Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

The emotional leader

Despite a decrease in minutes, Joakim Noah is still the emotional centerpiece of the team

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By Sam Smith | 12.2.2015 | 10:10 a.m.

How excited for everyone else can a person be when they are not exactly excited about their own circumstances?

And that may be a pivotal and determining factor in this Bulls season.

“It has been very frustrating at times,” Joakim Noah was saying about his new reserve role after the Bulls Monday victory over the Spurs. “But I am blessed. It’s an unbelievable opportunity being able to play for the Chicago Bulls. Of course, sometimes…I’m a passionate player; I get frustrated. But at the end of the day I know it’s a blessing to play for this franchise.

“I have to work on my frustration to be a better example on my teammates, no question about it,” Noah continued. “I’m not going to lie. There has been a lot going on this year. There’s been a lot of adversity for me. I have to be better at being a good leader for this team sometimes.”

The Bulls Wednesday host the Denver Nuggets following the emotional win over the tough Spurs. The Bulls are 10-5, a surprisingly good start given Derrick Rose’s orbital surgery, the injuries to his primary backups, the extended absence of Mike Dunleavy and the constant changes in the rotation and lineup with a new coach staff.

One result has been moving the 30-year-old Noah for the first time in his career to the bench as a backup center. It’s not demotion for punishment sake, though obviously more a way to keep the gangly seven footer who proudly answers to the nickname sticks in his natural center position given the Bulls also have fellow All-Star center Pau Gasol.

Coincidently or not, the result of the diminished playing time off the bench has been a career low statistical season for Noah, averaging 3.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and shooting 36.5 percent and 29.4 percent on free throws. Noah had probably his best game of the season Monday with eight points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and a team high plus-10 on the plus/minus chart.

It’s been a delicate balancing act for freshman coach Fred Hoiberg, who has mostly handled it deftly.

But whether coincidently or not despite the encouraging start to the season in the standings, the Bulls too often have been a team that’s looked somewhat uncertain, even disinterested. Even in some wins, though not against the top teams like the Cavaliers, Thunder and Spurs.

Anyone can get up for those sorts of games, mostly on national TV.

It’s the rest of the season that makes a winner, and that’s where Noah has been as vital as anyone on the roster.

He’s not going to draw defensive attention like Rose or score like Jimmy Butler or Gasol.

But Noah brings an unusual skill that is rare among sports professionals and one every bit as vital--even if unable to be categorized--than the stars who score and rebound.

Noah leads; more importantly, he leads with enthusiasm and emotion, a Pied Piper of passion of the sort you see on most successful teams.

It’s been obviously difficult for Noah this season. Though he’s tried valiantly, usually the only player up and standing on the bench during games, though somewhat forlornly at times given his scattered playing time.

“I want to play the whole game,” Noah late Monday night admitted of, after all, a common refrain among players. “I never want to come out. But I understand this is my role now and I have to accept it and do the best I can with what I have. Overall, we just beat a very good team. There’s been games I played like crap. I have to keep building on this and getting better and play confident basketball and I think it will definitely be a plus for this team.”

Noah is a plus for any team; even minus the numbers.

But more so for the Bulls than most teams.

It’s an unusually quiet group of people. Guys of high character and supportive of one another; good company and a comfortable traveling party. But few are particularly emotional, especially externally.

It’s more important for sporting success than one can calculate.

It doesn’t factor into analytic formulas, but you can see it with successful teams.

The Golden State Warriors have it in the face of several players, especially Draymond Green. You may not like LeBron James, but his enthusiasm with his teammates and joy for the game is infectious. Basketball is in many respects a game of emotion; and the more emotional, certainly if controlled, has an edge.

Several years ago, I tried to determine why home teams tend to get more foul calls in NBA games. I heard the usual guesses about officials influenced by the home crowd. But what resonated most was an analysis Phil Jackson had prepared. He pointed out how basketball is a game of energy; like Mike D’Antonio always said, the ball finds energy. That’s what the home crowd can do. It infuses their players with energy, and then you become the aggressor. And the aggressor tends to be awarded the fouls by initiating contact.

Half those games are on the road; many times the home folks are quiet if the game is not going their team’s way. Often the players have to holding up those foam fingers. Noah over the years has delivered it with the best of them.

