No Bull: Joakim Noah Is Actually a Top-10 NBA Player

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No Bull: Joakim Noah Is Actually a Top-10 NBA Player
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Joakim Noah may be a Chicago Bull, but it’s no bull that he’s become one of the top 10 players in the NBA.

That’s quite a proclamation about a player who is averaging only 12.0 points per game, especially since many would argue that, while scoring isn’t the “only” thing that matters, it’s the most important thing a player can do.

There’s no debate about Noah’s impact on defense. The fact that he’s the co-reigning first-team All-Defensive center speaks to that.

He’s long been recognized for his “grit” and still is getting accolades for that. His fortitude and resolve are unquestionably the things which held the Bulls together after the Luol Deng trade. Those things have been discussed enough that they don’t need to be further digested here.

Whats different now is that in spite of his lack of point production, the argument can be made that he is an elite player. He is the most dominant player in the game who isnt a proficient scorer, Rajon Rondo included. 

 

Feeling the Love

Not only can the argument being made, but many are also starting to make it.

Per Michael Wilbon of ESPN Chicago, Steve Kerr said Noah “is one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.”

Wilbon goes on to say:

But if centers are part of the discussion, Id have Kerrs back in making the case that Noah is having at least as big an impact on the game right now as Dwight Howard.

Dan Favale of Bleacher Report, in advocating for Noah’s inclusion in the conversation for MVP argues:

How many other players are actually more important to their team right now than Noah is to the Bulls? Not many. One could even say no one now that Russell Westbrook is healthy for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dwyane Wade is going strong for the Miami Heat.

Sekou Smith has Noah climbing his MVP Ladder for NBA.com. After two weeks in the 10th spot, Smith has Noah seventh now. Smith explains the ranking:

What Noah lacks in jaw-dropping numbers, he more than makes up for with true grit, the kind that only a few players in the league bring to the party. Hes recorded triple-doubles in two of his past three games and continues to carry the Bulls at crucial moments. Hes scored a grand total of 33 points in those last three, but he shot 56 percent doing it and also averaged 9.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. Hes working on what could be a first-team All-NBA season.

Zach Lowe of Grantland says:

Noah has been one of the games great big-man passers for years, but what hes doing now is ridiculous. Hes averaging about six assists per game over the last two months, and for the season, he has assisted on 23 percent of Chicagos baskets while on the floor. Noah would become just the 11th player 6-foot-10 or taller to record an assist rate that high, per Basketball-Reference. Hes zipping the ball to backdoor cutters, pitching it to guys popping off screens, and lofting Taj Gibson pinpoint high-low dishes. He might be Chicagos best transition ball handler.

Lowe then concludes:

Noah is the most important non-Thibs cog in Chicago’s maniacally perfect scheme, and it’s time to at least consider him for Defensive Player of the Year and lower-rung spots on five-man MVP ballots.

So for the record, that’s a top-five inclusion, not a meager top-10 shoutout.  

 

Why the Love?

As shown above, the issue isn’t really whether Noah is considered a top-10 player (or one of the 10 most valuable if you want to parse), but why he is getting so much love, even though he’s not much of a scorer.

I’m not going to try to argue that he’s a volume scorer, but I will argue that you don’t have to be to have a major offensive impact.

Here are the top 10 players in the NBA in points per game and their net offensive rating. Note how Noah fits right there with them in his effect on the game.

Noah's Offensive Impact Compared to Top Scorers in the NBA
Player Team On Off Net PTS/G
Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 108.8 92.0 16.8 23.6
Kevin Love Minnesota Timberwolves 109.4 94.1 15.3 26.5
LeBron James Miami Heat 112.2 104.3 7.9 27.2
James Harden Houston Rockets 110.5 102.8 7.7 24.6
Joakim Noah Chicago Bulls 101.1 93.5 7.6 12.0
Carmelo Anthony New York Knicks 105.5 98.9 6.6 28.1
Blake Griffin Los Angeles Clippers 110.9 104.7 6.2 24.2
LaMarcus Aldridge Portland Trail Blazers 110.3 104.6 5.7 23.6
Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder 109.2 103.6 5.6 31.8
DeMar DeRozan Toronto Raptors 105.2 101.4 3.8 22.7
DeMarcus Cousins Sacramento Kings 104.1 103.6 0.5 22.3

NBA.com/STATS

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that the on/off ratings are the definitive end-all, be-all of arguments, nor am I concluding that Noah has more impact on offense than Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony.

What I am stating is that Noah obviously has a lot more offensive impact than his 12.0 points per game would suggest. Not being the one who actually puts the ball in the hoop doesn’t mean you haven’t had a part in it going in.

There are three things Noah does that give the Bulls a huge boost on offense: his screen-setting, his passing and his offensive rebounding.

Vantage Sports did a complete study of screens in the 2012-13 season and determined that Noah had the fourth-highest percentage of his screens being “solid,” meaning the screen “either makes contact with a defender, or re-routes that defender.”

It also determined that 48 percent of his screens resulted in a “good outcome,” which means a “score, missed open shot, shooting foul or assist.” The reason missed open shots are counted is that the screen shouldnt be measured by the effectiveness of the shooter.

Its conclusion was that this combination of factors makes Noah the best screener in the league. Here’s a sampling of his “solid screens.”

Noah is also the best passing center in the league. His 4.8 assists per game is head and shoulders above that of any man in the middle. Marc Gasol is a distant second with 3.6. And it’s not just the volume that matters, it’s the way they come.

Wilbon says:

Theyre handing the ball to Noah at the top of the circle and hes going ‘Omah-HA!’ (an allusion to an earlier Peyton Manning reference) on opposing defenses. On the dribble handoffs with the elbow extended, Noah sets massive screens and Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, D.J. Augustin and Jimmy Butler have learned to squeeze off shots in the space created by Noah.

If defenders come over the top, Noah has the skill, timing, instinct and creativity to hit those same players cutting to the basket.

If his own man sloughs back, Noah has begun doing the only thing the ball handler can do to make the defense pay: shoot.

In other words, Noah is not just making passes, he’s running the offense, and that’s why the offense is so much better when he’s in it.

Notice how many of his assists are combined with his screen-setting ability in the footage from his 14-asssist triple-double against the New York Knicks.

And he’s able to do all of that while remaining a force on the offensive glass. He’s averaging 3.6 offensive rebounds per game, good for fifth in the NBA. Only three other players (Clyde Drexler, Chris Webber and Charles Barkley) have equaled Noahs production in passing and grabbing their own team’s misses in NBA history.

Noah is the only center to ever post those numbers (the disclaimer being that offensive rebounds have only been tracked since 1973-74).

Noahs high basketball IQ is one of the most underrated aspects of his game, and that allows him to have a bigger impact on the game than his scoring abilities would suggest. Perhaps the one thing that he deserves more credit for is his grasp of the game. He’s a highly intelligent player with fantastic court awareness, and that pays dividends in his passing and screen-setting.

*** 

Which center would you want most on your team in a tied Game 7 of the NBA Finals?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Where things have changed is in his impact on offense. He’s no longer just a scrappy player you don’t have to create shots for. He’s a bona fide playmaker, and he makes his teammates better. The impact of that is on par with the best scorers in the league.

He isnt an elite scorer, and he never will be, but he has become an elite player in spite of it. His leadership, hustle, defense, rebounding, passing, screen-setting and playmaking make up for lack of scoring.

So ask yourself this hypothetical question: You’re in the last two minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the game is tied. Which active center would you most want on your team, taking into account things like free-throw percentage, leadership and defense? You might have a different answer, but I’d take Noah.

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