Why Joakim Noah Is the Unsung Hero of Chicago Bulls' Title Core

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2013

Joakim Noah is the unsung hero of the Chicago Bulls' title core. That’s a statement that is sure to have some people ready to argue that Noah is plenty appreciated.

He is, but is he appreciated enough?

According to Scott Powers of ESPN Chicago, last year, Derrick Rose's brother Reggie Rose asked of the Bulls' front office,

What have you pieced together? Have you made any moves? Have you made any trades to get better? You know all roads to the championship lead through Miami. What pieces have you put together for the physical playoffs?

Joakim Noah is a great player. Luol Deng is a great player. But you need more than that. You have to put together pieces to your main piece. The players can only do so much. It's up to the organization to make them better...

...It's frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him.

At the time, the comments were viewed through the prism of what it meant for Derrick’s return. But the shot taken at Noah, a borderline insult, wasn’t discussed very much.

He’s not "anything"? Really?

It tapped into a vein of conversation which had been flowing from many Bulls fans since they fell to the Heat in 2011—Chicago needs that “second superstar” who can help it get past the Miami Heat. Through all their complaining, many have missed the obvious: Noah has become the second superstar the Bulls need.

When Sports Illustrated released its top-100 NBA player rankings, Noah finished 21st, ahead of the Indiana PacersPaul George or Roy Hibbert, the Brooklyn NetsDeron Williams or Brook Lopez, and Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers.

ESPN’s rankings have him 23rd, just five spots behind Dwyane Wade and two over Kobe Bryant.

Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report has Noah ranked 16th.

Noah finished 12th in the MVP voting last year, played in his first All-Star Game and was named to the First-Team All-Defensive Team.

Regardless of which you look at, the prevailing view is that Noah is a top-25 player in the league.

Some people need to stop their bellyaching and realize that Noah is a superstar.

He may not be a superstar scorer, but he is a superstar. And he’s the kind of superstar the Bulls need to beat the Miami Heat. The presumption is that they need a scorer, but let’s not run away with that just yet.

The critics will ask, “But wasn’t he there in the 2011?”

First, let’s establish that sometimes people put too much stock in the result of a single series. Sometimes the difference in a series is so minimal that you can’t draw definitive conclusions from it in terms of whether one team is better than the other.

Last year, for example, the Heat did not prove they were “better” than the San Antonio Spurs. Yes, they won. They deserved to win. This isn’t about “making excuses” or some such drivel. It’s just pointing out the obvious. The best team doesn’t always win, so winning doesn’t prove you’re a better team.

That especially applies if the margin was razor-thin. A historic three-point shot by Ray Allen was the difference between Miami winning and losing the championship last season. The Heat won, but they barely won.

That’s not taking credit away from Miami. But the absurdity of saying one shot means the Heat are decisively better than the Spurs is obvious. If you don’t get why it’s ludicrous, you’re not going to. The best team doesn’t always win, and winning doesn’t prove you’re the best team.

“Proved it when it matters” is the kind of rhetoric that needs to go into the stupid-argument graveyard beside “clutch gene” and “killer instinct.” It’s specious, front-loaded, a fallacy.

The series between the Bulls and Heat in 2011 was 4-1, but two of those games could have easily gone the other way on the last possession of regulation. When a game can go either way on the last possession of regulation, it’s not decisive. When two games are decided on the last possession of regulation, it’s twice as decisive as once, and two times zero is zero.

When you set aside the sophistry, the Bulls aren’t, and haven’t been, that far off from the Heat. The gap, if it existed at all, was tiny in 2011.

And whatever it was has been partially closed by the improvement of Noah in the interim. The rest has been taken care of with roster upgrades.

There are two things that make the Bulls a title contender—Rose’s offense and Tom Thibodeau’s defense. And with all due respect to Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, who are both elite defenders in their own right, the most important cog in the Bulls defense is Noah.

He’s the mechanical wheel which turns the other wheels. He’s the second superstar because he’s the one who makes the defense go, and it’s the defense that made Bulls a second-round playoff team in the absence of Rose.

