Joakim Noah is one of 36 names on the Eastern Conference All-Star ballot for the frontcourt positions.
Of those 36, there are two automatic selections in LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh can also be considered a lock. Playing for the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, he is putting up 20.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 86 percent from the charity stripe.
Outside of those three, who will presumably take the three starting spots, there is a homogeneous mixture of forwards and centers vying for the affection of NBA fans and coaches. Among that mixture is Chicago Bulls' big man Joakim Noah.
Noah is having what may be a career year, particularly offensively. Through 12 games, he is averaging more points, assists, field goal and free throw attempts than ever before. While his rebounding has slipped to just 9.7 per game, his steals (1.3) and blocks (2.1) per game are career highs.
Still, has Noah done enough to emerge from a pack of statistically-alike players in the Eastern Conference?
On the 2012 Eastern Conference All-Star roster, there were five frontcourt reserves. With the three starters all but decided, that leaves roughly five spots for Noah to grab.
Luckily, amongst the 36 names on the ballot, there are numerous fillers and injured players. By simply knocking off Jeff Green, Emeka Okafor, Shane Battier and the like, we have severely narrowed down the competition.
Then throw out the injured stars like Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger. Even players like Nene, Gerald Wallace and Amar'e Stoudemire's chances are hampered enough by injury. By the time the fillers and injured players are filtered out, Joakim Noah is competing in a class of 18 players for eight spots.
We can safely make that 15 players for five spots, with three going to James, Anthony and Bosh.
Noah has never been much of a scorer in the NBA, but the recent elevation of that part of his game has to be taken into account against the top scorers remaining.
This means sizing up Noah's chances against Paul Pierce (20.1 points per game) and Brook Lopez (19 points per game). Noah is not in the same class offensively as these players, but fortunately the rest of his game evens things up. Noah has helped himself greatly by connecting on 49 percent of his field goals and 77 percent of his free throws. Pierce is still toiling away down at 43 percent shooting, which could hurt him.
Lopez right now is averaging 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game to go along with those 19 points. He is also hitting on 55 percent of his field goals and doing this in nine fewer minutes a night than Noah. The Brooklyn Nets center may have a leg-up here and take the first reserve spot in the frontcourt.
Another contender for one of those bench spots is Anderson Varejao. The Cleveland Cavaliers center is leading the NBA in rebounding, averaging 14.1 boards per game. That is a large chunk more than Noah, and the two are knotted at 14 points per game.
What Noah has going for him in this contest is that his team is in much better shape. Cleveland is shaping up to be one of the worst teams in the league, while the Bulls are fighting around .500 without superstar Derrick Rose. Noah is, deservedly, seen as a major part of Chicago's success in Rose's absence. That helps him against Varejao, but if the latter continues to post such gaudy rebounding totals, it will be tough to keep him off the All-Star team.
Greg Monroe is in a similar position as Varejao. The talented, young center is posting 16.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, while playing some great basketball for the Detroit Pistons. The issue is, the Pistons are struggling to win basketball games. Like Varejao, Monroe's team is weighing him down for All-Star consideration. With no standout statistics like the former's rebounding, Monroe may be forced to wait on that first All-Star nod.
Noah has somewhat of a high profile in the league. He is a starter on the team that captured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons. That automatically helps him out over lesser-publicized players with similar statistics.
Having a dynamic personality and playing for the Bulls leverages Noah over players like Al Harrington, Glen Davis, Byron Mullens and Thaddeus Young.
That still leaves quite a few big names lurking to push Noah off of his first All-Star team. Stars like Kevin Garnett, Josh Smith, David West, Al Horford and even Pierce are all having solid seasons, just like Noah. The difference may be that these players are not carrying as much burden as Noah is on the Rose-less Bulls.
Even if Noah's improvements and the weight of his team is taken into account, he is up against two teammates for the frontcourt spots. Though Carlos Boozer seems like an easy elimination, Luol Deng is doing just as much for the Bulls as Noah.
Deng was named to his first All-Star team a season ago. The numbers he finished the 2011-12 season with are not as good as what he is producing currently, leading one to believe he has to find a spot on the 2012-13 Eastern Conference team.
Deng has taken on a huge load this season with the Bulls. He is one of only two players in the league averaging more minutes than Noah; at 40.4 minutes per game, Deng in fact leads the NBA. He is also Chicago's leading scorer, putting up 17.8 points per game.
While Noah's defensive importance can never be questioned, it is Deng who is often covering the opposition's best scorer. Playing the small forward spot, he is the linchpin of the league's sixth-ranked defense.
Deng can make declarations to the Chicago Sun-Times all he wants, while pumping the tires of Noah, but is he going to surrender his All-Star spot to the man who protects his back defensively?
Deng's assertion is that Joakim Noah is the best center in the Eastern Conference. Right now, that depends upon what positional tag you choose to attribute to Chris Bosh. Even then, maybe it is the new All-Star makeup that is harming Noah's chances.
This season the voting for All-Star starters was limited to two positions instead of the usual three, (guard, forward, center). Instead, fans now vote for two guards, or backcourt players and three frontcourt players. Whether that holds true for the reserves, which are chosen by coaches, remains to be seen.
If the Eastern Conference coaches choose to select more strictly on the basis of traditional positions, Noah's chances go up. He is then fighting a more selective group: Monroe and Varejao, over whom he has the team-success advantage; Horford, who's free-throw shooting (47 percent) makes him a late-game liability and Garnett, who's age has hampered his usage (29.1 minutes per game) and rebounding (7.4 per game). Tyson Chandler gets looped in here because of his gaudy 66 percent shooting from the field, but ultimately his totals pale in comparison.
In reserve centers, Noah may only lose out to Brook Lopez. Even that is a toss-up because of Lopez' rebounding difficulties.
The reality of the situation is that Noah is now fighting with more active and well-known forwards for an All-Star spot.
As a presence on the court and in the paint, there may be no one better in the Eastern Conference than Noah.
Still, unless the Bulls string together a bunch of wins or some of these other players let up, he doesn’t have a clear shot at his first All-Star nod just yet.
For Joakim Noah in the coming weeks, there is still work to be done.
The statistics used in this story are accurate as of November 26, 2012.
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