[UPDATE by your friendly BullsBlogger, 03/05/14 12:53 PM CST: coincidentally timely piece of information from Grantland's Zach Lowe, who reports that Noah is due a $500k bonus if he makes 1st team All-NBA. Reminder that the team does include a center spot, and it's voted on by broadcasters. Noah earning this bonus would put the Bulls over the tax threshold for this season in spite of their careful avoidance. ]
Monday night's game in Brooklyn was a major dud, but prior to that, the Bulls had been playing their best ball of the season. Nine wins in 10 games, the typical elite defense and some surprisingly efficient offense. It has been fun to watch the Bulls again!
There have been plenty of contributors to this great stretch, but of course, the biggest one of them all is Joakim Noah. Mr. Stick Stickity himself has been brilliant since the Luol Deng trade, basically willing the Bulls out of the depths and right into the hunt for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
For the last several years, Noah has been best known for his defense and rebounding. Noah's ability to defend pick-and-roll makes him a perfect fit to man the middle of Tom Thibodeau's scheme, and his rebounding on both ends has always been valuable. His offensive rebounding is especially useful, as he creates so many extra possessions for a team that often strains to score points.
But what has made Noah stand out this year is his passing. With Derrick Rose out, the Bulls run a ton of offense through Noah, and his precision passing makes him extremely dangerous in the high post. The Knicks found out the hard way on Sunday, as Noah and the Bulls carved them up over and over again on backdoor cuts. It of course helped that the Knicks have basically phoned in the season, but still.
Noah's play has certainly not gone unnoticed, and he's starting to get a ton of pub nationally. Grantland's Zach Lowe just named him starting center and co-captain of his "Marc Gasol All-Star Team," which basically consists of the non-obvious players Lowe loves watching the most (i.e. no LeBron or KD). Lowe calls Noah an "inspiration" and talks a bit about that exquisite passing:
But there is something very right with this team and its culture, and among the players, that begins with Noah's selfless excellence. Chicago is 19-9 since the Deng trade, and its mechanical offense has actually scored at an above-average rate over the team's current 9-2 stretch.
Noah has been one of the game's great big-man passers for years, but what he's doing now is ridiculous. He's averaging about six assists per game over the last two months, and for the season, he has assisted on 23 percent of Chicago's baskets while on the floor. Noah would become just the 11th player 6-foot-10 or taller to record an assist rate that high, per Basketball-Reference. He's zipping the ball to backdoor cutters, pitching it to guys popping off screens, and lofting Taj Gibson pinpoint high-low dishes. He might be Chicago's best transition ball handler.
Lowe concluded by stating Noah should be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year, and that he also should possibly be considered for the lower spots on five-man MVP ballots. Bill Simmons agreed with Lowe on a recent "B.S. Report," stating that Noah would be fourth on his MVP ballot.
Simmons was really effusive in his praise of Noah, also saying the big man should be the first-team All-NBA center, and that it's "not even a debate." Considering Dwight Howard is still living and playing his best basketball since his Orlando days, I think that's a bit of a bold statement. But Noah should definitely at least be in the conversation for that first-team All-NBA spot.
On a brief aside, Simmons and Lowe continued the Taj Gibson for Sixth Man of the Year campaign, with both guys saying Gibson should win the award. They also talked briefly about the Bulls in general, and although a second-round exit was predicted, it was emphasized that the Heat or Pacers would catch some hell in that second round.
But back to Noah. ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell had a big "Should Noah receive some MVP votes?" column on Tuesday, with quotes from both Tom Thibodeau and Carmelo Anthony. Melo called Noah the "quarterback" of the Bulls, while Thibs obviously gushed about his All-Star:
"So it's all the things he's doing for the team," Thibodeau said. "And I think he's starting to be recognized for that. And guys love playing with a guy like that. It makes the game fun. It's about winning and his defense, he helps on defense, he guards his own guy, he rebounds the ball, he'll get it out quick. And then he wants to make the right play on offense. I think his screening is much improved, his rolling to the basket is much improved. And his ability -- he's always had good vision, he's always been a good passer, but he's making much quicker decisions and that's probably his biggest area of improvement."
Finally, we get to Steve Kerr's tweet/comments. As the Bulls were finishing off their demolition of the Knicks, Kerr dropped this bomb on Twitter:
If I had to pick 1 player to play a Game 7 on the road, I'd take LeBron 1st, KD 2nd and Joakim Noah 3rd. Noah is an amazing player/winner.— Steve Kerr (@SteveKerrTNT) March 2, 2014
Now this seems kind of crazy, although Noah did have an outrageous Game 7 on the road against the Nets last year. 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks on a bum foot. Pretty great stuff. I still don't know if I agree with Kerr's sentiment, but he made his case on Chicago sports radio Tuesday:
"I think the point is the first two are really obvious," Kerr said Tuesday on "The Carmen & Jurko Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "The next one is pretty hard to pick and there's a lot of guys you can make a great argument for: Paul George, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. But the reason I like Noah is that in a playoff game it's all about possessions. You want to get extra possessions because usually games come down to two or three plays here and there. If you can get a few extra possessions it's huge.
"I just feel like for what Noah does at both ends of the floor -- rim protection defensively, pick-and-roll defense in an era where you're facing 50 picks-and-rolls a night with incredible guards, switching out on the guards, staying in front of them and forcing tough shots and the assists at the other end, running the offense through him and the offensive boards and the touch around the basket and his ability to score.
Kerr went on to talk about the fire and the passion and all that good stuff, and while those attributes can sometimes be overrated, they aren't when it comes to Noah. It truly has been inspirational how Noah has lifted up the Bulls this season, and while I can't concur with Kerr's original statement, I absolutely do believe the eccentric big man deserves some MVP recognition this year as long as things don't go down the drain.