Bulls looking like contender in East

SAN FRANCISCO – The Chicago Bulls were preparing to leave their hotel for a recent workout when Joakim Noah(notes) realized he had forgotten his cell phone. One problem: He also had forgotten his room number.

Noah stepped onto the elevator knowing only this: Much like his Bulls, he was headed up.

With Noah preparing to make his long-awaited return to the lineup later this month, the Bulls could establish themselves as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference alongside the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat – provided they aren’t already.

Joakim Noah has targeted the Bulls' Feb. 23 game against the Raptors for his return.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

“If the Bulls are healthy it could get ugly,” Noah said. “We can definitely compete against anybody. To be honest with you, there are still a lot of question marks with this team. We’re playing good basketball, but the sky’s the limit. Who knows how much better we can get?”

With Derrick Rose(notes) developing into one of the league’s top point guards, the Bulls have climbed within reach of the Celtics and Heat atop the East standings. That comes as a surprise considering the Bulls have had their preferred starting lineup – Rose, Keith Bogans(notes), Luol Deng(notes), Carlos Boozer(notes) and Noah – together for just nine games.

Boozer missed the first 15 games of the season with a broken right hand. Not long after Boozer returned, Noah was sidelined with a right thumb injury that has caused him to already miss 24 games. The Bulls went 7-2 in the games Boozer and Noah played together.

“We complement each other very well,” Noah said of the power forward-center tandem. “But we haven’t played healthy together yet. When he came back in those beginning games, I was already hurt. I couldn’t palm a basketball.”

The Bulls signed Noah to a five-year, $60 million extension after the Denver Nuggets inquired about him in a potential deal that would have sent Carmelo Anthony(notes) to Chicago. While the Bulls have interest in Anthony, they’ve refused to include their young center in any potential trade.

“I love Chicago,” Noah said. “I really like this team. Being able to play in an environment like playing in the United Center is something I want to do and something I want to be a part of.

“It always sucks to be in trade rumors, but they aren’t things you can control. I worked really hard in the offseason with the Bulls. This is somewhere I want to be for a long time.”

Noah should get his wish. He’s already distinguished himself as one of the league’s top young big men and was averaging career highs in points (14), rebounds (11.7) and field-goal percentage (.514) before his injury. He’s also packed on 10 pounds of muscle.

“You don’t rely on his jump shooting,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s defense, rebounding, running the floor. But we do miss him a lot offensively. That was probably the biggest surprise. He’s a much better offensive player than I realized.”

Noah has targeted a Feb. 23 game against the Toronto Raptors for his return. The following night, the Bulls will face the Heat, giving them a chance to make a statement with their lineup intact. Even with Noah hurt, the Bulls have gone 24-6 over their past 30 games.

“We’re playing very well right now and it’s really an exciting time for us,” Noah said. “We know we are going to be a playoff team and we know we’re going to be able to compete against the best.”


N.Y. or bust for ‘Melo?

Carmelo Anthony
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Several sources told Yahoo! Sports that Carmelo Anthony’s agent, Leon Rose, has recently begun informing teams that the All-Star forward is interested in signing a contract extension with only the New York Knicks. The stance has weakened the Denver Nuggets’ leverage in trying to deal Anthony, not only to other teams, but also the Knicks.

The sources said the Knicks don’t feel pressed to present a substantial trade offer to the Nuggets because they think they can also sign Anthony after the season if he opts out of his contract, as expected.

“If you’re New York, you just sit and wait until the offseason,” one general manager said. “That’s where it’s likely to go. Why give up assets to get him now when you can wait and get him next season?”

Said another source: “If ’Melo is telling the world he wants to go [to New York], why fight so hard to get him? [Knicks president] Donnie Walsh knows this.”

Though there’s less than three weeks before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, a deal for Anthony isn’t imminent. Sources said the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks still have interest in Anthony despite knowing he doesn’t plan to re-sign with them.

“Don’t blame ’Melo. He’s been up front about wanting to go to New York since the summer,” one source close to the talks said. “They better trade him to New York or end up with nothing.”


Augustin developing under new coach

D.J. Augustin
(NBAE/Getty Images)

No player has benefitted more from the Charlotte Bobcats’ decision to replace Larry Brown with Paul Silas than point guard D.J. Augustin(notes).

Augustin averaged 12.6 points and six assists during the first 28 games under Brown in his first season as a full-time starter. Augustin’s mediocrity sparked the Bobcats to look for a possible upgrade at the position.

Bit since Silas has taken over, Augustin has averaged 18.3 points and 6.8 assists while scoring in double figures in all but one of the 20 games. Augustin said Silas had just one order for him: Shoot when you’re open or sit next to me on the bench.

“My role with coach Brown was try to just run the offense all the way through, and I wasn’t looking to score as much,” Augustin said. “Guys were just playing off of me. But with Paul, he’s letting me be free and play my game. Now guys have to respect me and its opening things up for my teammates.”

Augustin’s success under Silas has helped quiet the trade talk.

“Early on we had some situations we really evaluated,” Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins said. “I think Paul feels really comfortable with D.J. He’s made that known to me.”


Tip-ins

The Memphis Grizzlies are dangling guard O.J. Mayo(notes) in trade talks, but one NBA general manager said they’re asking too much for him. The Grizzlies want a player who’s ready to contribute now and improve their chances of making the playoffs. … One league source said the Miami Heat are expected to make a run at Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins(notes) after he becomes a free agent this summer, even though the Heat will be limited with what they can offer. … The Indiana Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets remain the most likely destinations for New York Knicks forward Anthony Randolph(notes). The Knicks want a first-round pick for him. … Toronto Raptors forward Linas Kleiza(notes) said he will be in Colorado for about another week after having microfracture surgery on his right knee that will keep him sidelined for up to a year. Kleiza said he initially suffered the knee injury during training camp and kept playing until it became too painful. “I will come back better and stronger from this,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Friday, Feb 4, 2011