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How Joakim Noah Is Keeping Chicago Bulls Alive

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How Joakim Noah Is Keeping Chicago Bulls Alive
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It seems rather timely to be heaping praise on Joakim Noah so soon after what was likely his best game of the season. On Sunday against the New York Knicks, Noah recorded 13 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists, becoming the first center to notch 14 or more dimes in a game since at least 1985, according to Basketball-Reference

The truth, though, is that Noah has been on an entirely other level for quite some time now. His per-game averages this season of 12.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 blocks per game have been matched only 10 times in the history of the NBA.

Ray Amati/Getty Images
Not such bad company.

You may recognize the names of the only players who are in his elite companyKareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Bill Walton and Kevin Garnett. Only Kareem has accomplished the feat at or after age 28, as Noah is on track to do this season. 

With the Chicago Bulls foundering at a 14-18 record on the morning of January 7, general manager Gar Forman and and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson decided to ship stalwart forward Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum's non-guaranteed salary and three future draft picks.

Since then, Noah has operated on a plane that did not previously exist and has led the Bulls to a 19-9 record, moving them within half a game of third place in the Eastern Conference. 

He's averaging 13.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.6 blocks per game since Chicago traded Deng, according to Basketball-Reference—numbers that have never been matched over the course of a full season.

Noah is also grabbing 20.1 percent of available rebounds and assisting on 27.4 percent of his teammates' baskets while on the floor since the Deng trade, a feat that has also never been matched, with only Kevin Garnett coming close

In mid-January, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said the following about Noah, per Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald

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, the multiple effort—he sets the tone for our team.

With Derrick Rose out for the second straight season, so much of the Bulls offense is run through Noah via pick-and-rolls or high-post entries. Noah's 62.2 passes per game are second to only Josh McRoberts among forwards and centers, according to the SportVU player tracking data released by the NBA in conjunction with STATS LLC.

To give you an idea of just how much of the offensive load Noah has been shouldering of late, consider this: Entering Monday night's game against the Brooklyn Nets, Noah had notched at least 11 assists four times in his previous 11 games, a feat he had accomplished zero times in his previous 442 career games, according to NBA.com/stats.

Noah picked out cutters from his perch near the elbow or along the baseline all game against the Knicks on Sunday—a remarkable display of passing prowess not seen from a center for quite some time. 

Every time the defense stepped up, he simply dropped the ball off to an open teammate. And when no teammates were open, he hit one with a pass that somehow generated an open look anyway. You know how football analysts talk about Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning "throwing a receiver open?" That's what Noah does, too. 

He is a savant at catching the ball on the move on a pick-and-roll, immediately reading the defense and finding the open man—no matter where on the court that man happens to be. 

Noah has generated an assist opportunity (a pass to a teammate that leads to a shot which, if made, would result in an assist) on 20.9 percent of his frontcourt touches, which places him in a tie for sixth in the NBA with Andre Iguodala—ranking behind only point guards Ty Lawson, Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Jameer Nelson and Stephen Curry, according to an analysis I did at Bloomberg Sports

As impressive as his offense has been of late, though, it's nothing compared to his import on defense.

Noah might be in the midst of his best defensive season yet, and he's on his way to giving Roy Hibbert a run for his money in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Noah's 4.5 defensive win shares thus far place him in a tie for second place with DeAndre Jordan, behind only to Paul George. He's only 0.3 defensive win shares away from establishing a new career high. 

His 96.1 individual defensive rating is remarkable—fifth-best in the NBA and one of the 15 best marks of the last five seasons, according to Basketball-Reference

Chicago has the NBA's second-best defense since the Deng trade, allowing 98.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. In the 980 minutes Noah has played since the trade, the Bulls have allowed just 96.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, which would be good enough to lead the league were it not for the best defense of all time

Noah's combination of interior brilliance and ability to seamlessly match up with perimeter players when caught in a switch makes him a defender like almost no other in the NBA.

He has preposterously long arms and unfairly quick feet, and when paired with a coach and a scheme like Thibodeau's, it becomes almost impossible for opponents to score. 

Noah can brilliantly step up to corral a ball-handler coming around the screen near the free-throw line, cutting off a passing lane while giving his teammate just enough time to recover before dropping back and also playing his man near the basket.

There's a reason roll men have shot just 33.3 percent against Noah in screen-roll situations this season, according to mySynergySports (subscription required). He's a master of his trade. 

When players go up against Noah at the rim, they do not fare much better. Among the 56 players who have played in at least 40 games and challenged at least 5.0 shots at the rim per game, Noah's 44.5 field-goal percentage allowed on such shots ranks as the sixth-best in the league, according to the SportVU data.

His length, quick-leaping ability and body control allow him to consistently alter and block shots without fouling—a massively important skill for a rim protector. 

The Bulls drop from second to eighth in points allowed in the paint per 100 possessions when Noah exits the game, per NBA.com, a testament to his prowess at not only defending the rim, but also keeping opponents away from it altogether.

While 46.4 percent of Chicago's opponents' field-goal attempts have come from inside the paint when Noah's out of the game, only 43.2 percent of them have come from that area when he's been on the floor. The former number would rank tied for 10th-lowest in the NBA, while the latter would place second behind only the Orlando Magic

Opponents get to the free-throw line over 6.5 percent more often as a percentage of their field-goal attempts with Noah off the court than when he's on in, according to NBA.com, a percentage increase that would drop the Bulls from their perch as the least foul-prone team in the NBA when he's on the floor to one that sits outside the top 10. 

And it's not just offense and defense where Noah's excelled this season—he's also turned himself into one of the handful of best rebounders in the NBA. Noah ranks in the top five in rebound chances per game with 18.1 a night, according to SportVU, and his contested-rebound percentage (percentage of rebounds that were contested) ranks seventh among the 26 players averaging at least 15.0 rebound chances per game.  

Like Thibodeau said, Noah really is doing it all for the Bulls. His passing, defense, rebounding, intellect, decisions and effort make him the heart and soul of the team. Chicago may have been sagging early on, but it's surging now.

Thanks to Noah's brilliant play, the Bulls are once again looking like a team nobody wants to see come playoff time. 

 

Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.

Advanced statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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