Case could be made Noah is NBA's best center

Updated 3/12/2014 7:45 PM
  • Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard (12) goes up to shoot as Portland Trail Blazers' Robin Lopez defends during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 9, 2014, in Houston.

    Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard (12) goes up to shoot as Portland Trail Blazers' Robin Lopez defends during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 9, 2014, in Houston.

Three or four years ago, no one would have imagined this argument taking place: Who is the best center in the NBA, Dwight Howard or Joakim Noah?

One game isn't going to settle the argument, but those two players will match up Thursday at the United Center when Howard's Houston Rockets visit.

Noah's star has risen quickly with the way he's become the Bulls' primary weapon in the wake of injuries to Derrick Rose and trade of Luol Deng. After several high-profile performances like the one Sunday against Miami, it's been common to see analysts pump Noah for all-NBA first team or even the league's No. 3 MVP candidate behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Those accolades might be a little overblown. The Bulls are still just six games over .500, after all. But Noah's sudden impact as one of the league's brightest stars is undeniable.

When you factor assists, Noah's statistics hold their own against Howard. Noah is averaging 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds. 4.9 assists and 1.5 blocks.

Howard is at 18.7 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 blocks. Considering how each assist results in at least 2 points, Noah's production is similar.

Noah has kicked it up a notch recently, averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 assists since the all-star break, which means he's responsible for 27 points per game, and he's even outdone Howard in blocked shots, with 1.9 per contest.

Asked to weigh in on the best center discussion, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau passed the buck.

"I'm biased, so I'm probably not the right guy to ask that question," he said. "What Jo does for our team, I don't think there's anyone better at that."

In typical fashion, Thibodeau praised Howard and even complemented his single season with the Lakers.

"You can certainly make a case for (Howard being the league's best center)," Thibodeau said. "He's done it for a long time. ... You could make a case for a few guys. I like the guy we have. The guy we have is pretty special."

One aspect that might help Noah's cause when it comes to voting for all-NBA and defensive player of the year is his transformation as a popular personality.

When Noah came into the league after winning a pair of NCAA championships at Florida, he was billed as a guy fans love to hate, unless he's playing for their team.

That didn't change much for a few years, as Noah quickly established himself as a villain in Boston and Cleveland. More recently -- and especially this year -- Noah seems to be gaining respect every time he takes the floor.

There will always be opposing fans who root against him. But it seems accurate to say Noah has evolved from a popular villain to one of the league's most popular players.

At the Berto Center on Wednesday, Noah reacted to that idea with a smile and shrug.

"I don't know. I don't know why. I guess I'm more liked," Noah said. "That's what happens, I guess, when you grab some rebounds and put the ball in the hoop. I guess people's opinions change."

Howard has experienced the opposite. His public perception started out as a happy kid who was always singing gospel songs. Then he seemed to grow more sullen, had an awkward exit from Orlando, then didn't win many fans during his year in Los Angeles.

Winning solves plenty of problems in the NBA. Even though his statistics aren't much different from last season with the Lakers, Howard's Rockets are rolling into town at 44-20.

"It's like a tractor trailer backing a small car over," Taj Gibson said of Howard. "His strength is crazy, his height. He's got the whole package.

"I feel that you don't want to make him mad. Once you make him mad, he's going to call for the ball every time he's down in the paint, try to bang you, just try to dominate you."

• Follow Mike's Bulls and NBA reports on Twitter@McGrawDHBulls.

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