The Case for Joakim Noah as the NBA's Most Improved Star

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

Joakim Noah keeps going and going and going, and as he goes, he keeps improving and improving and improving, maybe more than any NBA star.

Measuring how far the Chicago Bulls luminary has come is both easy and difficult. The numbers tell one story, an obvious story, but the impact he has on the Derrick Rose- and Luol Deng-less Bulls tells a more remarkable tale.

Nearly seven years deep into his NBA career, Noah isn't the typical case study. Stars are usually set in their ways by age 29. There may be a change here and a change there, but progress is generally minimal.

What's happening in Chicago has left Noah the exception.

After spending his entire career playing second or third fiddle to Rose and Deng, Noah is suddenly it. He's the guy in Chicago. He's the Bulls' playoff lifeline, their heart and soul. Their face.

A meteoric rise in importance has changed Noah, enlivened an already unflagging star. He's still the same actively pesky player, challenging for Defensive Player of the Year, constantly burying himself underneath the opposition's skin—only more so. 

This year's Noah is, for the first time, an unquestioned superstar and two-way force. This Noah is an unofficial MVP candidate. 

This Noah has made a case for himself as the league's most improved superstar.


Understanding What Most Improved Means

The possibility exists that many are already confused, and that's fine. It happens.

In this instance, we're not necessarily making a case for Noah to win the Most Improved Player award. Those honors are usually awarded to younger, less-established players.

Stars can, in fact, win the award. We saw it with Paul George last year, and we may see it with Anthony Davis or Goran Dragic this year.

But most-improved honors aren't bestowed upon players like Noah, who have been around for some time. Heck, if Dragic were to swipe the award at 27, that would be largely unprecedented.

Only five players, age 27 or older, have won the Most Improved Player award, and just one of them was older than 28 (Darrell Armstrong). In all likelihood, Noah won't even be considered, let alone win. That's fine too. His improvement is not limited to one distinction.

Rather than worrying about conditional details, Noah's rising stock should be judged solely against established stars as opposed to pitting him opposite inexperienced sensations and newly minted superstars such as Davis.



Redefining the Center Position

Everything you think you know about Noah, you still know. But there's more about him that you don't know.

There's nothing particularly different about the way he's playing. His relentless motor continues to will him up and down the court at breakneck speeds, and he's the same double-double threat he's always been. Unlike last year—and every other year for that matter—he's a complete player.

Noah is averaging 12.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game this season, threatening to notch triple-doubles on a regular basis. If his current numbers hold, he'll become just the fourth player in NBA history to register at least 12 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, one steal and 1.5 blocks for an entire year, joining the ranks of Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett.

That stat line doesn't happen. It just doesn't. Few players in league history have possessed the kind of balanced skill set Noah has. Big men are supposed to block shots and grab rebounds. They're not supposed to distribute. Not like Noah, who leads the Bulls in assists per game.

This season alone, Noah has dished out at least 10 assists six times, which, per ESPN's Marc Stein, puts him in even more exclusive company:

Dating back to 1985, only two other centers have recorded five 10-plus assist games in the same season—Vlade Divac and Brad Miller. While they aren't the biggest names, they are the only names because again, centers aren't tasked with doing what Noah does.

Watch the Bulls, and you'll notice that Noah isn't a dime-dropper by chance. The Bulls feature him as a distributor, more than they do Kirk Hinrich or the pleasantly surprising D.J. Augustin. Noah, in a sense, is their point guard sans Rose—their 6'11", ponytail-sporting, awkwardly shooting point guard.

Best part of Noah playing floor general? It's working.

Chicago's offense is a stagnant mess saddled with poor floor spacing and (somewhat) deliberate pace-sapping tendencies. But the Bulls are still contending for a top-three playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. What little offensive functions they have, exist largely because of Noah.

The ability to begin offensive sets with Noah at the top of the key just inside the three-point line his huge. Not many centers can hit shots outside eight feet. Teams even dare Noah to shoot jumpers, since, according to (subscription required), he's converting only 37.4 percent of his attempts outside eight feet.

Merely shooting from there, though, is beneficial to Chicago's offense. More than a quarter of Noah's shot attempts come outside eight feet. When defenders sag off him, he sees the floor better, increasing his line of sight, making it more likely he can serve up a perfectly placed pass to the cutting Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Augustin or anyone else.

