Joakim Noah and Russell Westbrook are two of the NBA's most colorful, vibrant and talented characters, as well as two supremely gifted players with five All-Star berths between them. Their respective styles and substances tend to combine on the court for breathtaking playmaking with some unexpected flourishes.
For all the awkward visuals of his long-limbed, janky-jumper physical presence, Noah's long been a heady passer through whom Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau felt comfortable running half-court sets from the elbows. His table-setting game has hit a new level this season, though, as the 29-year-old center has become the Bulls' primary facilitator in the absence of injured former MVP Derrick Rose, averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game — good for 34th in the NBA this season, far and away the highest mark of any center in the league, with only LeBron James and Kevin Durant topping him among frontcourt players — while directly assisting on a whopping 26 percent of his teammates' baskets during his time on the court. From a great new Noah feature by Ken Berger of CBSSports.com:
The expression of Noah's quirky resourcefulness and versatility has made its way from his free-wheeling soul and artistic mind to the strictly defined domain of the basketball court, where he swirls and swoops in defiance to all the rules that should apply. Point guards handle and dish the ball, and front-court players post up and convert — except that Noah's game and imagination can't be constrained by such boundaries.
"Being from New York, everybody's a point guard," Noah said. "Even when you play in the park, you've got to know how to handle the ball. If you can't handle the ball, you can't really play." [...]
"There's a finesse part of his game that's guard-like, where he can dribble and pass and make quick decisions off the dribble," Thibodeau said. "To me, that's what's really helped us probably the most."
And it's also what's given us the most thrilling of those set-ups — the ones that come after Noah rips down a rebound or picks up a loose ball, and proceeds to barrel down the court on the fast break. Joakim's full-court jaunts inspired the wonderful Rob Mahoney of SI.com's The Point Forward to cut together a video tribute to Noah's singular transition game soundtracked by, of course, The Boss:
While Noah's fast breaks always catch us at least a little bit by surprise, we tend to expect pace-pushing from Westbrook. The live-wire point guard has shown over the course of his six-year NBA career that his fearlessness and creativity (both on the court and off it) mean we're usually never too far away from the UCLA product's next color-outside-the-lines explosion, especially when he's got the ball and a little bit of runway in transition.
Westbrook's been restricted somewhat this season by a pair of right knee surgeries that have cost him 33 games and necessitated some minutes management by head coach Scott Brooks. He's still been great in smaller doses, though, averaging right around 21 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in 30.5 minutes per game, and as some of us, including Jason Damiano of Thunder Obsessed, have noticed, Russ seems to have decided — especially lately — to adding some extra flair to his feeds by whipping them with his left hand,
It's worth noting that, while Westbrook shoots right-handed, he's predominantly left-handed in everything else, so it's not like this is as wild and crazy as Westbrook starting to finish off possessions by heading the ball to his teammates for buckets. (Although, I mean, it'd be pretty cool if he did that.) Still, the frequency with which he's been doing it, especially recently, makes it seem like a conscious choice borne in part of trying to find the best passing angles to put teammates in position to score and maybe, just maybe, of trying to make the game a little bit cooler.
"All in all, Westbrook’s increased desire to throw impressive left handed passes isn’t going to be the thing that moves the Thunder from championship contender to champion," Damiano writes. "It is a sign of a great player who is always improving on his game, and through that, always becoming more fun to watch."
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