With the continued absence of Derrick Rose and recent departure of Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls offense lacks the scoring punch most other teams possess. What was once an offense that relied on dribble penetration and the creativity of Rose, Chicago is now playing through someone who, until recently, was only seen as a defensive player: Joakim Noah.
Noah doesn't have much of a post-up game; he can't really dribble; his jump shot has improved, but it's nowhere near reliable. But, his passing is elite and a catalyst for Chicago's offense.
Looking up and down Chicago's roster, there are very few, if any, creators. The Bulls, therefore, have to manufacture points with precise play execution and off-ball movement, squeezing out opportunities to score with greater effort than most teams.
It's unfortunate that coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation as a defensive coach, when in fact his job on the offensive end is arguably even more impressive. There's no question that the Bulls' defensive success is a function of his principles and ability to lead. But offensively, nearly every point is a function of his creative play designs.
Most NBA teams operate within a system or a principled offense, in which there are certain cuts and movement dictated by an overall philosophy. Within this structure there are specific plays, but the overall design empowers players to break the structure and simply play basketball. The offensive system, then, is really more of a framework to create a slight advantage or opportunity for a player to create on his own.
Chicago doesn't have this luxury. They cannot design a play to get a player in an ideal one-on-one position, because they simply don't have the assets to create consistently in one-on-one situations.
So the Bulls take the next best option and go from there: They put the ball in the hands of their best decision-maker, Joakim Noah, and allow him to direct traffic from the elbows.
Because Noah is not a low-post player and possesses excellent court vision, the elbow is an ideal location to see all areas of the floor. It's also ideally placed in terms of spacing for players moving off the ball in a variety of ways: backdoor cuts, flex cuts, coming off pindown screens and much more.
What's most crucial about the elbow is that it limits Noah's distance from the basket. As a passer from the top of the key, the big man guarding him could stand many feet off. This limits his effectiveness as his defender can simply sag and read where he's going with the ball to double.
From the elbow, Noah's middling competence as a shooter and physicality as a one-dribble driver make him a viable threat as a scorer. The defender must play him more tightly which, in turn, opens up the passing lanes.
But it's Noah's passing that really separates him from centers around the league. It's not that he's able to make passes that other players are not; he simply plays with his head up and assesses the play before it happens. He can therefore dribble with a purpose, understanding how the pieces of the play are going to develop based on his own movements.
On this possession, the Bulls dump it into Noah off the left elbow when he has a mismatch against San Antonio's Danny Green. While it's always advisable to attack mismatches, Noah might not be the best player for one-on-one situations, no matter who is guarding him.
The difference is that Noah understands his limitations. Before he backs down Green, notice how he keeps his eyes up for just a second.
Because he turns his head, he can see Boris Diaw creeping for a double-team. When Noah puts his head down to dribble, he backs down and curls middle: He sees that Diaw is coming from the baseline side, therefore choosing to angle his body away from the pressure.
Mike Dunleavy, whom Diaw was guarding, makes the appropriate decision and cuts backdoor. Noah has already seen this coming before it even developed and is able to wrap a pass around to Dunleavy for the score.
Too often offenses try to overexploit mismatches to the detriment of the team. Because a player feels he can score on a player who's not supposed to guard him, he will become too selfish and take a bad shot.
Conversely, defenses will often overreact and double too quickly. A smart player can read the double and make the right pass, eventually leading to an open shot for someone else. Here, it leads to a direct pass for a layup.
We can see Noah's anticipation skills once again on this play, when he's operating off the right elbow with his eyes up.
Carlos Boozer's backdoor cut starts early, which Noah once again notices. In fast motion, the video of this pass looks impressive: Noah times up the bullet perfectly, hitting Boozer right as he comes free. But it's really a matter of early recognition: Because he sees the cut beforehand, he knows when Boozer will come free.
Here's the moment when Noah starts his passing motion:
Boozer isn't even open yet, but Noah is throwing the pass anyway. If he notices Boozer only when he comes open, it's likely San Antonio would be able to recover and defend the pass. But he's on top of this play early, and it leads to two points.
If you ever find yourself watching a Bulls game, focus on Joakim Noah on the offensive end of the floor. You'll notice that he's always active: screening away from the ball, attacking the offensive glass, flashing to the high post, cutting to space to free up other players, etc.
Noah doesn't stop working when the ball isn't in his hands. And when it is in his hands, Noah simply has a great understanding of his strengths and offensive spacing. Rarely will he take a shot he cannot make; rarely will he go one-on-one in a way that disrupts the offense.
Without Noah, this Bulls offense would struggle even more. With him, it makes them the playoff team that nobody wants to face.