Over there, you have the Knicks—losers of six straight, a locker room in shambles and very little in the way of hope ahead of them. The performance of Tyson Chandler, their emotional bellwether, could most politely be described as aggressively indifferent (22 rebounds notwithstanding).
Over here, the Bulls—winners of nine of their last 10, steely, spirited and steadily climbing up the Eastern Conference standings.
This is Joakim Noah’s team.
Over 37 high-octane minutes in his team's 109-90 blowout win, Noah turned in one of the NBA season’s most impressive performances, tallying 13 points, 12 rebounds and—more stunning still—14 assists.
Facing a woeful Knicks defense, Noah unleashed a symphony of savvy dishes and beautiful backdoor cuts, many through and around a helpless Chandler, who mysteriously elected to stay out on Chicago’s jump-shot-shy center.
Through his first six seasons in the league, Noah had crested the 10-assist mark three times.
Since February 6, he’s done it four times.
For a team ranked 28th in the league in offensive efficiency, per Basketball-Reference, Noah’s uncanny passing ability serves a double purpose. With Chicago forced to rely on the likes of Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin to orchestrate its offense—an offense that at times feels more like a siege than an actual system—Noah gives Tom Thibodeau a desperately needed ancillary distributor.
But Noah’s unselfishness yields a second, more psychological impact: the feeling that, for as limited as luck has made Chicago, there’s still no substitute—statistically or stylistically—for playing the right way.
The result is a chemistry and camaraderie even Thibodeau—teacher and taskmaster alike—can’t help but applaud.
Bulls have won 9 of 10. Thibodeau: "When you get a group that makes the type of commitment they’ve made, something special can happen."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 2, 2014
Having lost both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng—the former to a second knee injury in as many years, the latter in a salary-dumping deadline deal—the Bulls were written off by many as ripe for regression, even in an unprecedentedly weak Eastern Conference.
Instead, thanks in large part to Noah, Chicago is now in position to possibly secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs—where, if the season ended today, they’d be pitted against the Brooklyn Nets, the team the Bulls upset in the same round one year ago.
In that series, Noah, nursing a nagging foot injury that very nearly derailed his season, punished the Nets to the tune of 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in a 99-93 Game 7 victory.
The video plays like a how-to of head and heart—the portrait of a polarizing basketball impresario fueled by a heady cocktail of joy, rage and unimpeachable passion.
Not surprisingly, that passion has landed Noah in the crosshairs—with foes, fans and ownership alike—on more than one occasion.
According to the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein, following the trade of Deng on January 7, Noah—clearly shaken by his teammate’s departure—undertook a self-imposed media embargo, waiting days before speaking to the media.
Another day, another media blow-off by Joakim Noah, who has not spoken publicly since the Bulls traded his friend and former teammate, Luol Deng, to Cleveland. It was believed that he would address the media – all of four Chicago-based reporters – after the Bulls’ Friday morning shootaround at the Bradley Center. But Noah told a team official that he would remain mute.
While some saw Noah’s behavior as an unwanted and potentially damaging distraction, Bulls fans—frustrated, no doubt, by owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s overly pennywise ways—knew the real score: that whatever you think about Joakim Noah as a basketball player, you can’t say he doesn’t care.
Even while he was anchoring a pair of national champions at the University of Florida in 2006 and 2007, Noah’s heart-on-sleeve demeanor was evolving towards its polarizing apex: You love him if he’s on your team, respect him if he’s not and hate him if he’s beating yours.
Save for his uptick in assists, Noah’s statistical production, while excellent, has remained largely stable:
But Noah’s value and on-court impact have always been about more than his own, isolated numbers.
According to NBA.com, the Bulls are registering their highest assist ratio (18.1) with Noah on the floor, which would be fifth-best in the league if extrapolated out.
Of course, Chicago’s true identity is more a product of what they do on the other end of the floor. Here, Noah’s prowess is equally pronounced: the middle linebacker of a defensive system predicated on clear communication, fast rotations and—above all—full-throated accountability.
Derrick Rose remains the face of the franchise in Chicago, and rightly so. At his healthy best, Rose exudes the kind of electric basketball genius that only a precious few are capable of harnessing.
Still, even with Rose back in the fold, if the Bulls intend to return to the ranks of the NBA’s elite, they’d be wise to shape their identity—the screams, the scowls, the spirit—not by the player with whom they thrive, but the one with whom they survived.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 2.
Jim Cavan is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.