Why Joakim Noah's Defense Is X-Factor for Chicago Bulls Title Hopes

Jay Wierenga@@JayWierengaCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2013

MIAMI, FL - MAY 15:  Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls argues with referee Bennett Salvatore #15 after a technical foul during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on May 15, 2013 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Defense wins championships. 

That old adage has been burned into the minds of middle-schoolers and professional athletes alike. 

In the case of the Chicago Bulls, they certainly hope that this is the case. 

There are very few teams in the league that feature the type of defense that the Bulls can bring every night, and that approach begins and ends with center Joakim Noah. And for the Bulls to have a shot at winning a title this year, Noah's defense will be the X-factor in getting the Bulls to the promised land. 


The evolution of the game

The NBA has changed in a lot of ways over the past 30 years. In the 1980s and '90s, the league was a much more big-man dominated one. Nearly every team featured a legitimate center. These were players who were not only big, but talented.

While we tend to remember names like David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, players such as Kevin Duckworth and James Donaldson were no less imposing. 

During the last 10 years in particular, the league has shifted to a more perimeter-centric league that features high-flying wings and point guards who can break down defenses. 

Additionally, the big man has morphed into a hybrid player who is sometimes capable of spreading defenses as a stretch-4 and in other cases getting to the rim as an athletic guard trapped in a big man's body. 

Yet for all of the attention being garnered by the evolution of the big man, last year's playoffs showed why the future could indeed mimic the past. 

Three of the four teams featured in the conference finals were traditional rosters that had genuine big men occupying space in the post. The throwback San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers each featured a starting power forward and center who could have been in that place during the '80s or '90s. 

Obviously, the Miami Heat ultimately won the title with their hybrid approach, but the fact that these three teams made it to the final round speaks volumes. 

The Bulls must be looking at how this year played out and be licking their chops. A Bulls team that enters the season at full strength has got to be one of the top three favored teams to make the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Of course, Derrick Rose is the reason why the Bulls will be better this year than last, but the player who really sets them apart when matching up against the likes of the Pacers and Heat will be Noah. 

Noah is the ideal center to feature in today's league. He not only is long and athletic, but he is physical and smart. He can get under the skin of opponents like Anderson Varejao and also get easy buckets like Andre Drummond. 

Noah just makes life easier for everyone in a Bulls uniform. 

And he is uniquely positioned to match up tremendously well against the league's elite teams. 


Top-five center

Noah has been flying under the radar for the past five seasons in a lot of ways. He quietly went from being a defensive-minded energy guy to becoming one of the league's top five centers. 

Noah averaged 11.9 points, 11 rebounds and just over two blocks per game. 

The only center who averaged numbers better than Noah this year was Dwight Howard. Names like Al Horford, Omer Asik and DeMarcus Cousins each had their moments, but no other center featured numbers quite as good as Noah's. 

What makes Noah unique is how many ways he can effect a game defensively. He uses extremely quick hands, great instincts and superb athleticism to stifle opponents and take them out of the game. 

He also tends to be in the right place at the right time, a testament to his ability of efficient movements and impact instincts.

When you look around the league, Noah matches up extremely well with most of the league's top centers. 

In the playoffs, Noah was hamstrung by the fact that the Bulls were extremely short-handed, especially on the perimeter. The Bulls were able to beat up the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat down low, but they were at a loss for defending LeBron James and Dwyane Wade once Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich went down. 

But Noah was a game-changer against Chris Bosh, holding the Heat big man to less than 14 points per game. He routinely out-muscled the Heat's center and was able to impose his will. 

Noah matches up uniquely against each of the league's top teams because of his physical play. When you add the perimeter dominance that the Bulls should feature this year once Rose and Deng return, this team becomes scary good. 


Only injuries can stop him

Noah, like the Bulls in general, can only be derailed by injuries. 

He has only played 80 or more games in a season once and routinely is limited to less than 70. The physical nature of his play tends to leave him dinged up on a regular basis. 

That being said, the Bulls usually are able to depend on their star big man when they need him most. They will need to limit his minutes throughout this regular season in order to preserve him for when they make their title run. 

You can't change the way that Noah plays, and why would you want to? What makes him great is also what makes him injury-prone. 

But if the Bulls can find a way to keep Noah on the court when the playoffs arrive next year, they will certainly be one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference.