How Joakim Noah Has Become the Most Complete Center in the NBA

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 18: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls grabs a rebound away from Chris Wilcox #44 of the Boston Celtics at the United Center on December 18, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In helping the Chicago Bulls defeat the Boston Celtics 100-89, Joakim Noah completed his second triple-double in the last two seasons. In doing so, he became just the 11th center in NBA history to record multiple traditional triple-doubles.

This begs the question: Has he become the most complete center in the NBA today?

First, allow for some distinction between the words "complete" and "best." For example, Dwight Howard is still a "better" center, but he is not as complete. Howard has holes in his game, most notable of which is his free-show shooting.  

When you look at Noah, though, there isn't really any weakness, particularly since he's elevated his scoring prowess this year.

I put together a table ranking every NBA center based on a number of criteria. Among them all, Noah had the lowest average rank. I included points, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and defensive rating. 

I averaged together the ranks, and here are the top 10 in order of average ranking. The basis for the rankings comes from Basketball-Reference's Play Index. I dd not include Tim Duncan in the rankings because, while I recognize that he plays the position a lot, he's not the center as far as the Spurs are concerned. 

Joakim Noah 4 1 2 4 10 12 3 1 4.63
Dwight Howard 2 8 4 2 1 4 24 7 6.50
Marc Gasol 13 2 6 8 7 13 1 4 6.75
Al Horford 5 5 8 20 4 8 23 10 10.38
Roy Hibbert 8 10 12 1 18 17 18 1 10.63
Chris Bosh 10 11 13 13 2 5 2 30 10.75
Anderson Varejao 1 3 1 35 9 15 8 24 12.00
Greg Monroe 7 4 2 33 6 16 15 15 12.25
Brook Lopez 16 25 20 3 3 10 16 10 12.88
Marcin Gortat 9 16 14 5 14 9 12 30 13.63

Noah has had a large bump in his scoring, adding 3.4 points per game to last year's total. Prior to this season, his career high for 20-point games was three. He already has five this season. 

Among all centers in the NBA, Noah ranks 10th in scoring, and that's the weakest part of his game. He's also only 12th in field-goal percentage, but that's his lowest rating, and no other center is in the top 12 in every category. 

Noah is still not an elite scorer, but he has shown this year that when he's needed to become a go-to scorer, he can be. This was most evident in his career-high 30-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 7. 

Not only can Noah score, he's also arguably the best passing center in the NBA. The only center even close to Noah in assists per game is Marc Gasol, who trails Noah by almost half an assist per game. 

Noah also is a terrific rebounder, ranking fourth among all NBA centers in total rebounds per game, trailing only Anderson Varejao, Howard and his former teammate, Omer Asik.

This is all the more remarkable in that Noah plays with two exceptional rebounders in his frontcourt. Carlos Boozer averages 9.8 rebounds per game, and Luol Deng averages 7.0. Meanwhile, Howard's frontcourt teammates grab only 14.6 rebounds, Varejao's teammates just 11.7 and Asik's a meager 11.4. 

Furthermore, all those teams run at a much faster clip than the Bulls. Noah has more competition for fewer opportunities, yet he still posts one of he best rebounding totals in the NBA. 

How about shot-blocking for centers? Noah is fourth with 2.25 blocks per game. Only Brook Lopez, Howard and Roy Hibbert are ahead of him.

And what about steals? Noah is tied for second in steals per game with Greg Monroe, trailing only Anderson Varejao. 

In all, there are only two players who are in the top 10 in all five major stat categories per game: Noah and Howard. 

There are three areas where Noah separates himself from Howard. He's a far better free-throw shooter, ball-handler and defender. Yes, I really just went there!

The free-throw shooting is easy to establish. Not only is Noah much better from the line, he's actually an elite shooter from the stripe, especially considering he's a center. 

Noah is the third-best center in the NBA at free throws, hitting on 80.8 percent of all attempts. He trails only Gasol and Chris Bosh in that regard. 

Noah is also arguably the best ball-handling center in the NBA. His dribbling skills are amazing for his position. Unfortunately, there is no stat that shows this.

There aren't any centers that come to mind who can run full speed up the court, handle the ball and then finish or hit his teammate with a pass off the dribble. 

How many centers can do this?

Or this?

Or this?

The notion of a center who can cross you over or run the fast break like a point guard flips the very idea of what a center is on its head. It's just an opinion, but a fair one: Noah is the best ball-handling center in the NBA. 

In terms of defense, Noah is also the NBA's best center, tied with Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers at a defensive rating of 96.0. 

Now, you can argue that the Bulls just have a great defense, so defensive rating doesn't mean much. However, Noah shares a frontcourt with Carlos Boozer. Additionally, the Bulls give up 10.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Noah is on the court.

It should come as no surprise that Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver has Noah as his front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. 

Noah is also a more complete defensive player than Howard. While they both have outstanding Synergy numbers (Noah gives up .69 points per play, Howard .63), Noah is the primary defender much more frequently. It's not immediately obvious, but this is enormously indicative of Noah's defensive versatility. 

Noah has been the primary defender on 261 plays. Compared to 148 for Tyson Chandler, 157 for Kevin Garnett and 144 for Howard. 

Noah has defended in isolation or the spot-up on 134 of his 261 plays. He's stepping out to the perimeter on defense an extraordinary number of times. About 80 percent of the difference in plays between Noah and the other top defensive centers is his stepping out to guard the perimeter with regularity. 

The other 20 percent is because he's playing more minutes.

This means that he's been responsible for defending a much larger area of the court, and he has been doing so with an incredible degree of success. 

Now, what really should grab your attention here is that while he's able to do all that, he's not giving up a thing in the post. He's still one of the best post defenders in the league (.60 points per possession is 11th in the NBA) and one of the best roll defenders on the pick-and-roll (.77 ppp and fifth best in the NBA).

Those ranks are for all players, not just centers. 

Furthermore, he does this with the "aid" of Carlos Boozer most of the time. Yes, Taj Gibson is a great defender, but Noah has played with Boozer 636 minutes this season, compared to only 299 with Gibson

Furthermore, he's also doing this with Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, neither of whom is exactly a notable defender. In fact, he's played more minutes with both Robinson and Belinelli than he has with Gibson. 

Coach Tom Thibodeau keeps Noah on the court with the weaker defenders because he keeps the team from becoming a defensive disaster. Yes, the system helps, but only if the system has the player who can be relied on to execute it.

When he's surrounded by the Bulls' best defensive players—Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson—the lineup is ridiculously stingy, yielding a meager 72.7 points per 100 possessions. That is the best defensive lineup in the NBA with at least 25 minutes played. 

All Noah does is everything.

In fact, in the history of the NBA, not many players have had the kind of season Noah is having. The last center to average 10 points, 10 boards, four assists, two blocks and have a defensive rating below 100 was David Robinson in 1994.

The only other center in the three-point era to accomplish it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Noah is on pace to become the third. 

He might not be the "best" center in the league—that distinction sill belongs to Howard—but he is the most complete. 


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