Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Joakim Noah's actions guiding the Bulls
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By Sam Smith | 1.14.2015 | 8:40 a.m. CT
One of the popular discussions about NBA teams is the question of whose team it is. Who is the face of the team? Coaches hate this discussion since it suggests it is not a group effort, which it always is. But one player generally represents who you are and what you embody as a team.
With the Bulls, it’s been Derrick Rose when he’s been healthy, though he clearly still is working his way back from missing two years with knee surgeries. Perhaps Jimmy Butler the way he started the season and actually was talked about as a league MVP, or Pau Gasol with his consistently strong season and career high scoring.
It’s none of them.
It’s Joakim Noah, and not because of what he did last season when he produced one of the historic NBA seasons for a center, was the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year and all-NBA first team.
Though, in part, because of it.
There’s been much discussion this season—and more after practice Tuesday following the Bulls disappointing 121-114 loss to the Orlando Magic—of Noah’s reduced production as he battles with a return from his offseason knee surgery.
It’s also been noted even with a sturdy 26-13 record as the Bulls prepare to face the conference rival Washington Wizards Wednesday that this has become a Bulls team lacking a true identity, better offensively, deeper, though more porous and inconsistent.
But if the Bulls are to have the kind of success they seek it will be a reflection of Noah, who despite reduced scoring and rebounding averages this season is arguably the symbol of success for the Bulls.
No one on this Bulls team has sacrificed more than Noah, yet still with a spirit of community, amity and team resolve. No one who has achieved as much has willingly surrendered as much, who is more the symbol of what a great team can represent.
“This is our story and this is the journey,” Noah said Tuesday in always projecting a unified front. “In a season, there's always going to be ups and downs. When there's adversity, people show their true colors, always. That's just the way it is. We're going through something right now and we've got to stick together and make it work. The injuries, the new guys; we can make excuses. But this is who we are. It's not going to change. So it's on us to fix it or it's not going to work.”
Noah was one of the most celebrated players in the NBA last season, fourth in Most Valuable Player voting. Regular critics of the NBA picked Noah the player who did the most after only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin. That’s heady company and rare in the NBA for centers over the last decade.
Yet, a few months later the Bulls not only asked Noah to reduce his role with the return of Rose and addition of Gasol, but they basically changed his position from center—the most celebrated in the NBA last season, mind you—to power forward, where he often has to chase around three-point shooters, like he did with Channing Frye Monday.
Noah is averaging 7.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, his fewest points and rebounds since 2008-09. Noah’s minutes are down about five per game from the last two seasons; however, that’s more to not push too hard after his summer knee surgery.
But based on statistics per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions, according to the Basketball-reference web site, Noah’s rebounding and even assists statistics—still leading among centers—are fairly comparable to last season. His rebounding totals are similar to the last two seasons. And while his points are down, so are his field goal attempts.
It should be obvious.
Here was a player on offense charged with making plays. Now, he’s a fourth or fifth option, if that, with Rose at point guard but with an offense often designed for isolation play with Gasol and Butler. It’s difficult to recall as much isolation offense for the Bulls in the last four years.
On defense, you have in Noah one of the league’s best rebounders. Now he’s guarding 20 feet from the basket. Thus, he’s nowhere near in position to rebound like before. He’s also thus out of the pick and roll defense often, which has been a Bulls weakness.
The significance is you never hear a word of complaint from Noah for doing something that is virtually unprecedented for an NBA star, which Noah is as a reigning two-time All-Star and one of the most valuable in last year’s game. Remember, coach Frank Vogel even chose to keep Noah in the fourth quarter to secure the win rather than go back to his own center.
I hear Noah in the locker room after every win praising Butler and Pau and Nikola Mirotic, defending Rose, supporting Taj Gibson, joking with E’Twaun Moore after a big game or Mike Dunleavy. If the offense doesn’t go through Noah any longer, he remains the media go to quote for the play of his teammates.
