Thanks to fans' natural attraction to conventional stars and the blaring media campaign that tabbed him as the symbol of a city, Derrick Rose is more often credited with being the embodiment of his team. But Noah's grit, defensive attitude and unquenchable competitive thirst have made him the real emblem of NBA basketball in Chicago.
It's too bad he's not getting much credit for his efforts.
For what it's worth, Tom Thibodeau has been singing Noah's praises lately, offering up the kind of effusive compliments we don't normally hear from the blue-collar coach. Per Sam Smith of Bulls.com, Thibs said of Noah's contributions:
Joakim is doing just about everything. Laundry, everything. You can’t play any better than he is playing right now in every aspect of the game. The defense has been there all season, the rebounding off the charts, the playmaking, the decisions, multiple effort. It sets the tone for our team. I’m biased. To me he is playing as well as any big man in the league.
Thibodeau isn't just blowing smoke in advance of the All-Star Game, either. Empty praise isn't really part of his makeup. So when he lauds his center like that, you know he means it.
It shouldn't be surprising then that the numbers support Thibs' position.
Noah's work in a 102-100 overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 20 stands as a solid example of his recent dominance. He completely controlled the game on both ends, defending tirelessly while also playing a pivotal role as a facilitator on offense.
Taj Gibson's buzzer-beating layup will remain the enduring highlight from that contest, but Noah's 21 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in 42 minutes were the real reason Chicago won that game.
That performance was really just an extension of what has been a remarkable month for the 28-year-old Bulls big man. In 10 January tilts, Noah is averaging 14.9 points, 14.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals, per NBA.com.
And all year long, Noah's effort level has remained incredibly consistent, regardless of fatigue. Check out his numbers on the second game of back-to-back sets against his overall season statistics:
|0 Days Rest||12.6||11.5||3.6||1.6||.458||31.9|
Hardly a shock, though, as Noah's calling card has always been a willingness to give maximum effort despite fatigue or injury. Lately, he's had to step up in the face of yet another obstacle: the departure of traded teammate Luol Deng.
Per B/R's Kelly Scaletta, he's done a pretty good job of picking up the slack since the deal that sent Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Since Deng was traded, Noah is averaging 15.0 PTS on 50% shooting, 14.7 TRB, 5.0 AST, 1.9 BLK and 1.4 STL. ORtg 117 and DRT 93. That's good.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) January 20, 2014
Losing Deng, combined with the season-long absence of Rose, could have sunk the Bulls. Fortunately for Chicago, Noah doesn't know how to quit.
More than anything, Noah's January surge has allowed the Bulls to keep their edge. No team has the kind of fiercely competitive reputation the Bulls have built for themselves, and Noah embodied that us-against-the-world spirit in his comments on the upcoming tilt against his old friend.
Per Nick Friedell of ESPN:
Noah on playing Deng for first time on Wed.: "It will probably be strange but I still want to kick his ass right now."— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 21, 2014
Noah on Deng part II: "I love Luol. He's my brother. But when that ball goes up -- he's not going to be my brother when the ball goes up."— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 21, 2014
The more you read things like that, the more perplexing Noah's relative anonymity becomes. It's not like he's an unassuming guy. Noah is always ready with a snappy quote, it's impossible to ignore his maniacal effort on the court and he has a distinctive wildness about him that should draw more notice.
Yet for all of his excellent play of late and his credentials as a marketable star, Noah isn't getting much love from All-Star voters. To be fair, nobody has ever mistaken the voting process as being reflective of actual value, but it is a solid indicator of which players fans know and widely believe to be good.
Noah checked in at No. 7 among Eastern Conference frontcourt players in the most recent returns, which doesn't sound so bad until you notice he's sandwiched between fading veteran Kevin Garnett and exciting but unproven Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond.
Neither of those players is in Noah's class.
He probably isn't bothered by that, but it might be nice for him to get a little recognition for ranking fourth in individual defensive rating (noisy as that statistic can be), fourth in defensive win shares and 10th in rebound rate, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Still, it could be worse. At least Noah shows up on the ballot. Similar defensive studs like Andrew Bogut—who keeps the Golden State Warriors afloat in many similarly unnoticed ways—aren't even getting the small acknowledgement Noah has enjoyed.
There are a lot of players in the running alongside Noah for the hard-to-define title of "most underrated." Kawhi Leonard, Paul Millsap and even guys like David West and Chris Bosh could all use a bit more recognition for their efforts. It's hard to say where Noah ranks among those players, but you can certainly make the case that he's the one whose ratio of production to notoriety is most out of whack.
Maybe he needs a few more glamorous stats or some high-flying dunks to get noticed. Or perhaps he should parlay his side-spinning two-handed free throw into a series of instructional videos for outside-the-box coaches.
It couldn't hurt.
Ultimately, being under-appreciated is also part of the Bulls' makeup. So it's only appropriate that Noah embodies that trait as well.
Chicago has won eight of its 10 games in January and done so largely thanks to Noah's play. More importantly, the Bulls seem to have established a toehold on a playoff spot in the East.
There's no telling how they'll fare in the season's second half, let alone what they'll do in the playoffs—if they get there. But Noah will continue to be the biggest reason for his team's success, even if he's not getting enough credit for how valuable he truly is.