Chicago Bulls' Last Star, Joakim Noah, Is Shining the Brightest

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Chicago Bulls' Last Star, Joakim Noah, Is Shining the Brightest
Mark Duncan/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls started the season with three All-Star-caliber players: Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. Now they're down to one, but he is shining the brightest he has ever shone. 

It's little wonder and well-deserved that Noah was named to the 2014 All-Star reserves. The tougher things get, the better he is. 

First, Rose went down with a torn meniscus just 11 games into the season. Then, Luol Deng was traded on January 6. Additionally, the Bulls have had a plethora of injuries that, even by Chicago's standards, have reached the point of ridiculous. They have already missed 68 games from rotation players due to injuries this season and have courted 17 different starting lineups in 45 games.

And through it all, Noah's star just burns ever brighter. 

In fact, the way that Noah is going right now, there's no better center for the Bulls. The numbers are there, particularly when you look at how he's played since Deng was traded, but it's more than just a statistical argument.

First, we'll look at the numbers to show why Noah belongs in the conversation for best center in the game, then we'll look at what he's done for Chicago that the numbers don't show to establish he's, without question, the best possible answer for the Bulls (please note that's a very important qualifier).

 

The Numbers

When you look at Noah's numbers compared to the top centers in the league, he's right in the thick of things in terms of overall production. Here are the top 10 centers based on total production, including points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks:

Original Chart

In terms of overall production, Noah is currently fifth in the NBA in spite of not being the first or second option on offense.

Furthermore, while his scoring might not be off the charts, it understates his offensive contribution. In Basketball-Reference's points generated off assists, Noah accounts for 20.9 points produced per game. Among centers qualified for the leaderboard, only Spencer Hawes, 21.3Dwight Howard, 22.2; and DeMarcus Cousins, 29.2, account for more.

Noah's strength statistically is his balance, which is so impressive that it's bigger than a single season can tell. He's posting historic numbers, averaging 11.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals. The last center to do that for a season was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1977-78 season. Star Wars was still in theaters, and no one knew that Darth Vader was Luke's father.

As impressive as his overall numbers are, he's actually stepped up his game in January, meaning a regression is unlikely.  

He started off the season playing injured, having missed the bulk of the preseason because of a hamstring pull. This is how he stacks up with the other top centers in the new calendar year:

Original Chart

After Deng was dealt, he lifted his game even more. Since the trade, he's been spectacular, averaging 13.7 points, 14.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks. The Bulls are a net 14.5 points per 100 possessions (subscription required) better with Noah on the court than when he sits. 

And, at the end of January, Noah was riding a streak of five games with at least 10 rebounds, nine points and six assists. That's the longest streak of such games in the NBA since Kevin Garnett did it with the Minnesota Timberwolves in April 2005; it's the longest such streak by a Bull since Michael Jordan's triple-double streak in 1989; and it's the longest streak like it by a center in Basketball-Reference's Streak Finder, which extends back to 1985.

Based on the numbers, the four most productive healthy centers this year are DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard and Noah.*

But that's only looking at one side of the ball. Cousins and Jefferson both were in the bottom third of the league in last season's extensive analysis of defense.

In contrast, Howard finished fourth and Noah finished first. Additionally, Noah was named the first-team All-Defensive center last season along with Tyson Chandler. Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol are also elite defenders, but they don't have the kind of production Noah does. Gasol is 12th, and Hibbert 13th.

Based strictly on the numbers, Howard and Noah are the two best two-way centers in the league.

 

Beyond the Numbers

So Noah's numbers are great, but Howard's are slightly better. Why would I want to have Noah over Howard then? Let's compare how the two players handle adversity.

How does one sum up Howard's reaction to adversity? Is it by recounting how he's gotten general managers and coaches fired and changed his mind more often than a good homemaker changes the sheets?

With the Orlando Magic in disarray two seasons ago, this happened:

A month later, head coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith got fired.

That didn't matter to Howard, though. He got himself traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, and another coach got fired, although that's hardly his fault.

Still, he didn't do much to step up in a season of crazy adversity. And when the tough got going, so did Howard, right up and out of Los Angeles to Houston.

Now, as the senior presence on the youngest winning team in the NBA, per Hispanosnba, he appears to have done virtually nothing to exercise leadership. He plays well, but he doesn't make the players around him play better. 

But, hey, in his defense, Howard can do this:

Meanwhile, in a season filled with adversity, Noah has been the vibrant, beating heart and soul of the Chicago Bulls, both in deeds and words.

After Deng was traded, he first spoke with his actions. Noah imposed a media silence for three games, all three of which were wins for the Bulls. Then, after posting 19 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks against the Charlotte Bobcats on January 11, he did talk.

And, when he did, his words inspired a city. Here is what he said, offered without any interpretation or insertion, as reported by Steve Aschburner of NBA.com:

We're just going to go out there and give it everything we've got. There's no tanking. There's no ... None of that. We're going to go out there and give 150 percent and when people say 'Chicago Bulls,' I want people in Chicago to be proud of that. Even if there's four guys hurt, guys are hurting, no matter who's out...

All this adversity just makes me stronger, It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot. Derrick's injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we're going to go out there. Like I said, there's no tank in this team, and we're going to go out there and really make this city proud.

This is a city that, when I come to the game, I see the guy selling newspapers on the street, it's cold outside. When he sees me driving by, he's excited. You know what I mean? He's excited, he's like, 'Let's go Bulls, get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy.

When I look at the top of the arena and Thibs is about to call timeout, I look up top and see a guy who looks this big [tiny], and he's up cheering, jumping up and down, that's the guy I play for.

That's what the city represents. There's a lot of hardship here, a lot of adversity in this city. And I feel like whenever I play basketball, I want people to be proud of their team.

Howard eats cookies off his face. Noah eats adversity off the floor, and it just makes him hungrier. Howard plays for himself. Noah plays for the guy selling newspapers. Do I need to say why I would take Noah over Howard?

I don't believe that if Howard were the starting center for the Bulls right now, they wouldn't be tanking. I don't believe he would even be engaged, much less playing the best ball of his life. I certainly don't think he'd embrace Tom Thibodeau's coaching style.

What Noah is doing as a leader is truly extraordinary. This team has no business posting the NBA's fifth-best record in January, but Noah doesn't care what's realistic. He's too busy living up to his name.

The Noah in the Bible built an ark, and it carried his family through a storm. The Noah on the Bulls seems intent on buoying his team to a winning season, in spite of what suffering the fates have bestowed on it, and no other center in the league could do that.

 

All stars are obtained from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/STATS, and are current through January 31. 

 

*The San Antonio Spurs call Tim Duncan a power forward, so I call him a power forward. If you want to include him, you can, but I didn't for that reason.

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