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Is Joakim Noah Finally Breaking out of His Slump?

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Is Joakim Noah Finally Breaking out of His Slump?
Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls have struggled more than at any time since making Tom Thibodeau their head coach, and Joakim Noah has struggled as much as any player on the team.

Recent indications are that he might be pulling out of that slump though.

To appreciate why he is coming out of it, it is helpful to understand what he does for the Bulls and how he does it. On both ends of the court, he’s best described as a “helper”; he helps his teammates be better. And he is one of the best of those in the league.

 

What "The Help" Looks Like

Usually, when we talk about players who make those around them better, we’re talking about the superstars like LeBron James, who put up amazing numbers. That's not Noah, but in terms of the ancillary aspect of doing the things that make life easier for his teammates, he still makes them better without the sensational stat lines.

It's hard to quantify this, but it's easy to see it. He facilitates the offense but doesn’t run it. He gets his points out of “slop,” repairing broken plays, or grabbing offensive rebounds and getting the putback. He passes extremely well out of the paint, averaging 3.8 assists the last two seasons.

He's the oil in the machine.

On defense, he's not a great defender in the mold of the Indiana Pacers' Roy Hibbert, who is the best rim protector in the league. Noah's solid there, but it's not his biggest strength. 

He is the league's best help defender in the middle, though. He's the prototypical big man for the rotation-heavy Thibodeau defensive scheme. He’s big enough to guard the post, but he’s quick enough to help out on the perimeter when needed.

That versatility is accompanied by tremendous energy. Noah, as a starter, plays with the type of enthusiasm that is normally displayed by bench players. He sustains a passion throughout a game that would otherwise exhaust most players in 20 minutes.

Noah has a personality that could be conservatively described as “bizarre.” Within that, he has an emotional depth that allows him to keep tapping the well for more passion. That passion is the difference between him being an All-Star and just a starter.

It’s with this understanding that we can look at three things that are impacting his play this season: his own injury, Derrick Rose’s injury and injuries to other teammates. It will help us to understand why he was slumping so badly, and how he has recently shown signs of breaking out of the slump.

 

Noah’s Own Injury

The first ominous sign for the Chicago Bulls' season came when the Bulls were still fairly fresh into their preseason. Noah slipped on a wet spot on the floor and pulled his groin. It was the kind of freak injury that seems to stalk the Bulls, calling to mind Carlos Boozer’s accident which left him with a broken hand in 2010-11.

As a result of Noah’s pulled groin, he only was able to play one preseason game and wasn’t able to practice as much as he or the team would have liked.

When you play the way Noah does, that has a big impact.

Because his game is built around helping those around him, chemistry becomes a critical factor. And, while he’d played with all the starters before, the five had never played a single minute together until the opening tip of the season.

The complexity of team chemistry can be hard to see, particularly for a player whose offense consists mostly of setting screens and working off the ball. That’s only magnified by the fact that the Bulls were implementing a more flex-style offense, which requires heavy player and ball movement.

Noah didn't get the practice he needed, so he was caught out of place often on both ends of the court. He'd be late getting to where he should be.

As a result, he was committing more fouls. Through the end of November, he was averaging 3.4 fouls. Since the start of December, he’s averaged just 2.9.

His defensive rating in the month of November was 104.3, and the team’s overall rating was 96.9. By comparison, his defensive rating was 102.6 in December and the team’s rating is 100.1. While that's a net improvement of 6.1, the Bulls are still slightly better when he's on the bench. 

While there are mitigating factors, such as Carlos Boozer and other injuries, part of the problem has been Noah uncharacteristically missing assignments. 

Seeing Noah out of place defensively is just strange. Being where he should is one of the hallmarks of his game.

The failures are a combination of chemistry, rust and the injury, all of which he is very gradually working through. Last year, the Bulls were 5.2 points better defensively while he was on the court. He's getting back to that level. 

On offense, it's the same story. He's rounding into form. His production since the beginning of December compared to what it was through the end of November strongly establishes that. 

Original Excel Chart

With Rose out, the team will need to be carried by Luol Deng and Noah. If Noah sustains this production when Deng finally is back to stay, the Bulls should be able to climb in the East.