Remember Noah standing up to James; to all of Cleveland. In the face of Paul Pierce and the Celtics. The Bulls didn’t win all those series, but Noah helped make them ultra competitive without scoring 35 points.

There’s another element to the enthusiasm certain players can bring. It’s joy, a joie de vivre, a French expression of a zest for life and happiness.

It’s been there in Noah like with no one else among the Bulls, perhaps ever. Even few in society.

It cannot be quantified, but it infuses a team with the sort of spirit that can lead to grabbing that loose ball or rebound, those so called little things not analyzed which can often decide a game that generally comes down to a few key possessions.

You basically always see it with the best teams, from Larry Bird waving that towel to Magic Johnson’s unabated joy to Isiah Thomas’ little dance steps. Sometimes talent is just enough, like when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar carried the Bucks. But he needed Magic to be a multiple champion. Don’t discount the machinations of Stephen Curry and the explosions of glee among Warriors’ players on the bench.

It wasn’t Noah’s job; it’s been his lifestyle.

But it’s been difficult for Noah to continue in that unabated way even as everyone knows what it means to the team.

There was the knee surgery in the summer of 2014, a difficult last season, and now the role and rotation changes and less production. The shot, never picturesque, seems broken, the uncertainty greater than ever. Then came not Monday blahs but highs.

“Jo was awesome,” Hoiberg said about Noah’s play against the Spurs. “Fun to see him making shots, making plays, see his teammates cheering for him on the bench when he made that big crossover play to the rim, rebounding the ball, defending. Jo was a huge part in stuffing the stat sheet; he did everything for us.

“He’s our emotional leader out there,” agreed Hoiberg. “Bringing great energy night in and night out. Doesn’t matter the circumstance, whether on the bench cheering for his teammates or out there making plays. Jo has been a starter in this league, been an All Star in this league, Defensive Player of the Year in this league and he’s had a lot of great moments for us, helped us win a lot of games this season and he’ll continue to do for us.”

Noah will, though the Bulls depend on him for so much more. But you can’t tell a coworker to be happy all the time when he is getting a lesser role. Or can you? Noah is the ultimate team player, always leading the locker room mixing and official designator of nick names. So his teammates feel his pain.

“Jo is like a brother to me,” said Rose. “He works hard, one of the hardest workers in the league. You always go to tell him to get off the court after shoot around; usually players go home after shoot around. He’ll stay there until like 2 o’clock just working on his game. It shows the dedication, it shows the younger players how hard you have to work, the work ethic you have to have to stay in this league this long. I would think it would be hard for anyone (coming off the bench). His attitude didn’t change. He’s been a great teammate. He’s very professional about it. That’s what you need.”

Added Butler: “Everybody knows Jo is a high spirited, very emotional guy. So when he’s playing at a high level you can tell he’s having fun out there and playing hard; everybody is clicking. I think that’s a talent to be that energetic every single night; and show it. A lot of guys can’t do that, but that’s what Jo brings to the table and a lot of people hate it.

“Of course it’s hard for him,” Butler acknowledged about Noah now averaging about 20 minutes per game. “But Jo is willing to do whatever it takes for this team to win. That’s why he’s one of our leaders and coming off that bench with the young guys he’s showing them what it takes for the whole team to successful. You have to make sacrifices and still play as hard as if you are a starter.”

Of course, Butler is correct. Noah knows that and Hoiberg is sensitive to the circumstances. But to play with more speed and spacing and shooting, Noah playing with Gasol like last season isn’t ideal, though they do play together at times. And the Bulls do gain an edge with tough defenders and veterans like Noah and Taj Gibson coming off the bench. Great teams are also deep teams.

But great teams also are infused with that animation and vitality that someone like Noah represents and demonstrates. It adds to points if not in his column. His value cannot be underestimated. The team cannot afford him having horrible, no good, very bad days.

So as he dresses slowly after the game, he lets out his pony tail and even in the hot locker room as he always does covers his head with a stocking cap or hood before talking with reporters. He’s heard the questions many times this season. He’s likely discussed them with himself much more often. He knows who he needs to be.

“I just try to focus on my improvement,” said Noah. “It’s all I can do. I think the team is in the right place. I’ve always been a team player and it’s not going to change now.”

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