The Bulls haven’t struggled on defense against the Heat. No team in the NBA has held the Heat to fewer points than the Bulls (92.8), in the Big Three era.

Noah has been a massive part of that.

The Bulls defense was 5.2 points per 100 possessions better when Noah played last year. And there’s a case to be made that he would have won Defensive Player of the Year had he not missed 16 games near the end of the season due to his plantar fasciitis.

Noah’s defense is not something that just any player can duplicate. His combination of athleticism and size is unique, and it makes him the perfect fit for Thibodeau’s rotation-heavy system.

Playing center for the Bulls requires lateral quickness and lots of running. I mean, lots of running. Noah ran more than any player in the NBA last year, 2.74 miles per game.

That isn’t a nice, measured, marathon pace. This is sprinting up and down the court, knocking up against big bodies on both ends of the court, jumping and wrestling for the ball.

The reason Noah has so many more miles is that he’s not “just” running from rim to rim. Unlike most centers, once he gets to the other side, he’s running from the rim to three-point line and then to the other three-point line. And then back to the middle.

In baseball they have something called a “Range Factor” which measures how large of a defensive area  a player covers. The extended miles that Noah runs suggest that if the NBA had a similar kind of measurement, he would lead the league in that.

When you couple those two things together—his mileage and his plus/minus number—you have a strong case that Noah is the best help defender in the NBA.

And it’s not like he is a limitation for the Bulls on offense either. Last year, he averaged 11.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.9 offensive rebounds per game. The only other two players who have done that are Dave Cowens and Charles Barkley.

On average, an offensive rebound results in points slightly over half the time, depending on the team. A sort of rough formula to measure offensive value for centers is to give one point for each point scored, one for every offensive rebound and two per assist.

Based on that formula, here are the top 10 offensive centers in the NBA last year.

When you factor in his offensive rebounding and passing, Noah is a reasonably effective offensive player too.

Top Offensive Production Among Centers
1Al Horford17.43.22.626.5
2Marc Gasol14.14.02.324.3
3Brook Lopez19.40.92.824.1
4Joakim Noah11.94.03.923.8
5Dwight Howard17.11.43.323.2
6Nikola Pekovic16.30.93.721.7
7Roy Hibbert11.91.43.718.5
8Spencer Hawes11.
9Tyson Chandler10.
10Marcin Gortat11.
Based on stats obtained from basketball-reference.com

Furthermore, when you include his paycheck, Noah is a tremendous deal. Among the top-10 centers on their third contract, the $11.1 million he’ll be making this year is easily the best deal. He is paid the least of all elite centers in the NBA.

In review, Noah is the key to the defense and a vastly underrated cog on offense. So we need to trade him away?

And this isn't even factoring in the heart, the leadership, the unbridled passion with which he plays. Derrick Rose is the heart of this team, Luol Deng is the head, and Joakim Noah is its adrenaline. How many impossible comebacks have we seen that were sparked by that man's energy?

The Bulls need to be sure not to create a bigger problem by fixing one that may not even exist.

The way to beat the Heat is not to beat them at their own game with a “two-superstar” attack. After all, being realistic, which “superstar” could the Bulls get? 

You’re not going to get a second ball-handler/scorer type that pairs up with Rose to make a better dynamic duo than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. If it didn’t work with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, it’s not going to work with Derrick Rose and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The way to beat the Heat is to make them play your game. The Indiana Pacers took them to seven games by using their bigs and forcing the contest into the paint. The Bulls have beaten them consistently by doing the same.

Getting rid of the thing that works to get something that doesn’t work is not the way to improve your chances.

The Bulls have had struggles on offense, and that is primarily an issue that can be summed up in one word—spacing.

The Bulls have addressed that by adding a secondary ball-handler in Kirk Hinrich. They added a wing who can play both ways, handle the rock and make the three with Mike Dunleavy. They added a three-and-D 2-guard when they drafted Jimmy Butler. Then they drafted another with Tony Snell.

The way they’re going to win is by sticking to their formula of Rose’s offense and Noah’s defense with a superb supporting cast. If people truly appreciated Noah, they would believe in him and believe he will be one of the two vital cogs in the Bulls' championship run.


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