Joakim Noah Is The New Face Of The Chicago Bulls

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Most people had predicted from the outset that the Chicago Bulls would make the playoffs this season. It was only logical—they had advanced to the second round last year without their franchise player. Derrick Rose missed all of last year recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, and this season was to be marked by his grand return. The Bulls were finally healthy and rolling early in the season. They racked up five straight wins, including a convincing 110-94 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers. But by the eighth game of the regular season, bodies began to drop. Rose tore the MCL in his right knee against the Portland Trail Blazers after scoring a game-high 20 points on Nov. 22, 2013. Demoralized, the team was routed by the Los Angeles Clippers 121-84. At the end of the calendar year, the Bulls were out of the playoff picture with a .400 winning percentage.
 
 
Photo: Thomas Campone/Creative Commons

No one saw it coming, but Joakim Noah would rise to the occasion in Rose’s absence and help the team recover from its slump. Still, things had to get worse before they could get better.

The narrative shifted from “The Return” to “The Fire Sale.” The Bulls traded away Luol Deng—their reliable small forward of nine seasons and undisputable MVP during Rose’s absence—on January 7. As a result, the Bulls saved money and received draft picks, but received no players in return that would help them win (sorry, not sorry, Andrew Bynum). This marked a change of direction. Management had given up on the present, switching gears to rebuild for the future. The team was supposed to follow suit.

They didn’t. “Tanking” simply does not exist in head coach Tom Thibodeau’s vocabulary. He took a team that was on a one-way flight to the draft lottery and convinced them to go out every single night and put up a fight. Since the upper brass capped off the first week of 2014 by waving the white flag, the Deng-less Bulls have won more games than any team in Eastern Conference. They have played out of their minds, claiming victories over the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets. They are on the Raptors’ tails, sitting just half a game behind Toronto for third place.

On the court, the driving force behind Chicago’s renewed success has been All-Star centre Joakim Noah. With leaders Rose and Deng out of the picture, Noah has risen to the occasion. Ironically, he is now giving Rose a run for his money in terms of franchise player considerations. Noah is having the best season of his seven-year NBA career. Through 68 games, the 29-year old is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and free throw attempts. He is tied for second in the league-wide triple-double race this season with three. He is fourth on the MVP ladder. The development of Noah’s game has been the silver lining of Rose’s latest injury.

Noah has flourished into a well-rounded player. He anchors the team’s defence and facilitates their offence. He can chase down a rebound, bring the ball up the floor and drive to the hoop to finish or kick it out. The two-time All-Star embodies Chicago’s hard-nosed basketball culture. He exemplifies Thibodeau’s coaching philosophy on the court. Noah, whose self-proclaimed nickname is “Stick Stickity,” is hungry. He wants to win and possesses the talent and grit to carry the team to victory. There’s a $500,000 bonus on the line if Noah makes the All-NBA First Team, and he’s making one hell of a case for it.

Noah is the heart and soul of the Bulls this season. The NBA recently released a video, dubbing Noah the most intense player in the league. It’s mostly Noah screaming in slow motion, but the point is clear: he works his ass off every possession. Science dictates that large bodies take more energy to move. That’s why a lot of big men in the NBA can be seen jogging or walking up and down the court. There are possessions where they don’t even make it back. Not Noah. His motor allows him to sprint across the court on fast breaks. When he’s low on fuel, he runs.

 
Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons 
 

Noah is so intense that he gets upset when his teammates don’t match his intensity. Noah shook his head in severe disappointment when his celebratory chest bump was met with apathy by rookie Tony Snell. Noah set the record straight later on Twitter, “We will work on our celebrations tony. Don’t trip. Stay up lil homie. Lol.” That episode was an anomaly. The former Florida Gators standout’s teammates usually feed off his energy. Fans appreciate him for it, and even Noah’s father was so fixated on him that he cheered and gave his son a standing ovation, while in the middle of a TV interview.

Noah anchors the second-best defence in the league. He elevates his teammates by pushing them to work harder. He is not by any means surrounded by defensive specialists, but each one of his teammates puts in effort to stop the other team from scoring. As a result, the Bulls only allow their opponents to score 92 points per game. Noah also leads by example. He takes it upon himself to chase down every rebound and loose ball in sight. He averages 11.2 boards (sixth) and 1.6 blocks (11th), and uncoincidentally, the Bulls are a top-10 team in both categories. Noah is committed to getting stops. His individual coverage is so good he can give anyone a hard time—even the best player in the league. It should come as no surprise that Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team last year and the Second Team in 2011.

The Bulls have to overcompensate on the defensive end because they struggle to score. They are the second-slowest team and shoot poorly (Chicago currently claims the league’s lowest effective field goal percentage). Recognizing this problem, the six-foot-eleven centre has added playmaking to his repertoire. He has become the best-passing big man in the league. His assist numbers have increased every year. This season, Noah averages five assists per game, which is the highest among big men. He had 14 helpers against the Knicks on March 2. That is the most assists by a centre since 1978, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Noah has been a point-centre of sorts for the Bulls, running the offence from inside the paint. While not flashy, Noah applies his court vision to make smart, fundamental passes. He creates off the dribble like a point guard typically does. He leads the team in assists and is credited with assisting a quarter of all shots his teammates make while he’s on the floor. That’s 763 points scored by Noah’s playmaking. Thanks in large part to him, the Bulls are 11th in the NBA in tallying assists. More impressively, 64.7 per cent (second) of the shots they make are assisted. However, Noah has a tendency to overpass. When opponents defend him for the pass, they have a good chance of forcing a turnover. Through 66 games last year, Noah turned the ball over on 99 bad passes. As in the other facets of his game, Noah is getting better. Through the same number of games this year, he has limited the count to 74.

Casual fans often overlook Noah’s court awareness and decision-making due to his reputation as a hustling “energy guy.” Noah is living proof that energy is contagious. The Bulls are an exciting team to watch right now. They host the Indiana Pacers tonight at 8 p.m. EST at the United Center. After winning 91-79 last Friday, Indiana has taken a 2-1 lead in the series. So far, the home team has won every match. The Bulls are going to do their part to continue that trend tonight. Based on current seedings, if both Indiana and Chicago advance to the second round (which is probable), the Central division rivals would square off in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bulls are going to try to send a message by fighting like hell and leaving it all on the court. That’s the only way their leader knows how to play.
 
Cover photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons 

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