 

Derrick Rose’s Injury

The Bulls were a visibly discouraged team after Rose went down with his season-ending MCL tear. And in no player was it more apparent than with Noah.

The first game after the injury was against the worst possible team to be facing, the “Lob City” Los Angeles Clippers. The Bulls were clobbered by 39 points in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The normal fight the team is respected for was lacking.

They were discouraged and disheartened, and none more so than Noah, who had just eight points and four rebounds.

The Bulls went from bad to worse, following up the blowout with an overtime loss to the Utah Jazz, the team with the worst record in the NBA.

There were obviously some basketball things wrong with Chicago. The Bulls were struggling to figure out how to run an offense without their best offensive player, or anyone who could create his own shot, but they were also visibly struggling to find motivation.

The Bulls entered the season feeling it was their year. They'd earned their opportunity. They had traversed hardship in the previous seasons with key injuries at various times to four of their five starters, and the fifth (Jimmy Butler) being newly named to the starting lineup.

The loss of Rose sucked the spirit out of the team. Still in the first month of season, it felt like they were merely playing out the rest of the year.

Then there were signs of life. 

The Bulls fought hard in a triple-overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, and there were promising developments even in the loss.

When the Miami Heat came to town, the Bulls found the will to combat their fiercest rival. Noah played his best game of the season to that point. He racked up 17 points on just nine shots and grabbed 15 boards in just 33 minutes.

Since then, he’s gradually improved. Here’s a chart showing the points, rebounds and assists for each game he’s played this season.

Original Excel Chart

“Game Score” is tracked at Basketball-Reference and “was created by John Hollinger to give a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game. The scale is similar to that of points scored, (40 is an outstanding performance, 10 is an average performance, etc.).”

The grey line with an upward slope is a trend line which indicates that Noah is improving. You can also see that between the Rose injury and the Pelicans game, there was a severe drop-off in Noah’s game. The well was empty, and Noah had no energy to bring.

Playing the "Hollywood" Heat reinvigorated him. 

After the Heat game, the Bulls still weren't all the way back. They won just one of their next eight games. Noah was scrappy, but not everyone was, prompting Noah to say after a horrible loss in Toronto,

Losing sucks. There's no question about it. But it also shows people's true colors. Who's willing to keep fighting through the adversity or who's just going to say, 'You know what? I don't want no part of this, and I'm just going to take bad shots and just not care at all about making winning plays or playing defense and things like that.'? So everybody has to stick together. Everybody has to jell and keep fighting together.

On Christmas Day, the Bulls demolished the Brooklyn Nets, winning consecutive games for the first time since the Rose injury. This could be the Bulls getting traction and turning things around, in part because of Noah getting his fire back.

 

Injuries to Other Players

According to NBA.com, when Noah, Butler and Deng are on the court together, the team gives up just 96.0 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately, since Rose went down, they’ve been on the court together for a total of 63 minutes. Each of the three has missed at least one game because of injuries.

Sometimes one is out, sometimes two. And then of course, Rose is missing. 

The chart below shows how many starters (plus Kirk Hinrich, the fill-in starter for Rose) have been missing each game since Rose was injured.

Original Excel Chart

Overall, the Bulls have missed 38 starts in the last 16 games. They’ve played 10 different starting lineups.

By contrast, the Portland Trail Blazers have had their starting five play every game this season. The Indiana Pacers have just missed one start. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns have courted only three starting lineups.

Whether they’re teams that are expected to win, or surprise teams, the nearly universal constant in winning is lineup consistency. It becomes difficult to win when the lineup is different every night.

Familiarity is essential, particularly with someone like Noah who plays off of his teammates. With the Bulls' revolving door of injuries, it becomes difficult for everyone to start clicking when they're not playing. In turn, that makes it difficult for Noah to fill his role.

 

***

The Bulls have struggled, and Noah has too.

It’s nothing like where the Bulls expected themselves to be or wanted to be at this time. However, it’s where they are.

There are, however, signs that they could be about to bounce back.

That Noah is starting to put up better numbers in spite so many injuries should allow for optimism.

Hopefully, when the Bulls are getting healthy again, the team should be able start winning again. While they’ll still be undermanned against the elite teams, they should at least stop losing to the bad ones. In the weak Eastern Conference, that could mean a 3-seed.

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