DEERFIELD, Ill.—It’s funny how things change in the course of a few years.
Not long ago, Dwight Howard was the undisputed best center in the NBA, a perennial MVP candidate in Orlando, a dominant force in the paint and the league’s top defensive player by a wide margin. But the All-Star center’s popularity plummeted during his final season with the Magic leading to a trade to the Lakers and disastrous campaign in Los Angeles before signing with the Rockets in free agency over the summer.
“I thought he had a great year last year. When you look at it where he started slowly, but where he ended up, the numbers were very good. What he’s doing this year has been terrific. He’s a defense unto himself because of his shot-blocking. Also, when you look at his positioning, his ability to read things, very, very good,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to concentrate on your body position. He’s such a great athlete. I think he’s gotten more comfortable in the post, but he’s a great pick-and-roll player. You throw the ball anywhere up near the rim, he’ll finish, so we’ve got to keep a body on him. He’s playing at a really high level for them.”
Now, in Houston, Howard—who was afflicted with a serious back injury a year ago, leading to a down year statistically, though his numbers were still excellent, overall—appears to have found a comfort zone with fellow All-Star James Harden, for what has quietly become one of the best teams in the league.
Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson chimed in: “I think he’s having a great year. I think he’s back from injury. He’s in a totally different situation from LA, less distractions. He’s having fun and you can tell.”
"It’s like a tractor trailer backing a small car up. His strength is crazy, his height. He has the whole package. You just have to call for help," Gibson continued, when asked what it was like defending Howard. "I feel that you don’t want to make him mad. Once you make him mad, he’s going to call for the ball mostly every time he’s down in the paint. He’s going to bang you and try to dominate you in a lot of different fashions other than just scoring. Rebounding, just hitting you every time down the court. It’s frustrating for a big man."
Joakim Noah added about his All-Star center counterpart: “I think he’s a great player and he’s been playing great all year. His team is playing great and he’s in a good place right now. He looks pretty happy to me in Houston. He’s happy with his decision.
"Very tough. He’s a strong player. Very athletic. Right hand, left hand in the post. He seems like he’s a lot more comfortable in the post right now. He looks a lot more comfortable than last year. He played injured last year. I think he’s finally healthy and he’s playing really good basketball."
Meanwhile in Chicago this season, Noah has emerged as a superstar in the absence of the injured Derrick Rose and the departed Luol Deng. Less of a traditional center, Noah is a nightly triple-double threat because of his unique playmaking ability and relentless rebounding, while impacting the game defensively with his mobility and high activity level.
Noah’s play since the 2014 calendar year started has sparked discussion that he should be a league MVP candidate, potentially the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner and a first-team All-NBA center. For the latter accolade, Howard would probably be his prime competition.
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“I don’t know. You’ve got to look at what each of them brings. You look at Jo’s standpoint, he brings defense. Offensively, he’s been doing a great job finding guys. He’s mostly averaging a triple-double when you look at his games,” Gibson observed. “Dwight, I haven’t really been paying too much attention. I know he’s been doing a lot of great things, probably double-doubles and stuff like that. I just think Joakim, just me being on this team, Joakim’s been bringing a lot more to the table.”
Thibodeau opined: “You can certainly make a case for that. [Howard has] done it for a long time. When you look at what he’s done throughout his career and he’s more of a traditional center. You can make a case for a few guys.
“I like the guy we have. The guy we have is pretty special,” the coach went on to say. “I’m biased, so I’m probably not the right guy to ask that question. For what Jo does for our team, I don’t think there’s anyone better than that.”