It's not uncommon for NBA centers to develop at a slightly slower rate than players at other positions do. It takes time to adapt to playing against legitimate big men instead of dominating over smaller players every game, and mastering the intricacies of back-line rotations in the NBA isn't the easiest task. There's a big learning curve.
Noah is posting career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game and PER this season, and his ability to anchor Chicago's defense has never been more impressive given the supporting cast and the loss of an elite perimeter defender in Luol Deng.
After years of being underappreciated, Noah's play and Chicago's sustained success have vaulted him into the MVP discussion. Eric Freeman of Yahoo! Sports recently weighed in on Noah's candidacy:
He's been so important, in fact, that it wouldn't be shocking to see him as both a top-five MVP finisher and the All-NBA center. Noah might not see himself as the Bulls' star, but he's playing at a level that puts players in the MVP conversation. He has defended at his typically great level, found new heights as an offensive facilitator, and taken on greater responsibility when it was absolutely necessary to his team's success.
It's a little scary to think about where the Bulls would be without Noah, both now and going forward. Although Derrick Rose is the only MVP winner on Chicago's roster, Noah is the least expendable player given his production in nearly every facet of the game. Here's Zach Lowe of Grantland with more:
He’s never going to be a big scorer, but he keeps defenses honest with dribble drives from the elbow and post-ups against smaller defenders. He’s done all of this under a huge minutes burden, without sacrificing an ounce of his all-world defense and rebounding. 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.
Noah should receive some well-deserved recognition, but it's easy to lose sight of his capabilities once the games are done being played. The image of his cringe-inducing jumper is hard to shake, and the stats rarely do him justice, particularly since his primary influence comes on the defensive side of the ball.
To that point, Noah doesn't necessarily look or play like the traditional definition of a superstar or franchise building block, but he still manages to check off just about every box. Think of it this way: How many other players would you rather have on your team in a must-win game? Five? Maybe even less?
Noah's extreme competitiveness and commitment to defense make Tom Thibodeau's life a little easier, as teams often take their cue from their best player. Perhaps that's a big reason why the Bulls have been able to hold on, even as the talent has slowly depreciated around Noah over time.
In a recent interview with K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Thibodeau talked about how important Noah's impact has been:
He's been on a roll now for a long time. We need it. He's a leader. The thing about Jo is he can beat you a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's the defense and rebounding. Sometimes it's the passing. Sometimes it's his scoring.
His screening has gotten significantly better. His rolling has gotten significantly better. He's significantly better at making quicker decisions. And that's how we want him to play."
He's doing a lot of things for us. It's huge. The rebounding, his defense, the passing, his points, we need it all. If people sit on his pass, he scores.
If there are concerns about Noah's ability to lead a franchise, this current campaign has put almost all of those to rest. Finding scoring is easier than finding elite distributors and defenders, after all, and Noah's selflessness on both ends enhances the quality of his teammates' play, whether it's an end-of-a-rotation guy or another star.
That's an incredible luxury for the Bulls to have going forward, as the same can't be said about all superstars. Some players are high-maintenance and require tons of touches, a specific offensive system or even a bunch of shooters around them. But Noah has managed to be productive in even the bleakest of situations.
Perhaps the only real concern with building around Noah for the future is his injury history and durability, but given the health situation of Rose, the Bulls can't spare too much worry for anyone else.
This offseason, depending on if the amnesty provision is used on power forward Carlos Boozer, the Bulls could have cap space and the ability to load up the roster a bit or try to acquire another star.
Where do you rank Joakim Noah among other NBA centers?
Playing more toward Noah's strengths going forward, like finding smart cutters and players who can make a defense collapse, should be the priority. He may be playing the best basketball of his career, but since it isn't dependent on an outrageous usage percentage, you'd like to think Noah could be even better with more capable teammates.
Again, Noah can work with just about anyone, but Chicago needs to find ways to improve offensively going forward that don't necessarily depend on Derrick Rose playing at an MVP level. Those days might be gone, and simply put, Noah is the most reliable option for the Bulls right now. The reloading of the Bulls should reflect that.
Noah has always been the kind of player where you know what you're going to get: premium effort and smart play. Now that he's added more skill, it's easy to dream on how effective he could be with better offensive players around him.
As of right now, though, no one gets more out of less than Noah does, both on a personal and team level. The Bulls can most definitely build on that.