Behind the Bulls’ Surge, a Center Playing Like Chamberlain

Joakim Noah (13) has 6.2 assists a game since Jan. 1. Wilt Chamberlain is the only center to average more than 6 for a season.

Accused of attempting to tank the season when they traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum, who was immediately waived, and three draft picks, the Chicago Bulls have instead moved steadily up the standings. One major factor in the team’s surge despite a depleted roster has been the play of Joakim Noah. Always a defensive ace, Noah has turned himself into one of the N.B.A.’s great passing centers.

Houston Rockets Coach Kevin McHale said last week that he thought Noah should be named defensive player of the year, and while Noah may win that award, his renaissance on offense has been something to behold. Since Jan. 1, he is averaging 6.2 assists a game after never having averaged more than 4 in a season. He has had double-digit assists five times and on Thursday had nine, finishing just short of what would have been his fourth triple-double of the season.

Since 1985-86, players labeled centers have recorded triple-doubles just 75 times, according to, and Noah has accounted for six of them. (One of his six came as a result of 10 blocks rather than 10 assists.) Only Vlade Divac, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson have had more in that time.

“Jo’s our leader, and a triple-double is nothing to him,” Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler told reporters after a Noah triple-double on March 5. “We are starting to expect that from him. He does so many things well that it makes it easier for the rest of us.”

If Noah can sustain his assists pace through next season, he will accomplish a truly rare feat. The only center to average more than 6 assists a game for a season was Wilt Chamberlain, who did it twice (1966-67 and 1967-68). Topping Chamberlain, however, may be too much to ask. In 1967-68, the Big Dipper led the league in assists with 702 while averaging 8.6 a game.

Rays of Hope in the East

At one point it appeared unlikely that the Eastern Conference would have three teams finishing the season with winning records. Behind the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat were 13 teams that seemed hopeless.

While the conference is still top-heavy — the gap between the No. 2 and the No. 3 teams is larger than the gap between the No. 3 and the No. 7 teams — things have evened out. It seems that just one or two teams will make the playoffs with losing records, rather than five or six.

Since Jan. 1, the standings show a conference that may be more wide open than many realize.

The top team in the East during the 2014 calendar year has not been the Pacers or the Heat, but rather the hard-charging Nets, who have a .719 winning percentage and improved their playoff position from No. 10 to No. 5. In all, seven teams in the East have a winning record in 2014, and perhaps the most surprising thing is that on the heels of a five-game winning streak, the Knicks would actually qualify for the playoffs had the 2013 portion of their season not existed.

That is not to say that Indiana or Miami has much to worry about. Those teams are not only the best in the conference but are also legitimate title contenders. But with the Chicago Bulls and the Nets firing on all cylinders despite a series of setbacks earlier this season, they are certainly making things more interesting.

Things get even easier for the Bulls this week, as they get two games against the Philadelphia 76ers, who are in the midst of a 19-game losing streak. The best friend of any team looking for a win, the 76ers have a rough eight-day stretch starting Saturday in which they will face the Memphis Grizzlies, the Pacers, the Bulls, the Knicks and the Bulls (again). Should they lose all five games, they would be just two short of the record, 26 consecutive losses, set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010-11 season.

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