Why Joakim Noah Can Carry Chicago Bulls to Deep Playoff Run

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 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

Joakim Noah has put himself in elite company—and not just because he has magnificent hair (though it helps). His fourth triple-double of the season came against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, helping cement his status as one of the most versatile big men in the game—now or ever.

We've always known that Noah is an elite defensive center. He won't wow anyone with his shot-blocking (1.5 per game), but he's an exceptional pick-and-roll defender and has quick hands, picking up 1.2 steals per game.

The tape often shows what the statistics don't, revealing a well-rounded ability to patrol the paint and frustrate scorers of all shapes and sizes. 

But we're seeing a new, less celebrated side of Noah this season. In Derrick Rose's absence he's transformed himself into the fulcrum of the Chicago Bulls' offense. The ball goes through him, often in the high post where he's free to make passes underneath either in high-low scenarios (with another big) or to cutters such as Jimmy Butler.

That's what's translating into his unreal average of 5.2 assists per contests and—in turn—into those triple-doubles. That average is a career high for Noah, 1.2 more than the 4.0 assists he averaged a season ago. It also ranks him first among centers, well ahead of Marc Gasol at 3.6 per contest.

His assist ratio of 27.0 blows all other centers out of the water, per Hollinger's player efficiency ratings.

In a league that asks what you've done for me lately, Noah has done a lot—and a lot of everything.

But the forward-looking question is what he'll contribute to Chicago's playoff run, how far he can take a team that's missing its best player.

And for the record, the Bulls will be missing their best player. There was a second there when the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence led us to believe otherwise, but head coach Tom Thibodeau has subsequently refuted that notion pretty unequivocally.

So where does that leave them? Can Noah really lead Chicago past the first round, maybe further?

We know this much. The Bulls' seeding is no fluke. They have proven capable of beating good teams. In March alone they beat the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets. They held the high-octane Rockets to just 87 points in a 24-point romp. You can certainly thank Noah for some of that defensive effort.

On the season, Chicago split both season series with Miami and Indiana at two games apiece. It's added the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies to its list of victims. There should be no question that this overachieving club can achieve against the very best.

Some will say that regular-season evidence shouldn't count for much. They will say that Chicago has neither the firepower nor the star power to overcome the best teams over the course of a seven-game series. Those are valid points.

But let's play devil's advocate. When Noah's on your side, that's the least you can do.

First of all, no team has a player like Noah. He simultaneously anchors one of the league's premier defenses and serves as the facilitating centerpiece of its offense. He provides a seemingly limitless supply of energy and leadership, looking a heck of a lot like a point-center who does everything but the bulk of the ball-handling.

He's also added a fairly strong mid-range game that keeps defenders honest when he gets touches at the top of the key. That's proven key to Noah's ability to make the right passes, ensuring that defenders can't play off of him and collapse near the basket.

Noah's improved range also makes him a better facilitator.
Noah's improved range also makes him a better facilitator.NBA.com

It seems like a small thing, but it's one of those small things that helps Chicago's offense click.

Chicago's offense "clicking" is of course a relative term. The team ranks dead last in points scored. That's in part because the Bulls play at a snail's pace. They don't have the requisite pieces to push tempo and play at break-neck speed. 

And when Noah's probably your best passer, you wait for him to get up the court before initiating offense.

But spin aside, the Bulls offense is pretty bad. How many times have we seen D.J. Augustin look like this team's best scorer? How long will that work in the playoffs?

It goes without saying that Noah can't pull this off alone. He'll need third-year swingman Jimmy Butler to play out of his mind. He'll need Carlos Boozer to get off to quick starts, draining mid-range jumpers like its second nature. He'll need Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy to make a few three-pointers.

Everything will have to go right for the Bulls to have a chance. Their margin for error is extremely thin. 

But if it were too thin, the Bulls wouldn't be a playoff team. They give themselves a chance to win with a stout defense and a lot of sheer determination. You can't overestimate the extent to which Noah contributes to this club's psychological prowess. 

NBA.com's Steve Aschburner cites Jimmy Butler's comments a year ago to demonstrate how his energy "spills over" to the rest of the team:

I think that’s a big aspect of his game also to get real excited when a big play goes down, not if he does it but when somebody else does it. That’s part of being a leader, which he’s great at being. I feel like everybody feeds off his energy. Everybody feeds off his emotion. You see him yelling, it’s like something in you is like, 'I’m gonna do it too.'

You also see Noah talking. It's not all about primal rallying calls. It's also about cerebral communication, helping other defenders see plays developing and react accordingly.

And it should go without saying all those previously mentioned assist numbers are about a lot more than setting up baskets. They're also setting up Noah's teammates for success in a far broader sense, putting them in positions to succeed and making them feel like integral pieces.

That kind of facilitation is especially key on a team that desperately lacks a lone, dynamic scorer who can take over. It's always a team effort for the Bulls, and Noah is instrumental to making that team gel.

Call it synergy. Call it inclusivity. It's a democratic brand of ball, less top-down, more about succeeding on a grassroots basis. Everyone plays a part. Everyone is needed, valued and respected. That's a formula for overachieving, and that's exactly what Chicago does on a nearly nightly basis.

Noah just happens to be the overachiever-in-chief.

It would be a mistake to get too caught up in Noah's intangibles. Important, though, as they are, they won't be enough to make a dent in the postseason. That's where Noah's actual play becomes decisive.

Categorizing that style of play is nearly impossible. SB Nation's Tom Ziller tried to little avail:

Noah is ... Ben Wallace with guard skills? That doesn't make sense, because part of what made Ben Wallace Ben Wallace was that he had no skills. None that weren't related to rotating and rebounding, at least. Tim Duncan with fast-twitch muscles and a Chardonnay buzz?

That's not quite right -- the results may match that definition, but the style isn't remotely close. And that's the whole thing with Noah: the style he plays in no way matches his production. He plays like an erratic Bond villain, yet he puts up Duncanian lines.

It's like an erratic Bond villain with a deceptively effective, flat-footed jumper. It's like an erratic Bond villain with a dizzying yet productive post-game. Ziller is right. It doesn't look like anything we've seen, but somehow it works.

His defense works, too—against nearly anyone. The Bulls will need Noah to be at all places seemingly at once in the playoffs, stopping drives to the paint and keeping the post on lockdown. The scary thing is Noah is mobile and strong enough to actually pull it off. Though his athleticism falls short of the Dwight Howard archetypes, it's good enough when combined with a nonstop motor and utter fearlessness.

It's also good enough to get Kevin McHale's vote for Defensive Player of the Year, per ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers:

He's played very well. He 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.

The Bulls are giving up a league-best 91.6 points per game, and you better believe Noah has been central to those results.

You also better believe that defense will keep Chicago in a lot of playoff games, maybe just enough to make a deeper-than-expected run. Games slow down in the postseason, giving teams that can defend for 24 seconds a distinct advantage. The Bulls will take the stunted tempo in stride. It's how they prefer to play ball, setting up on the defensive end and making the other guys work on every possession.

Yes, defense wins championships. No, the Bulls probably won't—not in 2014, anyway. But they can certainly scare some contenders into believing otherwise.

Who wants to be the first to doubt Noah and Co.? 


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