Joakim Noah has been selected to the All-Star team for the first time in his career, and along with that comes his seat at the table among the elite NBA centers, but where does he fit in the pecking order?
You could make the argument that, all things considered, Noah might be the most important center in the league right now. The emphasis here is “argument.” Sometimes, the Skip Baylesses of the world want to make it seem as though only extreme and polarizing positions are valid.
However, that’s not always true. What’s good for one team might not be good for another. Therefore, “best rankings” aren’t always gospel. There are a handful of centers in the league who are elite, and Noah has a place alongside any one of them.
In fact, there might not be a better center suited for the Chicago Bulls than Noah. There are three elite two-way centers, and here is why Noah is preferable for the Bulls over each of them.
Regardless of his problematic season, it would be hard to deny that Dwight Howard still remains the best center in the league in terms of play. He’s a dominant scorer, rebounder and defender.
He is the only one of the elite centers who has a better opponent’s player efficiency rating (13.8) than Noah’s 14.0.
So, if Howard is better on both ends of the floor, why would the Bulls prefer Noah to Howard?
There are three reasons.
First, Noah is a far better leader than Howard, who has maturity issues and a history of struggles with coaches. It’s unlikely that Howard would take the kind of coaching that Tom Thibodeau delivers.
Second, Noah is a better scorer away from the basket. Particularly when Derrick Rose is healthy, it’s essential for the Bulls scheme that their bigs can step away from the basket and hit shots. This pulls defensive bigs away from the rim and opens up driving lanes for Rose.
Third, Noah is a vastly better free-throw shooter, hitting on 75 percent of his attempts compared to Howard’s 49.6 percent. That means Noah can be relied on at the end of games where Howard cannot.
One additional point is that Noah, with 4.2 assists per game, is a dramatically better passer than Howard.
So, considering all that, is Howard worth $8 million more than Noah? Probably not.
Howard’s teammate-in-law, Marc Gasol, has elevated his game and in many ways is similar to Noah. This year’s midseason favorites for Defensive Player of the Year seem to come down to one or the other. Noah is the only center in the league averaging more assists per game than Gasol.
Gasol scores more points per game, averaging 13.7 to Noah’s 12.1. Noah is a much better rebounder, grabbing 11.3 boards per game to Gasol’s 8.0. While it’s true that Gasol does have to compete with Zach Randolph for rebounds, it’s also true that Noah must compete with Carlos Boozer.
With Gasol versus Noah, the key for the Bulls is how the two are used defensively.
Gasol is asked to defend the post and does it extremely well. According to Synergy, he gives up only .62 points per play in that regard. Noah, while exceptional, is slightly worse here, surrendering .68 points per play.
However, the primary objective in the Bulls defense is to keep people out of the paint, so, post plays, while they account for more than 40 percent of Gasol’s defense, only account for slightly less than a quarter of Noah’s.
Where Noah is used is in using his length and speed to step out to alter jump shots. He’s the prototype of the new-style center, where Gasol is more of the old-style center.
Noah’s main defensive play is against the spot-up, and he gives up just .63 points per play on that shot to Gasol’s .85.
Overall, both players give up the same .72 points per play on the season. Noah has a slightly better oPER though at 14.0 to Gasol’s 14.9.
With Gasol, it’s not really so much a matter of which player is better, but which is better for their system. Both are elite players on the same level, but Noah is a better fit for the Bulls, as Gasol is for the Grizzlies.
Tyson Chandler is the defending Defensive Player of the Year, has a ridiculous field-goal percentage of .686, and has tremendous leadership skills. There are a lot of things to like about Chandler, but would he be an optimal replacement for Noah?
There is a big reason that he can’t do what Noah does for the Bulls. Tom Thibodeau really likes putting Noah out at the free-throw line and having him play a kind of “point-center” role. While Chandler is a tremendous finisher at the basket, he’s virtually useless outside of the restricted area. Only 16 of his 194 field goals have come more than three feet from the rim.
Furthermore, Chandler only averages 1.0 assist per game.
On top of that, Chandler has taken a step back this season defensively. Noah has a much better oPER, (Chandler’s is only 16.9) and he gives up .05 fewer points per play than Chandler’s .77. And lest you assign all that to the Bulls' superior system, keep in mind that the Knicks defense is actually better this year with Chandler on the bench.
I did not include players who were a liability on either end of the floor, so, for example, while players like DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Al Jefferson can be considered elite offensively, they aren’t elite until they up the other half of their game. Brook Lopez has improved but still isn't quite there. His rebounding is atrocious.
Similarly, I didn’t include Roy Hibbert, who is a dominant defensive player, but because his offense is closer to comedy than actual offense, (he has a .416 field-goal percentage for crying out loud!) he was left out.
I also did not include positionally-ambiguous players like Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, or Kevin Garnett. I just don’t want to have a big argument about who is or isn’t a center. However, I'll give a brief mention of each of them.
Bosh clearly is struggling on the defensive end, so he wouldn’t be included on that criteria anyway. He's a great scorer and a better power forward than he is a center.
Duncan and Garnett are two of the greatest big men to ever play the game. But right now, because of age, it’s a no-brainer for the Bulls in terms of whom they would rather have. Noah will never come close to either of their legacies, and right now Duncan is still the better player, but Noah is the future and they are the past.
Finally I didn’t include Anderson Varejao or Andrew Bynum because they can’t seem to stay in the lineup for more than half the season. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of saying this as Noah is out with a recurrence of his plantar fasciitis.)