(originally published elsewhere)
Yesterday, Chicago Bulls centre Joakim Noah won the Defensive Player Of The Year Award, and it was not even close. The award is the emphatic culmination of Noah’s breakout season, itself the continuing crescendo of a 29 year old player who has improved in every season up to, and now including, his prime years.
However, this alone does not accurately portray Noah as a player. Having long been a defensive anchor of sorts, the best measure of his development can arguably be found on the offensive end. The Bulls’ defense does not rely on Noah. But their offense does.
Much as it is standard thinking to give a near-seven footer some touches in the post, some players just cannot do it. Noah is one of them. For all the strength he has added to his frame – a huge amount, frankly – Noah will never have a wide frame and thus is just not built to back people down. He also seems to lack natural touch around the rim, and does not have the physical tools or mentality of an offensive post player.
The offensive development of Joakim Noah, then, has all been away from the rim. Without three point range, or even especially consistent two point jump shot range, Noah has taken his offensive skills (an incredible handle for a centre, tremendous speed and quickness, unrivalled passing vision and skill, endless unselfishness, a solid free throw stroke, the ability and desire to endlessly run the floor if only as a decoy and a driving lefty layup which never looks like a high percentage shot but which he makes often enough to ensure it is so) and become an offensive weapon. Without being a threat to score in half court situations, save for the occasional use of that that aforementioned lefty banker, Noah has made himself into an offensive lynchpin.
Chicago runs their offense through Noah on almost every half court possession when he is on the court. Given that they rank 28th in the league in pace, and Noah plays 35.3 minutes per game, that is self-evidently a lot of possessions. In his seven seasons in the league, Noah has increased his assist per game average every year, up from 2.5 in 2011/12 to 4.0 in 2012/13 to a whopping 5.4 this season, a testament to the centrepiece of the offense that he now is.
This is all well and good for Noah’s personal development and his legacy. This is his prime, and it is a fairly spectacular, extremely unique prime. But for his prime and his legacy to be truly that which they could be, Noah needs to win something.
To do that, he needs more talent on his team, and he needs to integrate well with it. A player of such talent and versatility can play alongside anyone, of course. Yet for it to be optimum, Noah’s offensive game needs to coexist with that of his point guard as best as possible.
Noah’s best two offensive years, the last two, have been without the injured Derrick Rose. Minus the dynamic Rose, the athletic and ball dominant MVP, the Bulls have bridged the gap in the last two years with the mediocre but purist-friendly play of a declining Kirk Hinrich, and (mostly) the amazingly good value yields they have gotten from afterthought pick-ups Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin.
Robinson, whose minimum salary contract was not even guaranteed despite averaging 11.2 points and 4.5 assists per game for the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12, almost single-handedly salvaged the pride and the mood of the 2012-13 season. Putting forth sufficient defensive effort to pacify Tom Thibodeau, Robinson was the only shooter and half court creator on a team with no other quality ball handlers, who responded with 13 points in only 25 minutes per game with a series of game changing performances along the way. And in similar circumstances this season, Augustin reversed two barren years of play to the tune of 14.9 points and 5.0 assists per game, alongside 41% three point shooting.
Neither has been effective defensively, but they have had Noah behind them to compensate. Similarly, while neither is an exceptional half court floor general, Noah is alongside them to do just that. With the full endorsement of Thibodeau – who deserves credit for pushing the change, as it would have been so very easy to default to the ‘steadiness’ of a Hinrich-type and the conventional wisdom of having a centre play in the paint – both duos have been able to conjure up what is just about a passable NBA offense, no mean feat with so little shot making talent around them.
Noah credits Augustin’s play for making him into an All-Star, and for salvaging the Bulls’ season. However, Augustin has not done so single-handedly, and neither did Robinson before him. The reformation of Noah has been a big part of why. Moving Noah to occasionally playing high post offense to solely has given a vital outlet and component to an offense that otherwise struggles mightily to get beyond the first line of the defense. Noah’s presence has aided Augustin just as Augustin’s has aided him.
Chicago’s system and roster, designed as they were around Rose, are predicated upon the creativity and scoring talents of the point guard. Indeed, they need a lot of individual offense from that position, which partly explains why the Hinrich-only version of the team scored only about 54 points a game (or so it felt). Augustin and Robinson slotted snugly into this role, given the freedom to do what they do, and given the demand to do whatever they could. They responded, aided by Noah. So did C.J. Watson for stretches. However, it does not automatically follow that Rose’s return, when it happens, will mean seamless integration.
Part of the success for the Noah/Augustin duo this season has been the pick and roll game they provide each other. Noah, long since a good target as a roll man, has at various times been able to hook up with Hinrich as well on this play, a decent finder of the roll or pop man. Using Augustin on ball screen action, be it to shoot threes or drive and collapse, is a large part of Chicago’s game, while Robinson could at least use the screen to get to the rim and make a drop-off pass. This, though, has never been a strength of Rose’s game. Rose’s game at his best involved much time spent at the top of the arc or the wing, driving off screens, getting to the rim and finishing, or taking the two point jumper. He occupied the areas Noah now does. With neither being a shooter, and without the compliment of corner and wing three point shooters an NBA team is now required to have, the two might hinder each other more than they help.
Rose, it seems, will return next season. It remains to see how effective he will be, and for how long, but what is known is the type of player he was beforehand. For all his athleticism and finishing ability, the MVP-winning Rose still had big flaws in his game. He does not run the pick and roll especially well – when he uses screens, he either does to so drive, or to draw a defender on one or two steps and kick out to the wing player, rarely finding the roll man. He improved defensively but still left the front door open too often. And for all the reconstructions of his jumpshot form over the years, Rose still lacks any rhythm as a shooter, and has only ever had mediocre returns at best.
The reconciliation of the weaknesses in Rose’s game and the strengths of Noah’s is key to Chicago’s future. If they have any chance of winning a conference title in the foreseeable future, these two need to work out. They also need to be compensated by the rest of the roster, particularly with regards to floor spacing. Current projected starters Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler do not figure to provide this. A returning Rose will only bring new dimensions to the offense if he is able to get into the lane somewhat readily. Augustin at least brings the jump shot.
It can work – with Rose back in the fold, the Bulls should run more, something which Noah is well tailored for. It is also perfectly easy to foresee a multitude of plays in which Rose, having brought the ball over halfcourt, gives the ball to Noah and works off the ball to get to the basket, something that should have been a bigger part of his arsenal pre-injuries anyway. The two have enough talent, athleticism and IQ to make it work, and a coach who loves and understands the intricacies of a half-court set enough to spend the whole summer devising them.
Yet the whole reintegration process is going to take time. And the Bulls, with Noah and Gibson both turning 30 next season, do not have too much of that. If there is still a title window, it has to reopen again immediately. And if they do not have a title window, that really will be a shame. A player like Noah should not be limited to individual accolades.