Joakim Noah Is Having One of the Most Unique Seasons You'll Ever Witness

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah in action during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, March 19, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls is getting all kinds of MVP love, but he is the most unlikely candidate of all. That’s because he is having one of the most unique seasons in recent history. 

Sekou Smith, who writes the MVP Ladder for NBA.com, explains why he has Noah ranked fourth (behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin):

Noah's one of the few players in the league whose point total does not indicate the impact he's had on a game. To his credit, Noah is averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and 7.8 assists over his past 10 games, cementing his status as the best big man in the game and arguably its most versatile low-post operator, given his ability to facilitate the Bulls' offense.

Noah’s ability to dominate the game is not reflected by his scoring, which is rare. This year he is arguably having the greatest season by a non-scorer in nearly half a century. He is combining literally every other aspect of the game (passing, rebounding, defense and intangibles) in ways that no player since the great Bill Russell has.  

That's a bold statement, but the numbers back it up. 

 

Usage and PIE

One of the newer advanced stats is player impact estimate (PIE), which is used by NBA.com. It measures the percentage of game events a player is involved in while he’s on the court.

Usage percentage is the percentage of possessions that a player uses, either by taking a shot or turning the ball over.

Ergo, a man with a high PIE and a low usage percentage is that rare kind of player who can impact games without being a dominant scorer, because it means dominating games without dominating the ball. Noah’s current PIE is 15.7 percent, and his usage percentage is 18.4.

Here are the players since the 1997-98 season (as far back as the advanced stats at NBA.com go) who qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard, have a usage below 20 percent and a PIE above 15 percent:

High PIE, Low Usage Players since 1996-97
PlayerTeamSeasonUsg%PIE%
Joakim NoahChicago Bulls2013-1418.4%15.7%
Al HorfordAtlanta Hawks2010-1119.9%15.0%
Jason KiddNew Jersey Nets2006-0719.2%16.0%
Jason KiddNew Jersey Nets2005-0618.8%15.8%
Carlos BoozerCleveland Cavaliers2003-0419.8%15.4%
Ben WallaceDetroit Pistons2002-0310.3%15.3%
John StocktonUtah Jazz2002-0319.1%15.4%
John StocktonUtah Jazz2001-0219.7%16.6%
John StocktonUtah Jazz2000-0118.6%16.1%
John StocktonUtah Jazz1999-0019.2%16.6%
Dikembe MutomboAtlanta Hawks1998-9914.4%15.7%
Anthony MasonCharlotte Hornets1996-9717.6%15.0%
John StocktonUtah Jazz1996-9718.6%16.7%
NBA.com/STATS

In the last 18 seasons, only eight players have accomplished this feat a total of 13 times (John Stockton, wow!)  Of the smattering of players who compose this list, none have a lower usage than Noah while posting a higher PIE.

In fact, the only players who have a better PIE at all are Stockton and Jason Kidd, who also happen to be first and second respectively in all-time assists.

RON SCHWANE/Associated Press

Dikembe Mutombo has the same PIE with a lower usage, so he is in this conversation as well. He didn't win the Defensive Player of the Year that year, but he won four (the NBA record) in his career.

Ben Wallace makes the list too. He did win DPOY in the pertinent season and tied Mutombo's record with four total. 

While there are probably other players such as Bill Russell who would qualify if we had the data, this shows how narrow the field already is. 

In essence, only four players since 1997 are on the same level as Noah in terms of impact without controlling the ball: two of the greatest facilitators in history and two of the greatest defensive players. 

What makes Noah’s season incredibly unique is that he is a blend of both.

 

Passing and Rebounding

Part of the reason Noah is able to have such a great impact on games is his rare combination of passing and rebounding. He currently has an assist percentage of 25.3 and a total rebound percentage of 18.3.

Kevin Garnett is the only other player since the 1970-71 season (as far back as the advanced stats at Basketball-Reference.com go) who has an assist percentage over 25 and a rebound percentage greater than 18.

MINNEAPOLIS - DECEMBER 20:  Kevin Garnett #21 of the Minnesota Timberwolves screams after missing a free throw shot against the Indiana Pacers on December 20, 2003 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
David Sherman/Getty Images

Garnett did it twice: in 2002-03 and 2004-05. But in both years his usage percentage was considerably higher (26.4 and 27.1 respectively).

