After four games in five nights, Joakim Noah pals around with the kids on Sunday (Getty Images)
By some metrics, Joakim Noah has taken a step back in 2012-13 as his field-goal percentage dipped and rebounding fell off. By just about all others, including the eye test, the Bulls center has enjoyed a fantastic start to the season, typified by his remarkable 30-point, 23-rebound, six-assist performance in Friday night's win over Detroit, followed by a dominant defensive second half in Chicago's win over the white-hot New York Knicks on Saturday. In a one-week stretch between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, Noah worked a remarkable 211 minutes; a 42.2 minutes per game rate that is astounding for a center. In all, he's the biggest reason why the Derrick Rose-less Bulls are tops in their division despite repeated injury woes, and tops in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
It turns out that Noah found this newfound athletic mettle — jumping from 30.4 minutes per game to 39.8 minutes per contest this season — by training in the offseason with famous big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. Noah discussed as much with Arlington Heights (where, as a former resident, I can tell you that the surfing options are limited) Daily Herald beat writer Mike McGraw:
"I would say I learned just as much about recovery from him as anybody," Noah said after playing 44 minutes and the entire second half against the Knicks. "The way he trains for what he does is unbelievable. I consider him like a mentor."
Hamilton doesn't compete in surfing, necessarily. He trains mostly so he can survive the world's largest walls of water.
"He surfs 60-, 70-foot giants," Noah said. "You fall, you could die. Talk about mental toughness. When you have a 60-foot monster, you can be under (water) for two or three minutes, so you have to train for that.
"He'll use weights and do like jumps underwater. He can do like 10 jumps. I can do like three. It's unbelievable, just for your lung capacity and stuff like that. It really helped me doing these pool workouts."
Noah wasn't strapping onto a board to ride the big waves, which would fly in the face of his NBA contract that precludes him from any sort of athletic excursion that could leave him prone to significant injury. The workouts, though, appear to be paying off.
Noah knew midway through the 2012 offseason that he would be pressed into longer stretches of on-court duty after former backup center Omer Asik signed a free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets. This, coupled with Rose's absence and the typical stylings of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau almost made a 35-minute per-game average a certainty. That mark would rank Noah third in the NBA in minutes per contest, behind Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol at just over 36 minutes a night.
Instead, Noah ranks second in the entire NBA in minutes per contest, behind teammate Luol Deng. The reason for that goes beyond Chicago's injury woes and self-inflicted depth issues. Tom Thibodeau might be a basketball genius that has once again led Chicago to the top of the charts defensively, but he also doesn't really seem to mind playing players past the point of exhaustion, or through injury. Case in point — Deng's wrist issues last season and massive minutes despite obvious fatigue, and Richard Hamilton being asked to limp back on the court in a win over Philadelphia last week despite what was obviously a foot injury (torn plantar fascia) that he shouldn't have been playing through.
For now, at least.
There just isn't a whole lot of precedence for this. Centers such as Howard, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Marc Gasol have cracked the top five from time to time in recent years, but worries about turning your top big man into the next Yao Ming or Greg Oden have kept centers from routinely averaging up into the high 30s in terms of numbers. Noah's skinny frame may cause fears for his durability, but by a more positive token his lithe figure could allow for the pressure to be taken off his potentially aching feet.
Still, it's worrying that Thibodeau can't find a way to make it so Noah's work on the second half of back to back at least approximates his typical minutes average, instead of increasing it. That's just not something you should be doing to basketball players. Joakim's career high in minutes played is 1,945, set in last season's lockout-shortened season. He's on pace to destroy that record by over 1,300 more minutes in 2012-13.
Assuming he can find the air, of course. In McGraw's column, Noah points to Deng's steadying influence and plenty of ice as hallmarks of his recovery. And it's hard to deny his impact — again the Bulls are the top defensive team, they're working with an 11-8 record, and Noah is leading the NBA in Defensive Win Shares.
And apparently the road to this improvement isn't a road at all. Just a pool big enough to handle a 6-11 NBA center, and a famous pal to teach you how to stay submerged.
Goggles-tip to Pro Basketball Talk.
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