Joakim Noah loves the hate.
In a recent photo-shoot and interview with GQ Magazine, the Bulls’ Center talked about how much he loved being the ‘villain’, being the scorn of opposing fans. Through the seven years of his NBA career, Noah has made many enemies – from Boston to Miami and from Oklahoma City to Sacramento – all the while sticking true to his unconventional game.
But for Noah, it’s his friends – and not the enemies – that seem to matter even more than ever. Those friends are the colours, the team, the locker-room guys, and the city he represents. Those friends are the Bulls, his teammates, and the city of Chicago. And playing the best basketball of his career this season, Noah is making more new friends than ever.
The Bulls – finally loaded and healthy at the start of the season – were supposed to be one of the favourites in the East this year. Then Derrick Rose went down (again) and left the future of the team in jeopardy. Facing a decision to choose another season in the NBA’s mid-tier or an opportunity to rebuild, the Bulls traded All Star (and Noah’s close friend) Luol Deng to the Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum (who was dropped days after the trade) and draft picks. The aftermath was that the Bulls lost a core member of their team for nothing but the future hope of a star draft pick or a marquee free agent signing. It was a move that many believed was Chicago management’s way of throwing in the towel for the season, giving up their pursuit in the present for a better prospect for the future.
If this indeed was the ‘plan’, no one told Coach Thibodeau or the players.
Without Deng – and of course, without Rose – the Bulls went on a roll to become the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. Front and center to their success has been the phenomenal play of Noah, who is averaging career highs in points (12), rebounds (11.4) and assists (4.7) this season while being the team’s inspirational leader on and off the court and playing his usual brand of high-energy defense.
Thibodeau was always a coach who prioritized defense, while leaving the offensive side to his designated ‘offensive pivot’. That pivot used to be Derrick Rose, who won an MVP award in the progress in 2011. Without Rose, Deng took charge as the team’s versatile leader from the perimeter. Now, that pivot has moved further in, and Noah has come as close to playing ‘point-center’ in the league as we’ve seen in recent years. He is one of the league’s best passing big man, and without Deng, he has averaged about six assists a game. Against the Knicks recently, he logged a triple double with 14 assists, the most by a Center in 28 years! Now, the only players in the legendary Bulls’ uniform to have more triple doubles than him are called Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Perhaps there is no player who is able to dominate more on a nightly basis in the league today with an unconventional skill-set like Noah. He has talents of course, but it is his passion and hustle that fuel his talents even further. Noah has played his way into Defensive Player of the Year consideration and, if the Bulls keep winning, will even earn some lower MVP votes this season.
Despite having the worst offense in the NBA, the surprising Bulls have leaned on their elite defense to a 33-27 record for fourth place in the East. They have responded to adversity not by caving in but by counting on the next man to step up. Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, DJ Augustin, and Kirk Hinrich have all consistently stepped up to fill in the missing holes in the roster this season. And they revolve around their ultimate warrior – Noah – who has answered with his finest season yet. No matter who is on the floor with him, Noah has no ‘off’ switch.
Noah might enjoy the hate, the jeers, and boos, but if he keeps playing at this high level, there will be little to jeer at anymore. And like his friends back in Chicago, he’s only going to receive love wherever he plays.