Even if we lower the parameters for rebounding and passing by 2 percent, the field is not greatly widened. Here are the few players with a 23 percent assist percentage and a 16 percent rebound percentage:

High Assist Percentage and High Rebound Percentage Players
PlayerSeasonAST %TRB%
Joakim Noah2013-1425.4%18.3%
Kevin Garnett2004-0527.1%20.3%
Kevin Garnett2003-0424.4%20.1%
Kevin Garnett2002-0325.8%18.8%
Karl Malone1996-9724.5%16.8%
Tom Boerwinkle1974-7533.8%17.0%
Tom Boerwinkle1970-7123.1%22.6%
Basketball-Reference.com

Based on percentages, only three other players in the last 44 years have even come close to what Noah is doing this year in terms of both rebounding and passing. Percentages give us the advantage of being inherently pace-adjusted. 

Once again, though, there might be other players who'd be included if the data were available.

If we look at the averages, that does give us a clue as to the scope of NBA history. 

Noah is averaging 11.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, only the 22nd time a player has achieved that. Here is the complete list of 15 players who have ever done so (the asterisk indicates that the player is in the Hall of Fame): 

Players with 11 Rebounds and 5 Assists per Game
PlayerSeasonTmAST/GTRB/GFGA/G
Anthony Mason1996-97CHC5.711.411.3
Bill Russell*1966-67BOS5.821.012.6
Bill Russell*1964-65BOS5.324.110.7
Billy Cunningham*1971-72PHI5.912.219.0
Bob Kauffman1972-73BUF5.111.113.8
Charles Barkley*1992-93PHO5.112.218.1
Elgin Baylor*1960-61LAL5.119.829.7
Joakim Noah2013-14CHI5.011.29.6
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*1978-79LAL5.412.821.1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*1975-76LAL5.016.916.8
Kevin Garnett2001-02MIN5.212.116.6
Kevin Garnett2002-03MIN6.013.418.1
Kevin Garnett2004-05MIN5.713.517.3
Larry Bird*1982-83BOS5.811.018.7
Maurice Stokes*1957-58CIN6.418.118.7
Oscar Robertson*1961-62CIN11.412.522.9
Sam Lacey1974-75KCO5.314.211.3
Wes Unseld*1975-76WAS5.213.37.3
Wilt Chamberlain*1963-64SFW5.022.325.2
Wilt Chamberlain*1967-68PHI8.623.814.2
Wilt Chamberlain*1966-67PHI7.824.216.8
Wilt Chamberlain*1965-66PHI5.224.628.7
Basketball-Reference.com

Noah is the first center since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978-79 to accomplish the feat.

Most of these players are still ball-dominant players. Since we don't have access to usage, we’ll look at field-goal attempts.

Of the players on this list, only Wes Unseld in 1975-76 took fewer shots than Noah has this year. Bill Russell took slightly more in 1966-67. Sam Lacey and Anthony Mason aren't exactly volume scorers either. (As a side note, I have a fresh appreciation for Mason's 1996-97 season.)

So based on raw numbers, those are the only four players who matched Noah's passing and rebounding without being being scorers. 

 

And He's Getting Better

One of the most remarkable things about Noah’s season is he’s posting these kinds of historic numbers in spite of a sluggish beginning. Due to a preseason injury, he was struggling for the first month.

Through the end of November, he was only averaging 8.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Since then, he’s averaging 13.5, 12.1 and 5.5 respectively.

And since Luol Deng was traded on January 6, he’s been flat-out ridiculous, posting an average line of 13.7, 12.2 and 6.3.

DARRON CUMMINGS/Associated Press

In particular, his assists and rebounds are what’s eye-popping. How much so?

Since 1985 (again, as far back as can be tracked), the most six-assist games by a center is 36. Vlade Divac did that in 2003-04. David Robinson had 32 such games in 1993-94. Noah is now third on that list with 29.

That’s impressive enough, but what makes it phenomenal is that through his first 32 games, Noah only had five six-assist games. Since Deng was traded 36 games ago, he’s had 24. If he maintains that same post-trade clip, he’ll add nine more to his total before the season ends, beating Divac’s total by two.

Effectively, that means he’d have more six-assist games (38 projected) than any center in the last 30 years, with almost all of them coming in the last 50 games of the season.

Furthermore, if we factor in rebounding, Noah already has as many 10-rebound, six-assist games as any center since 1985, tying Robinson at 24, with 21 of those games having come since Deng was traded.

Seeing a center dominate games by owning the glass and facilitating the ball the way that Noah has in the post-Deng era is just special and virtually unparalleled in at least 30 years.

 

Defense

There are already very few players who are eligible when we consider Noah’s ability to command games just through his passing and rebounding without being a high-usage player: Russell, Unseld, Anthony Mason and Sam Lacey complete the list.

