How Much of Joakim Noah's New Passing Game Will Survive Derrick Rose's Return?

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How Much of Joakim Noah's New Passing Game Will Survive Derrick Rose's Return?
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls blossomed into unquestionably the best passing center in the NBA last year. How much of that will be sustained when Derrick Rose returns (again) next season?

Noah’s passing game wasn’t just the best by a center last season; it was one of the best in history. Per basketball-reference.com, among centers qualified for the assist-per-game leaderboard, he had the fourth-highest assist percentage ever and tied for the sixth-most assists per game. The names ahead of him are guys like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

No one is ahead of him on both lists. 

What is all the more remarkable is that Noah achieved those numbers mostly based on the strength of his season's second half. After the Bulls traded Luol Deng on Jan 6, Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls' head coach, changed the team's offense to primarily run through Noah.

Prior to the trade, Noah averaged 3.5 assists and had an assist percentage of 19.2 percent. After it, those numbers were 6.6 assists and 29.9 percent. That would project to the third- and second-most productive passing seasons in NBA history by a center.

There is a problem, though. Rose, when healthy, happens to be one of the most electric point guards in the league. He’s a dual threat that few can match. During his last healthy season, when he won the MVP in 2011-12, Rose became the third point guard in history to score 2,000 points and deliver 600 assists. The other two were Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson.

It would seem that Rose’s return would take the ball out of Noah’s hands. To some degree, that’s going to be true, but only to a degree.

Of the teammates Noah played with this year, the most similar to Rose is D.J. Augustin. Both are scoring point guards with great speed. What’s interesting is that Noah actually averaged half an assist more (account required) with Augustin on the court.

In large part that’s because there are three basic plays that Augustin and Noah work together on frequently, and Rose should be able to work them equally, if not more effectively.

The first is the dribble handoff, where Noah will catch the ball, dribble a couple of times to draw the defender to him then pass the ball off behind him to a shooter while simultaneously setting a screen to give his teammate an open look. This is not unique to Augustin. 

Mike Prada of SB Nation plays a little tell-and-show, first explaining the play:

Also, not pressuring Noah puts the defense at a disadvantage when trying to defend the Bulls' dribble handoff sequences. Noah is the best in the league at coming to a teammate and turning it into a screen play. He can spring a guy like Dunleavy or Butler, and if their man overplays, Noah will hit them cutting backdoor. But if the opposing big man is playing way off Noah, it leaves the other team's perimeter defender all alone to defend a difficult two-man action. It's very hard for one man to guard a dribble hand-off, much less one involving the best passing big in basketball.

Then he shows what he means: 

Watch the sequence below where Noah shows just how proficient he is with this set, running exactly the same play with various shooters: 

Original GIF

Rose, even with his shooting struggles last season, was solid in the catch-and-shoot, hitting 42.9 percent from three and notching a 58.8 effective field-goal percentage overall. Certainly, it’s easy to see Rose and Noah executing this play with precision and regularity.  

The second play that Noah and Augustin run together frequently is a give-and-go. That’s something that Rose and Noah have done pretty well in the past:

Finally, Noah and Augustin connect frequently with Augustin cutting to the rim, such as here:

Original GIF

With Rose’s exceptional burst, it’s not hard to see that continuing.

In addition to the passes from Noah to Rose, assists could see continued success because of tosses from Rose to Noah. As a big man at the elbow, Noah can be an easy target for Rose when he’s stopped driving to the rim. Then Noah can either take the shot or relay the ball to an open shooter.

Plays like this from Jimmy Butler should be commonplace next year:

Original GIF

And with Rose commanding double-teams away from the action, it should allow for Noah to deliver the ball to his other teammates when they get open. The impressive thing about this passing game is that he’s able to deliver in a variety of ways.

If someone is open for a shot and Noah has the ball, Noah is probably going to find him. And with Rose commanding double-teams and collapsing lanes, there will be plenty of opportunities. So, you’ll probably still see plenty of these types of passes:

Where things could really get fun is if the Bulls, as expected, land another scorer during the offseason. Imagine Rose and Carmelo Anthony (.591 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoots) both playing well off the ball when it's in Noah’s hands, Taj Gibson roaming in the low post, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. on the perimeter.

The Bulls had the worst offense in the league last year, but nothing fixes that like adding two of the best scorers in the league. Having the ball in the hands of a third player who is both willing and able to pass it with precision makes them that much more dangerous.

That’s not to say that Rose won’t command the ball more, or that the offense won’t primarily go through him (and/or a second true scorer). It should, and it will. However, the improvement of Noah’s passing game will enable Rose to play off the ball more and give the Bulls more flexibility.

The long-term benefit of Noah’s development will still remain. Because of this year’s revamped offense, the Bulls know they have something else they can do if they need to. As a primary mode of running an offense, it has limitations, as was borne out in the postseason. But, as a secondary option, it’s a unique twist that is hard to defend.

Don’t expect Noah to average over six assists next year, but close to five is not out of the question.

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