Writing for ESPN Chicago, Michael Wilbon elaborated on this point:

No, there's a fundamental difference in what the Bulls are doing now (except against the Heat):

They're handing the ball to Noah at the top of the circle and he's going "Omah-HA!" 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.

All of this is on top of Noah's defensive impact. He's the best defender on the league's second-best defensive team, able to defend under a variety of circumstances, from under the basket to beyond the arc.

As it stands, Noah is the only player in the league posting a defensive rating under 97 while averaging more than 27 minutes per game. He's also on pace to become the first player since Dwight Howard and Josh Smith in 2011-12 to finish with a defensive rating under 97 while logging more than 34 minutes a night. Four total players have accomplished that same feat since 2004-05—Howard, Smith, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace. 

Noah is absolutely doing everything he did last season on defense. From protecting the rim to clogging passing lanes to defending one-on-one better than most towers ever will—he's doing it all, like he always has. He's just doing it even more, even better.


Understanding the Competition

Looking at Noah's numbers this year compared to last season, his improvement hasn't been vast. But numbers can be misleading.

Noah vs. Noah

Small upticks in most categories go overlooked. Eyes are drawn to drastic numerical improvements. What I tend to look at is percentage increases.

For example, Noah is averaging 12.4 points per game this season compared to 11.9 last year. That's a 4.2 percent increase in scoring, which, while still small, is more noteworthy than 0.5 points more per game. 

When you line up Noah's percent increases in each category between last season and now, they're, for the most part, impressive:

Keep in mind, these shifts in production are from a seven-year veteran. Increasing his assist output by 30 percent or his player efficiency rating by 11.6 percent is a significant accomplishment.

Seeing how his increase in production stacks up against other "candidates" is equally important. Blake Griffin's name has been tossed around in the same breath as Noah's, as someone who, like Noah, is on the outskirts of the MVP discussion. Finding another established star who has engendered similar improvement talk is likely impossible.

Let's take a look, then, at how Griffin's percentage increases compare to Noah's:

At the very least, their rise in stock is similar. Both have increased their production in some areas, be it marginally or significantly.

Where they really begin to separate is win-share accumulation. Griffin has amassed more win shares (11.3) than Noah (9.8), but in terms of their percent increase from last season, the latter has the former beat:

That's an enormous gap. It doesn't prove that Noah is more valuable to the Bulls than Griffin is to the Los Angeles Clippers—though he may very well be—but it's proof enough that Chicago's center has taken advantage of the wiggle room his individual ceiling has provided.


Uncharted Territory

Forget everything else for a moment.

What makes Noah's progression really stand out from that of other dignitaries? His transfer in status.

Before this season, Noah's place among the stars was debated. He most definitely wasn't considered a top-10 talent, that's for sure.

But that's all changed now.

Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta argued in favor of Noah as a top-10 player, and arrived at the following conclusion:

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 isn’t 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.

Personal preference here matters very little.

Disagree with Scaletta, disagree with Wilbon, disagree with me. Honestly and truthfully, it doesn't matter. We're talking about it, we're having this discussion. That's what matters.

"How often do you have a guy that's even mentioned as an MVP candidate that averages what he averages point-wise?" Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said of Noah, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "I think that tells you what Noah has meant to this team since (Derrick) Rose has been out and (Luol) Deng got traded. They haven't skipped a beat."

A year ago—a few months ago—even entertaining the notion that Noah is a top-10 superstar would feel taboo or flat-out wrong. He didn't do enough. He wasn't reliable enough. He was not in the same class of superstar as James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Griffin, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

In the absence of Rose, and one of those other, more orthodox superstar types, the Bulls have turned to Noah, who is flawed in different ways, but perfect for them as a player, leader and emotional mainspring. It's his imperfections that have actually allowed him to come this far, to improve as much as he has improved.

"When our young boy comes back...I want a ring," Noah said, per Wilbon. "I want a ring so bad. When he comes back, I know our time will come."

Noah's time has come now. The rise from disputed stardom to unchallenged preeminence is complete. There is nothing about him to doubt. Not his ability, not his will.

Not his quick, timely and radical evolution.


*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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