Joakim Noah has been having the best year of his career, but that doesn't mean that there's not even more reason for him to get better. In fact, Derrick Rose's return should help Noah in multiple ways.
Noah is averaging career highs in points, assists, blocks and steals. He's having his second-best year in rebounds per game. He's also the defensive leader of a team that has excelled in spite of being without their lone superstar, and as such is getting talked up as a potential Defensive Player of the Year from Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver and others.
Still, in spite of all that, Rose's return will help Noah be an even better player.
Part of the problem with analyzing what will happen with Noah when Rose comes back is balancing three things: Noah's improvement, Rose's return and how Rose will play when he returns.
Normally, it would be easy enough to just compare Noah's on/off statistics with Rose last year, and suppose that a similar impact would occur this year once Rose returns. In fact, even last year's numbers with Rose are complicated with the frequency of Rose's injuries.
For example, two years ago, when Rose was last healthy, Noah scored 73 percent of his points inside the restricted area and shot at a .592 clip form that range while he was on the court with Rose. While Rose was sitting, Noah shot only .500 and only had 65.2 percent of his shots inside the restricted area.
This year, without Rose, he's getting 60.1 percent of his field goals inside the restricted area with a .534 field goal percentage. However, he's also hitting more jumpers. In fact, his 45 jump shots made already this season is a career high. So, part of it is that he's not getting inside as much, but part of it is that he's expanding his game as well.
He's improved without Rose, but not to the level he was with a healthy Rose. In fact, while his overall scoring is up this year, part of it is because of the extra minutes. In 2010-11, Rose's MVP season, Noah had a career-high 12.7 points per 36 minutes compared to 11.5 this year.
Another factor to consider is that Noah has had better chemistry playing with Carlos Boozer than in 2010-11, in part because they actually are playing together. In the 29 games they played together during that season, just 10 of Noah's field goals were assisted by Boozer. Last year, in the 63 games they played together, that number rose to 22. This year, in 39 games, there have already been 20.
The trick here is trying to ascertain how much Rose's return will affect Noah's return to his old game versus his new game. With Rose, Noah tended to play closer to the rim, grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds and putting back missed shots.
While he was always a gifted passer, he wasn't utilized nearly as much as such as he is now. He'll often stand at the top of the key, playing a kind of "point center" position, using his height and vision to find an open man. He has a pretty effective bounce pass for a big man, and utilizes it well in that scenario. He's also shown more confidence in taking his "tornado" jump shot.
Boozer is an adept passer as well, and often after passing to Boozer, Noah will break to the rim. The back and forth between the two is highly effective. In fact, Noah's improvement probably has something to do with Boozer's rejuvenation.
What happens on the negative end of those situations, though, is that Noah gets stuck, not having a frontcourt player to feed the ball to and not having a backcourt player who can break loose for him to get it back out to. Noah will end up forcing the ball, which leads to his higher turnover rate.
When Rose is on the court, the Bulls have something they haven't had all season—a shot creator. And not just any shot creator, but one of the best in the NBA. There is a good chance that, with all the jump shooting he's done in the rehab process, he'll have a better outside shot than he's ever had before.
That's probably going to mean a reduction in Noah's turnovers. There should be a slight reduction in his assist numbers, too, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Many of those kick-outs to the perimeter could end up in assists if Rose's jumper is as improved as it's expected to be.
We should also see a bump in his field goal percentage because more of his shots will be coming closer to the rim. Furthermore, Rose has gravitational pull when it comes to defenders. That should leave better shots for Noah, particularly under the rim.
Defensively, we should also see an improvement from Noah. Rose is an underrated defender and it's been evident how much he means to the Bulls defensively during his absence. Perhaps not on the same scale as his offense, but still to a large degree.
Rose stays in front of his opponents. According to hoopstats, during his MVP season, the Bulls gave up the fewest points to opposing point guards at 16.7. In 2011-12, with Rose in and out of the lineup, they were fifth. This year, they're 28th at 22.0. That's a pretty colossal difference, and it's not explained away by C.J. Watson or Omer Asik.
Rose stays in front of his man better, which means that Noah has to come out and help less.
Coach Tom Thibodeau prefers the Bulls to overload the strong side and force the opponent to pass to the weak side, but Rose's speed enables him to close quickly on opposing shooters.
Without Rose, Noah frequently comes out to stop the penetration, but Boozer doesn't help the help and slide in (though he has improved). Opponents are able to get the ball in through the back door and get easy points in the paint.
Noah should only see a slight bump in scoring and a slight decrease in assists. He'll also see a big drop-off in turnovers and a big bump in his field goal percentage. He should also see a drop in his defensive rating as he'll have less court to cover.
Unless otherwise noted all stats in this article are from media.nba.com/Stats and are current as of January 23.