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Joakim Noah has blossomed into one of the best players in the NBA

FILE - In this April 4 2014 file phoChicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) defends against Milwaukee Bucks center ZazPachuliduring

FILE - In this April 4, 2014 file photo, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) defends against Milwaukee Bucks center Zaza Pachulia during an NBA basketball game in Chicago. A person familiar with the situation says that Noah is the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year. The person spoke Monday, April 21, 2014 on the condition of anonymity because the award had not been announced. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, File) ORG XMIT: CX107

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Updated: June 5, 2014 11:02PM



The NBA Finals go on, as they have for the last 16 years, without our Bulls.

If you think the Heat and Spurs are the two best teams going at it, I think you’re right.

But at least we have Joakim Noah.

That the frisky Bulls center was recently named Defensive Player of the Year and was the leading vote-getter on the first-team All-Defensive team was a salute of the highest order, an honor to his all-out hustle and rebounding skills.

That Noah on Wednesday was named to the All-NBA first team itself — picking up the third-most votes after Kevin Durant and LeBron James — was the cherry on top. An unexpected cherry, at that. A bright red one.

Why, this fellow who had never received an MVP vote before finished an astonishing fourth in the best-player-in-the-league voting — behind Durant, James and high-flying Blake Griffin.

Wow! Our elbows-churning, bun-wearing tall man is nearly the best player in the NBA? Have we really appreciated him as much as we should? Did he sneak up on us like the best present dropped down the chimney by Santa, but not discovered until spring break?

If there is a televised product ad or endorsement or promo for the league that doesn’t feature James, Durant, Griffin or identical twin/ insurance salesman Chris Paul, I haven’t seen it.

Noah? What does he promote? He signed last fall with Adidas and does some supplement product stuff and also shills for Vita Coco coconut water. But he’s not everywhere, not in your face, not shown in thousand-frame-per-second slo-mo as he jumps over a car or dunks from the free-throw line. He doesn’t dribble between his legs like a Globetrotter. He doesn’t nail three-point shots from 30 feet out.

How do you glamorize hustle? How do you make art of running up the court as fast as your ostrich legs will take you, or a corkscrew shot reminiscent of little Jimmy’s from second grade?

Suddenly, Noah is a kind of old-school star. His appreciation from NBA experts is a tip of the cap to old-time genuine centers. To the guys who clogged up the middle, rearranged shots, snagged the boards, altered the entire game — without scoring more points than the little gunners all around. Think Bill Russell, if you will. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though he scored a bundle. Moses Malone. Robert Parish. Artis Gilmore. Bill Walton. Even an underappreciated former Bull named Tom Boerwinkle.

What Noah can do is a little bit of everything. His triple-doubles — four this season — are a sign of those skills. How about an 18-game streak of 10 or more rebounds? Or 30 points and 23 rebounds, as Noah had in a December victory over the Pistons?

It’s crazy, but once Derrick Rose was gone for the season and star forward Luol Deng was traded, Noah took over. Sometimes he stood at the point and passed like Magic Johnson. Sometimes he lurked down low and dunked like Wilt Chamberlain

The former clown and erratic 7-foot stick man blossomed like an orchid. Consider: He has risen above centers Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol. And at 29, he seems to have reached a towering peak that might even have a tiny little ledge just above. Like a 15-shot that just goes straight in.

Some Bulls analysts wonder — worry, actually — whether this team is now Noah’s or still Rose’s. It’s a silly concern, more attuned to issues that occur with monster egos a la Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and the like.

Noah and his motor can mesh with anybody who wants to win. Rose? Well, who even knows if he’ll be back playing with anything like the MVP skills he once had? But if we know the hapless, snake-bit point guard the way we think we do, he’s humble and fierce and ready to pass and play ball in the only way he knows how — full tilt. With anybody who wants to win.

As LeBron and Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan and all the other Heat and Spurs go at it for the crown, think about Noah lying in the weeds, watching.

Someday the crown will pass. How amazing if Noah and the Bulls are there to accept it.



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