th pick (Motiejunas) and a 2012 second rounder in exchange for Brad Miller, the 23rd pick (Nikola Mirotic), the 38th pick (Parsons) and a future first round pick. Luckily, they reacquired the Parsons-pick for cash considerations.
Otherwise, that would have been that would have been the top-prospect in Europe, one of the best young forwards in basketball and a first round pick for Motiejunas and washout-Flynn. Now, I love D-Mo, but that's enough to make you resent anyone. Eventually, Mirotic's draft rights ended up with Chicago and he now appears set to join the Bulls this summer from none other than Spanish-power Real Madrid, who also happens to employ Rockets' prospect Sergio Llull. Mirotic's development may still make this a loss for the Rockets, but the Parsons aspect kept it from being an all-out garbage fire.
Injuries: I couldn't find anything concrete, but I would expect Patrick Beverley to continue to wear his protective face mask for at least a few more games.
Other than Derrick Rose, the Bulls have no injuries.
I was unable to get in touch with any Bulls insiders prior to today's game, so instead I want to discuss a piece written by Nick Friedell for ESPN Chicago entitled, "Howard or Noah: Who is the better center?". This seems like an especially important question heading into tonight's game because for the Bulls to beat the Rockets, Joakim Noah will very likely have to be better than Dwight Howard for at least one night.
Just going by the numbers, there isn't much argument to be made about who is the better player. Howard scores more, has a much higher shooting percentage and rebounds the ball at a higher rate. Although, Noah is much better from the free throw-stripe and his passing ability might be the biggest mismatch on the board when comparing the two players. And passing is really the crux of the argument for pro-Noah backers.
Even if you believe that Howard is the better player, do you really think he could be the starting center for this Bulls team, sans Rose and Deng, and they still perform at the level we've seen out of them these past few weeks? I'm the same person that made the case for Howard as Defensive Player of the Year, due to the fact that his degree of difficulty in cleaning up after this Rockets team on defense is so much higher than what Roy Hibbert is asked to do for the Pacers. So how can I not make the same argument for Noah? Never mind Dwight Howard, there is no other player in the league, save for maybe Carmelo Anthony, that has as much offensive responsibility as Noah does on this particular Bulls team. His passing and some deft shooting by the Bulls role players is pretty much the entire offense. Dwight has James Harden; LeBron James has Dwyane Wade; even Chris Paul has Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford. And say what you want about Howard's Magic teams, but Hedo Turkoglu could run a relatively potent offense when Dwight didn't have the ball.
If Howard was the Bulls' centerpiece, who would create shots? It certainly wouldn't be Dwight. And we already know that Howard isn't exactly efficient on isolation post-ups, so a large percentage of the creativity would have to come from one of the perimeter players. No offense to DJ Augustin and Mike Dunleavy Jr, but that would not make for a very productive team. And let's not even talk about the Hack-a-Shaq (that's what it's called; quit changing the name) problem that Howard on the Bulls would create.
Howard has many strengths on offense; he is still a monster in the pick-and-roll and his post-up play has gotten noticeably better as the season has progressed. But Noah is as versatile as they come. He creates from the elbows in the half-court, is nifty around the rim and runs the floor as well as any big in the game, even handling the fast break from time to time. And its not just his skill level; he's also a gritty, blue-collar worker. He's an excellent pick-setter (especially the dribble-handoff), rim-runs every semi-break and has a strict "no layups" rule. As odd as it may sound, Noah is probably the most versatile center (player?) in the league. (okay, besides LeBron)
So that's the pro-Noah argument. The Howard defense starts with just that, defense. While Noah is no slouch on that end, and was even named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team last year, a healthy Dwight Howard is still one of the premier rim-protectors in the Association. The Rockets' fast pace and slack perimeter defense don't make his job easy, and certainly deflates his numbers, but that Dwight has this team in the top-ten defensively is near-unbelievable. He is still a monster on the boards, and, as I said before, his post work has improved seemingly weekly since arriving in Houston.
Howard isn't quite as agile as Noah, but his length and strength are second-to-none. Not even the biggest centers in the league can back Howard down in the post, and his explosiveness on the offensive end is almost impossible to defend. Blake Griffin is the only healthy post-player that is as lethal as Howard at finishing around the rim. Dwight is also one of the few big-men in the league that can get out and run similar to Noah, although he's not quite as useful in the open court.
And as much as I love Noah's game, even I don't know how I feel about Steve Kerr saying that he would take Noah behind only LeBron and Kevin Durant in a Game 7 situation. Carmelo Anthony has always had a reputation as a big-gamer and despite his lack of team success, has had some monster games in big situations. Steph Curry did some good things in last year's playoffs and his propensity for the heat-check makes him a prime candidate for do-or-die situations.
But as intelligent as Mr. Kerr is, I can't believe he overlooked his former teammate, Tim Duncan. Just last year, Duncan averaged 27 points, 14.5 rebounds (4.5 o.rebs) and 2.5 steals in the Spurs' two closeout games against the Heat in the Finals. It's notable that Noah is getting that type of recognition, but lets also not forget that in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Dwight Howard posted 40 points, 14 rebounds (6 o.rebs) and 4 assists in the series-clinching Game 6 against LeBron's Cavaliers.
There are fine arguments to be made for both players, but under any normal circumstance, Dwight Howard is the best center in the league. Having said that, if I was voting for All NBA-First Team this season, my vote would go to Noah. The Bulls have been an amazing story post-Deng trade and Noah has been the reason. Armed only with Taj Gibson (probably the Sixth-Man), Jimmy Butler and a host of role players (not to mention a very worthy Coach of the Year candidate), he has the Bulls playing for the 3-seed in the East.
But I think it's safe to say, whomever you choose in this debate, tonight will be a matchup of the two best centers in the league. And boy are we in for a treat.