This at a time when critics are picking at his game, that his statistics are down, that he’s not moving the way he did before, that maybe he should rest, come off the bench.
Perhaps more than anything lately with four losses in their last eight games, including to the Magic, Nets and Jazz, the Bulls are lacking an identity, and certainly a defensive identity.
But if the Bulls intend to regain a specific personality, it rests in the model supplied by Noah: Unselfish, sacrificing for others to the point of basically surrendering your game for the interests of the group.
Noah is hardly alone on a team known for being selfless and generally self-effacing and usually among the top teams in assists.
The Bulls have a nice problem, which should serve them well. They have depth, size and versatility in the front court with the addition of Gasol and Mirotic. But it’s become a difficult balancing act at times for coach Tom Thibodeau.
Gasol doesn’t defend out aggressively on the pick and roll, though no one is perfect. Noah and Gibson can’t score 46 points. Mirotic is learning; defense and help defense come last. But not many 6-10 guys shoot threes like that. So Thibodeau remains in trial and error, adjusting according to the circumstances.
“It’s great size,” Thibodeau said Tuesday about playing Noah with Gasol, at least to start games. “What we do have to do is get everyone playing well together. That’s the important thing. If you’re looking at do they work well together, you also have to ask what’s happening with the ball. It’s not just them. Are we doing the proper things to direct and point the ball where it should go? Are the smalls coming at the bigs with speed? If we do go to help, are we getting the proper support behind the ball? There’s a lot going into it. They’ve all shown that they’re capable of playing well, mixing and matching. That’s what we need.”
Though Noah hasn’t been as much of an offensive threat this season the way he is used, he does connect regularly with Gasol on high low plays, like he did Monday, and still works well with the guards.
Remember, this is a very different Bulls team.
The Bulls frequently the last two seasons were playing five current, former and should be all-defense players together with Noah, Butler, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Gibson, the latter who would have been all-defense if the Bulls already didn’t have so many. You can’t substitute offensive players for them and expect to produce the same results.
So the Bulls will have to win differently, and games like Monday’s giving up 121 points and 59 percent shooting can happen.
Though they will happen less with more Noah.
There are all sorts of suggestions of changing lineups and rotations, Noah with Mirotic and Gibson with Gasol, Noah with Gibson more. It doesn’t really matter who starts as rotations change throughout the game and Thibodeau has used various closing lineups. It’s also why Thibodeau from the first day of training camp gave his leave-your-ego-at-the-door lecture because it was obvious sacrifices would have to be made, especially with the emergence of Mirotic, the minutes limitations and the subsequent injuries to Doug McDermott and now Mike Dunleavy.
“I've just got to keep working, keep getting after it,” Noah said Tuesday. “I'm feeling better and better. So I've got to keep working. I know our defense isn't very good right now. We've got to keep working at it. The energy wasn't very good the last couple of games. We know we can do it; we know we're capable. We've done it before.
“We've been scoring a lot of points, so my role is different,” agreed Noah. “But at the end of the day we've just got to find ways to win. It's not about me. It's about this team and finding ways to win ballgames. We've got to find ways to be more effective. We've won a lot of ballgames. I think it's still a work in progress. We can still get a lot better. I think the mindset could definitely be better going into games, especially against teams we're supposed to beat at home. Disappointing, but you know what, the games just keep coming. We have a tough test ahead of us (Wednesday) and it's on us to make it work.”
Noah may not be quite as capable of doing what he did previously because of circumstances or situations. But his identity represents the Bulls at their best
Success requires sacrifice; it requires more effort on the defensive end. You don’t have to be all-defense to close out harder, stunt and recover, get over screens and be quicker to help. It requires another pass, and then maybe another even when the play may be for you. It requires more support for the other guy in lieu of your individual acclaim.
It’s what Noah and his actions represent. It’s why Joakim Noah is the face of the Bulls, even if that face has a few wrinkles these days. But it still looks pretty good.