Joakim Noah is still the emotional and spiritual leader of the Bulls. No one is questioning whether or not Joakim Noah is playing every game like it's his last. However, he's not a great basketball player anymore. And frankly, what we've seen from him this season should be very disconcerting moving forward.
In October, it was reported Noah's surgically repaired left knee would be problematic all season. And it turns out that report was true. Although it was rarely acknowledged -- people were too distracted by Derrick Rose's awful three-pointers, Jimmy Butler's emergence, and a skilled Spaniard who replaced the worst free agent signing in franchise history -- anybody who closely watched the Bulls from November to February could see Noah was not himself. It was very hush-hush, only a few whispers here and there. The justification was that Noah's a notoriously slow starter, and that he had to familiarize himself playing alongside the likes of another 7-footer. Jo was given the benefit of the doubt, a doubt that he'd certainly earned.
We're in April now, though. We're five games away from the regular season being over. The talk around town is again blanketed by Derrick Rose returning (HE'S BACK) and preemptive playoff match-up speculation. Barely anyone has taken notice of Noah, aside from when he achieves another passing milestone. Noah's passing ability has been well-documented (I've written about when 'Point Noah' does work, and also when it doesn't), so I figure we'll start by debunking myths there.
Fact: Joakim Noah is an exceptional passer who has equally excellent vision, feel and touch.
Myth: Chicago's offense works better when Noah operates in the high post. Since Derrick Rose left the lineup 20 games ago, with the offense running almost exclusively through Noah, the Bulls are posting an offensive efficiency rating of 103.1 which is good for middle-of-the-pack when pitted up against the rest of the league. Prior to Rose's injury, when the offense was running almost exclusively through Rose, the Bulls posted a 105.4 offensive efficiency rating which is a top-ten mark.
Fact: Joakim Noah's passing numbers are indeed historic. In all likelihood, Noah's going to finish with back-to-back seasons averaging at least 4.5 assists per game. That's only been done by about ten centers all-time, including greats such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Myth: Noah's passing offsets his lack of scoring. On the list of great big man passers, Noah is second-to-last in points per game.
Noah's lack of scoring is basically the entire problem, actually.
This season, no starter playing at least 30 minutes per game is scoring fewer points per game than Noah. Noah's field goal percentage (52.8 percent) on shots at the rim: career-low. Noah's number of dunks (25): career-low. In fact, his previous career-low was 52, so that's a substantial drop. Noah's free throw shooting (61.9 percent): yep, you guessed it, career-low. Noah's never shot lower than 67 percent from the charity stripe before this season and he's been above 70 percent in each of the last five, so I have no idea what's going on there.
Basically, Point Noah is more an illusion of good offense due to its unconventional nature. At its best, running the offense through Jo in the high-post produces unique highlights, and is a slightly above average regular season offense. At its worst, Point Noah burns precious seconds off the shot clock by having a player who can't shoot hold the ball for far too long, and we've also seen it be completely shut down by the Washington Wizards in the postseason last year.
Personally, I do like when the Bulls run their offense through Noah so long as Nikola Mirotic is in the game with him. However, Noah and Mirotic have played 670 fewer minutes together than Noah and Pau Gasol have this season.
And this is where things start to get tricky, as Noah and Gasol are an awkward pairing that seem satisfactory on paper. Like, one would think that since both bigs are tremendous passers, the floor would open up for Chicago when they play together. The problem with that, though, is that Noah can't shoot, which means you see stuff like this:
And also like these two instances where teams will completely disregard him in pick-and-roll:
For the season, the two-man lineup of Noah and Gasol is producing an uninspiring 103.3 points per 100 possessions. Whereas the Mirotic and Noah pairing is generating a brilliant 106.6 points per 100 possessions.
And unfortunately, things don't get much better for Noah once we start looking at the defensive side of the ball. Individually, Noah's advanced metrics -- which, to be sure, are far from flawless -- indicate he's fallen off defensively this season. A season ago (remember, being Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA first team?), he was worth a staggering 6.6 defensive win shares. This season he's only worth a pedestrian 2.9. He's posting a career-low block rate (2.9 percent) and a career-low in blocks per 100 possessions. Opponents are shooting 51.8 percent at the rim against Noah this season compared to a healthy 47.2 percent merely a year ago, and they're only shooting about a shot less per game on average.
The biggest issue for Noah on defense has been his minutes played at the power forward position (18 percent according to Basketball Reference, and I'm not saying that they're wrong, but it sure seems like it should be higher than 18 percent. Maybe statistical noise due to Noah being listed as the center in the starting lineup?). Noah's not patrolling the lane, frantically contesting shots, then sprinting back around to corral rebounds like he used to. Instead, Noah's often -- well, the smart teams do this -- put him in positions like this:
Teams that can space the floor force Gasol to guard pick-and-roll, thus putting Noah in a totally compromising position: if Jo over-helps the drive then his man is left wide open, and if he sticks too close to his man then the lane is clear for a layup.
After the Cavs game, Noah cited a lack of familiarity, which is a bit concerning since it's April:
I think I helped off Kevin Love a few times when I should not have. I’m so used to always being the help guy; when I am playing those stretch fours I have to do a better job of staying at home with my man.
Noah's poor play on both offense and defense (bad shooting around the rim, fewer blocks) can be attributed to his lower body injury history. Plus, he's on the wrong side of 30 and is going to amass 2000 total regular season minutes played for the third straight season. But his flaws might be mitigated if he were playing his natural position at the center spot. Pau and Jo aren't a well-suited pair, which isn't Pau's fault as much as the organization's for not foreseeing that they had a player (Mirotic) who was ready to contribute, and on Tom Thibodeau for stubbornly sticking with those two and not breaking them up.
I'd much rather see Jo playing center and see Pau coming off the bench. However, I fail to see how Noah's decline can be entirely attributed to Pau's presence. It's simply not a binary issue nor is it a correct assertion to make. It's tough, man. Jo's just not the same player anymore. He's older, he's lost athleticism and he cannot score in any capacity whatsoever.
A return of Rose can always change the Bulls trajectory and ceiling. But Noah's decline, plus Thibs's refusal to break him and Pau apart more, is a problem that gives me difficulty in seeing this team getting out of the second round of the playoffs. If that's the disappointing result of this season, the Bulls then face some very difficult decisions regarding Noah's future not only for on the court next season, but also his looming free agency that following summer. If it were simple, no one would think twice about making Jo a life-long Bull. But his play this season has made an afterthought a real concern.