Nobody quite knows what to make of Joakim Noah at this point in his career. Injuries hampered his play all of last season and especially in the playoffs.
Noah is supposedly healthy now, but his first preseason game showed that he is much closer to last year's version of himself than the All-NBA player he was two seasons ago.
There were reasons before last night that fans should have been optimistic about a Noah comeback year. He talked to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report about his high hopes following a healthy preseason:
"I'm excited. Last year I wasn't healthy. I feel a lot better this year. We have a new philosophy, new coach and all I worked on this summer was just getting back to moving the way I'm capable of moving.
If Noah really is totally healthy though, that might be an even worse sign for the Bulls than if he were still hurt. Noah played horribly last night and continued exhibiting the same types of problems that plagued him last year.
Maybe last year's version is just who Noah is at this point. If so, he and the Bulls are in for a very long season.
Finishing at the Rim
During last year's playoffs, Noah was so poor on offense that teams simply stopped guarding him. Even though Noah was wide open at the rim, he couldn't do anything to finish.
The Bucks picked up on this strategy in the first round of the playoffs against the Bulls. They would leave Noah wide open on pick and rolls because they knew he couldn't hurt them:
Noah had a chance to redeem himself in this first preseason game, a rematch against the Bucks. Jason Kidd again stuck to the strategy of letting Noah have his fair share of shots at the rim. Noah again couldn't finish a layup to save his life.
Noah wasn't always this bad on offense. He's been an underrated offensive player - he shoots a respectable 58% at the rim on his career and while his tornado jumper looks awful, he's able to convert it 37% of the time. Those numbers dropped to 52% at the rim and 33% on long 2's last year during the regular season, and fell again in the playoffs to a paltry 42% at the rim and 0% on jumpers.
Towards the end of last year, Noah refused to even attempt to shoot that wide open jumper. He had one jump shot attempt in 395 minutes of playoff basketball (he missed it).
Last night, I was hoping for a sign that Noah could return to his career shooting averages. Unfortunately, Noah continued his decline. He shot 0/4 on some easy bunnies at the rim:
His tip in attempts were also awful. He couldn't even hit the rim on two fairly easy putbacks.
As far as his jumpers go, Noah continued his trend last night of completely abandoning the shot. He didn't attempt a single shot outside the paint all night.
Noah's offensive line last night in 20 minutes was 0/4 (all on shots at the rim) with 4 turnovers and 1 assist. That won't come even close to cutting it if the Bulls are going to have a chance at something this year.
Way too Passive on Offense
Noah also displayed a passivity on offense that was hurting the team. He has a tendency now to overpass instead of taking shots within 5 feet. When he grabs offensive rebounds under the basket, he is extremely hesitant to try to take those layups:
When Noah catches passes in the flow of the offense, his passivity is even worse. Last night, even when Noah caught the ball on cuts to the rim with no defender near him, he eschewed wide open layup attempts in favor of passing the ball:
At one point in last night's contest, Noah called for the ball with a defender nowhere near him. A guard, 6' 6" Rashard Vaughn, came over on a weak contest. Noah should have dunked the ball here but he pump faked and was bailed out by a good cut from E'Twaun Moore.
Noah needs to look to score.
He's never been an offensive powerhouse, but he was at least a decent finisher throughout his career. His shot attempts have been rapidly declining since the start of last season and his free throw shooting has also plummeted in the 2nd half of last season and the playoffs. It's clear that he has a lack of confidence in being able to score, and he MUST resolve that to become a useful player again.
Another big problem that Noah had last year completely unrelated to his lower leg injuries was that he was unable to catch passes cleanly. Noah did not struggle nearly as much with this early in his career, and it is puzzling why he suddenly developed a tendency to bobble the ball last year.
When Noah dribbles now, he will oftentimes get stripped. It happened twice last night:
He also struggles to catch passes in traffic off cuts to the basket
Noah was once one of the best passing hubs in the Bulls' offense. He put up gaudy assist numbers when Derrick Rose was out and was the main decision-maker with the ball. However, in the playoffs and this first preseason game, he hasn't been able to control the ball cleanly, whether off passes or off the dribble. If he wants to return to form, he needs to regain the elite ball control that he showed in previous years.
Still Elite Rebounding
Despite all of his problems last year, Noah still provided a lot of value with his offensive rebounding. He was among the league leaders at 3.3 offensive boards per game, and that number went up to 3.8/gm during the playoffs.
Last night, Noah proved again that he can put his scoring problems aside and still board the hell out of the ball. He grabbed 7 offensive rebounds in only 20 minutes of play.
The problem with Noah's offensive rebounding though is that he is sacrificing so much of the rest of his game to focus solely on boxing out for rebounds. He completely avoids looking for opportunities to score in favor of getting better rebounding position.
There's a place in the league for guys that can only rebound on offense, but Noah can be so much more than Reggie Evans. He needs to be able to at least keep defenses moderately honest when he's wide open to truly help the team.
Last night was only the first step in a long journey, but it was a step in the wrong direction - a direction Noah has been stumbling towards for the past year.