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How can the Bulls defense make up for the loss of Joakim Noah

Noah was great, can his replacements adequately fill in what was lost?

Brooklyn Nets v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It will be weird seeing Joakim Noah not in a Chicago Bulls uniform this season. Beyond being the team’s heart and soul, Noah was a stalwart defensively and could do almost anything they asked of him, easily the Bulls best defensive big man when he was healthy. We saw Chicago's defense take a slide after his season-ending shoulder injury and now we will see a full season of what Noah meant to this Bulls defense.

Bulls Confidential

(image from this Bulls Confidential post)

The first strength of Noah was his ability to protect the rim and alter shots while helping. With the exception of Jimmy Butler and E'Twaun Moore, the Bulls backcourt wasn't the best at staying in front of their man, giving up the most drives in the entire league. Due to this, Bulls big men had to come over and help at the rim a lot. Noah was one of the best at this. He averaged 1.0 blocks per game in his last season and 1.4 throughout his entire career in Chicago.

Last season, according to Nylon Calculus's Rim Protection data, Noah contest percentage (how frequently a player contests shots at the rim) of 24.0%. That was only second to Pau Gasol who led all Chicago PF/C's at 37.2%. Gasol's high percentage was due to the fact that was stuck under the rim and although he contested a lot of the shots, his interior defense was still sketchy and lacked effort at times.

Now both of those players are gone and it left a big hole in Chicago's defense. Thankfully for the Bulls, they acquired Robin Lopez in the Derrick Rose trade. Lopez had a contest percentage of about 33.8% and saved about a point per game (0.97) last season.

But what separated Noah beyond rim protection was that at his best he had a unique ability to guard multiple positions off a switch on the pick and roll.

Although injuries had certainly slowed him down, Noah still used a good defensive stance to help himself stay in front of smaller guys when the Bulls switch. A lot of the time it was the fact that Noah seemed to get more pumped when matched up against a guard. Noah puts in a lot of effort on the defensive end and it seems to pick up in those situations. Outside of Taj Gibson, there isn't a Bulls big man that you will feel similarly confident in when it comes to switching on the pick and roll.

But Noah's biggest strength on defense was his rebounding. In his last seven seasons with Chicago, Noah averaged at least 7 rebounds per game and averaged double digits in four of those years. He is relentless on the boards and will battle each time a shot goes towards the rim. Rebounding is the best and most common way to terminate an offensive possession, and given the Bulls defense the past two seasons, they cannot allow their opponent extra chances.

In the 2013-14 season, Noah's last healthy one (the season of Jimmer!!), he averaged 11.3 rebounds with 7.7 coming from the defensive end. He had defensive rebounding percentage (percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while they were on the court) over 20% for eight of his nine career seasons. That includes a DRB% of 24.3 in 2013-14.

Lopez's career rebounding per-game average is 5.4, and his 7.3 that he averaged last year came with a total rebound percentage of 14.8% with a DRB of 16.2%. But the Knicks as a team boarded well when he was on the court, and this SBNation analysis showed how Lopez would do the dirty work of boxing out others, helping the team’s defense while not necessarily getting the rebound himself. It’s something he’s done well his whole career.

Joakim Noah meant a lot to this Bulls team, especially on defense. Robin Lopez should be solid but not as dominant, and backup Cristiano Felicio is slowly getting better defensively but he is not up there. And at his health and age, the ‘13-14 Noah likely wasn’t ever coming back either, but the Bulls do need someone to fill in that gap, or else their defense could be near the bottom of the league again.