The NBA, A-through-Z: (Joakim) Noah

The free agents have just about all been signed up. The NBA is down to a series of Instagram photos from moving yachts and crossed fingers from worried teams hoping their players stay safe in the summer off. There’s nothing going on, save for that clock on the wall that is ticking down to the 2013-14 season.

And it’s moving SO SLOWLY.

This is why we’ve decided to pick 26 things we’re looking forward to in 2013-14. Or, at the very least, 26 things that intrigue us as we wait out an offseason that feels like it has thousands of miles left to cross before we can get to Halloween and opening week. Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – you guessed, NBA A-through-Z.

We continue with (Joakim) Noah.

One of the more common go-to tropes regarding Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah is a tired one. The bit where the announcer says, “you’d love him if he’s on your team, but you’d hate him if he was on the other side,” as if Noah was A.J. Pierzynski or something.

This, I have a hard time understanding – because outside of a few well-placed barbs at LeBron James-led outfits in Cleveland and Miami, Noah isn’t some sort of jerk-hole. He’s not a cheap-shot artist or referee baiter. He doesn’t consistently whine, he doesn’t deliberately toss out fouls that cross the line, and outside of some head-down hand-clapping, the man doesn’t really antagonize opposing fans that much. Unless you count the play that happened directly before the clapping as antagonistic.

The man just plays hard while utilizing a skill set that doesn’t seem to have a direct lineage. There’s Kevin Garnett in there, but Noah doesn’t have the hops nor ability to toss in a slick turnaround jumper. There’s some Vlade Divac from the pinch post, but Noah doesn’t flop, and he doesn’t take many foo-foo chances with his bounce passes. Perhaps some Bill Russell, in his ability to appear to hedge while actually staying closer to the rim than most and run the floor, but Noah won’t ever post Russell’s gaudy block and rebound totals.

It was as if Scottie Pippen was handed a seven-footer’s frame and Fernando Venezuela’s mechanics with the ball. And, perhaps, Fernando Venenzuela’s actual mechanics; because I’m sure Fernando had someone with a pony-tail or giant Rasta bun working on his car at some point.

This isn’t even getting into his role, which like it was with Pippen, seems to change from game to game. Because of Chicago’s unique roster – always adapting even when every player is fully healthy – Noah is the rare center that has to switch around roles based on the opponent – usually a job for a versatile swingman.

In some instances he will be asked to fire shot after shot at the hoop either from that standing position on the perimeter, or with pell-mell drives and swooping hooks; with the later two often coming because the Bulls need to get something, anything, on the rim for an offensive rebound. And then there are the instances where Chicago’s offense goes completely through their center as the initial option a passer that either registers the assist, or the hockey assist.

There are good passing centers, and there are those that register more assists or feature a higher percentage of possessions used that turn into assist. Noah is the only center that often rules as the initial passing option, and this is sometimes even the case even when Derrick Rose and/or Kirk Hinrich are on the floor.

And when both are gone? Noah’s the guy. Here’s a quote from an interview with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, published earlier this summer at Grantland:

But his all-around game, his passing — when Hinrich went down, we had to run our offense through him, and I thought he did a terrific job with that.

“We had to run our offense through him.”

Not just, “he really gives us another great wrinkle with his passing,” or, “you always have to worry about doubling Joakim because he’ll surprise you with a dish.” No, it’s “we had to run our offense through him.”

Then there’s the defense.

Former Bulls coach Scott Skiles basically ran Tyson Chandler right out of town and Ben Wallace deep into the ground by asking those ex-Defensive Players of the Year to go way, way over the top on screen and roll plays, showing well past the three-point line while leaving them either prone to cheap fouls (Chandler) or step-slow recoveries (Wallace). With Tom Thibodeau in charge, Noah has been asked to stay low, and utilize his length and smarts to cover all sorts of ground on the interior on any sort of penetration play, while happily giving up inefficient, long two-point shots should the opponent settle.

Noah (who averaged over two blocks per game last year) will never come close to leading the NBA in rejections, but the NBA has learned that huge gobs of box score stats aren’t the way toward a sound defensive game plan. It’s why Chandler, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert and Noah are considered so devastating. And amongst those four, Noah stays with guards and other whippets with far more ease.

This is why it was so worrying to see Thibodeau play Noah – who has a history of fatigue-related plantar fasciitis injuries – close to 40 minutes per game over the first three months of the season without any regard for his long-term health, in a season that was punted away by the Bulls’ front office months before. And this is why it was so frustrating to see an obviously hampered Noah limp around midseason, playing through the injury in the face of the Bulls’ award-winning coaching staff.

Hopefully everyone got a hell of a lot smarter, or at the very least, more compassionate over the offseason. It’s the only way to save one of the league’s most special players, a unique talent that you just can’t help but admire. Whether you’re clad in red, or otherwise.

Two and a half months until Joakim Noah plays basketball again. God, I hate the offseason.

What to Read Next