There’s an ancient stock in trade in professional sports that often sees glib head coaches triumphing the merits of an opposing player as a way to light a fire under the saddle of their own team, or showcased star. With Derrick Rose out for the season and Luol Deng traded to Cleveland, Joakim Noah has emerged as Chicago’s requisite star, and Dwight Howard is unquestionably the Houston Rockets’ MVP and franchise player in spite of James Harden’s looming presence.
Howard hasn’t exactly disappointed the Rockets this season with his play, he’s not working at the peak levels that we saw from a few years ago in Orlando, but he has improved significantly from his injury and attitude-hindered lone year in Los Angeles. The Rockets are one of the NBA’s hottest teams, ramping up significantly on both ends of the ball over the last month, currently working with the fourth seed in the cutthroat Western Conference. And on both ends of the ball, Dwight Howard (averaging 18.7 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game) is the biggest reason why. Again, no matter how many lovely 40-point nights James Harden wants to toss around.
In Chicago, where the Rockets will take on the Bulls on Thursday evening, Joakim Noah has developed into a just as important, if not better, player. And because of the novelty of his sublime play, and some dominant nationally televised showings on ABC and ESPN recently, chatter has sparked up about Noah’s possible presence on either the All-NBA Team, or his status amongst Defensive Player of the Year or even MVP candidates.
And for some reason, after sharing a bus ride with Dwight Howard to Thursday’s shootaround, Rockets coach Kevin McHale decided to chime in about one of those awards, via ESPN:
"He's played very well," McHale said after his team's shootaround at Moody Bible Institute. "He should be defensive player of the year. He's done a great job with these guys. They've been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates."
Those are qualities everybody appreciates, and speaking as a Chicago Bulls fan, I can tell you that Noah may rank as a personal all time Chicago favorite. He makes my hometown proud, with his effort and passion.
And game! Noah has built off a strong 2012-13 showing in Rose’s absence, one that saw him develop his passing and playmaking instincts, to a ridiculous degree in 2013-14. Even though Joakim basically had to punt all of the months of October and November as he dealt with a nagging groin strain and the resultant conditioning issues, Noah has assisted on nearly a quarter of the possessions he’s used up this season – an astounding mark for a center.
His averages of 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.6 combined steals/blocks in 34 minutes a contest don’t really begin to scratch his particular surface, as his movement on both ends (that doesn’t show up in the orthodox box scores) has helped keep an injury-plagued Bulls team afloat.
Defensive Player of the Year, though? I’d consider it, especially with Roy Hibbert’s Indiana Pacers playing just about average basketball on that end over the last few weeks, but what’s more interesting is McHale saying this with Howard likely practicing free throws just a few hoops away at Moody Bible.
Perhaps we’re reading too much into this, but McHale no doubt knows that the only way his Rockets are going to make it through two or three or perhaps four playoff rounds is for Howard to just about single-handedly turn his team into a top ten defensive outfit. For the first half of the season the Rox stayed right about on par with last season’s Omer Asik-helmed defense in terms of efficiency numbers, though they have improved on that end over the last month. Still, merely above-average teams rarely make Finals runs even if they do boast a killer offense, and Howard (for whatever reason – be it age, injury, or first year kinks) just isn’t the same DPoY-level player that we saw in Orlando during his award-winning 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons.
That’s not a slam on Dwight, it’s just how the year has fleshed out, so far.
We’ll leave it to Kevin McHale to slam on Dwight Howard from now on, apparently. Heads-up, Joakim Noah, you just were weirdly put on the bulletin board by an opposing coach.
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