NEW YORK - APRIL 24:  Anthony Mason #14 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against Buck Williams #52 of the New York Knicks in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 1997 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 1
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

But, primarily we’ve only looked at one side of the ball. Of those players, only Mason (second team) and Russell (first team) were ever named to All-Defensive teams at any point in their careers.

Mason didn’t receive any votes for DPOY, however, and the award didn’t exist when Russell played.

There is a strong possibility that Noah will win it this season. Even Kevin McHale, the coach of three-time recipient Dwight Howard, believes the award belongs to Noah, as he told ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers:

He (Noah) should be Defensive Player of the Year. He's done a great job with these guys. They've been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates.

Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report has Noah as the favorite to win the award. So does Fran Blinebury of NBA.com. So it’s fair to at least consider the possibility Noah wins.

If he does, he’ll be the first DPOY winner to average 10 rebounds and five assists.

When you include defense with passing and rebounding, all without dominating the ball, only one player stands out with Noah, and that’s Russell.

 

Intangibles

The last aspect of a player is his intangibles, including things like energy, effort and leadership. Noah’s are such that Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report recently named him the best leader in the NBA.

And it’s a big part of the reason why, as previously mentioned, Smith has Noah ranked No. 4 in his MVP Ladder.

Isiah Thomas compares Noah to Dennis Rodman, which might be more fair if Rodman were also a facilitator. But Thomas' thinking is right. 

Intangibles are hard to measure (hence the word). They’re also best evaluated in the present, not retrospectively. Therefore, it seemed a good way to gauge them historically by looking at MVP voting, which is a kind of snapshot of what the voters were thinking at the time. 

Here is every player who has ever finished in the top five in MVP voting with 15 or fewer points per game and where they placed in the voting:

Lowest-Scoring MVP Contenders in NBA History
PlacePlayerAgeTmGMPPTSTRBASTYear
4Bill Russell34BOS7742.79.919.34.91968-69
4Mel Hutchins27FTW6633.9127.52.71955-56
?Joakim Noah28CHI6834.712.411.252013-14
4Bill Russell31BOS7843.412.922.84.81965-66
4Wilt Chamberlain36LAL8243.213.218.64.51972-73
3Bill Russell32BOS8140.713.3215.81966-67
1Wes Unseld22BAL8236.213.818.22.61968-69
5Tiny Archibald31BOS8035.814.12.58.41979-80
1Bill Russell30BOS7844.414.124.15.31964-65
2Jason Kidd28NJ8237.314.77.39.92001-02
3Wilt Chamberlain35LAL8242.314.819.241971-72
3Bill Russell29BOS7844.61524.74.71963-64
Basketball-Reference.com

If Noah gets the votes, he will be the lowest-scoring player since 1968-69 to be a top-five finisher in the MVP race, when Guess Who finished fourth.

Add intangibles to the list of ways Noah dominates without scoring, and once again one of the few players to be there with him is Russell. 

 

Once in a Generation

Only one name keeps popping up in reviewing what Noah has done: Bill Russell. The Bill Russell.

Now, of course I can hear the Steven-A.-ish screams of “dis-respect-ful!” pouring over the Internet. Bear in mind that saying that Noah is doing something that no one has done since Russell isn’t the same as saying he’s Russell’s equal.

Russell is one of the greatest players in history. Noah is just having a great season.

But between when Russell played and now, no one has done what Noah is doing. That deserves appreciation.

Ironically enough, Russell would probably be pleased by the comparison.

Two years ago, in an interview with NBA Entertainment's John Hareas, Russell brought up Noah as one of his favorite players:

A player who doesn't get much attention and is one of my favorites to watch is Joakim Noah. The Bulls don't utilize some of his skills. Not only is he a good rebounder but he's an excellent passer. A good passer is more important to a team than a good shooter on offense.

Well, I’m sure Russell would agree the Bulls are using Noah's passing skills now.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Noah is having the most completely dominant season by a non-scorer in 45 years. The last time that happened was when Russell was roaming the courts. Only a minority of current NBA fans were even born then, much less old enough to remember watching him play.

Kevin Durant and LeBron James are still the best players in the league, and there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with being a scorer. But it’s refreshing to see someone dominate games without commanding the ball. There will be great scorers in every generation, but this type of player comes once in a generation. 

Noah’s season is something you’ll rarely, if ever, see again—probably not even from Noah, since his facilitating role will dissipate with the return of Derrick Rose.

So that being the case, the next time you get a chance, sit back, watch a Bulls game and enjoy the uniqueness of history being made.