When Joakim Noah left Chicago in the summer of 2016 to return to his hometown, many Bulls fans were hoping just as hard as he was that the twilight of his career would be spent helping the New York Knicks return to relevancy.
So far, things could not have gone more wrong.
The 4-year, $72M contract he signed as a then-31-year-old coming off of season-ending shoulder surgery, with a history of foot problems, raised red flags immediately. He wasted no time offending Knicks fans by skipping a team dinner at a military base due to his pacifist views, and while that was blown out of proportion, it started things off in a negative way with his new organization. His 5 ppg and 8.8 rpg averages weren’t nearly enough to earn back the support of his hometown fans, and his 2016-17 season ended in February after just 46 games due to knee surgery.
The Knicks are on pace to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season, and Noah has been, literally, a complete non-factor. He’s played in just 7 games all season, averaging less than 6 minutes of playing time in those contests. Things have apparently bottomed out, leaving both Noah and the Knicks with few options.
In a mutual decision, Joakim Noah will not be back with the Knicks until further notice, a team official says. Knicks are hoping to trade him before the deadline, but that seems highly unlikely.
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) February 2, 2018
The trade deadline has come and gone, and Noah is still a Knick. His basketball future has never been more in doubt.
Noah’s quick demise has hit Bulls fans hard. He was a major name and building block for the organization for almost a decade. He epitomized ‘Chicago tough’ on the court while donating millions of dollars and volunteering countless hours off of it.
His fiery personality and unlimited supply of passion related to Bulls fans in a way that made him an instant fan favorite. One thing that sometimes happens to fan favorites in cities with fanbases as large and passionate as Chicago’s, is they receive labels that they don’t deserve.
When describing Noah, the phrases “really good player”,”elite defender” and “core centerpiece” were thrown around like pennies into a wishing well, when they should’ve been, to steal a phrase from another Chicago icon whose legacy should be questioned *cough* Mike Ditka *cough*, thrown around like manhole covers.
I know that this is going to be a tough sell, many of you reading this probably love Noah with a capital L. But with a deeper look at the numbers and circumstances of Noah’s nine seasons in Chicago, along with some video reminders of how physically incompetent he could be at times, maybe your mind can be changed.
For starters, there is more data and analytical information at our fingertips than ever before. Organizations are putting much more stock into new age statistics and metrics then they are stats such as blocks per game or steals per game. The new age defensive analytical data… loved Noah in his prime! It’s a major reason why local praise of him seeped into the minds of the national media, ultimately earning him a Defensive Player Of The Year award and top 5 MVP finish in 2014.
Two primary statistics used by front offices to evaluate a player’s defensive performance and value are Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares. These statistics are referenced regularly in support of Noah’s performance.
First off, it’s important to know that these metrics tend to favor interior defense/rim protection over perimeter defense. So elite perimeter defenders such as Lebron James and Jimmy Butler typically rank below the top 7-10 ranked defensive centers. Secondly, during Noah’s first three seasons, he finished in the top 20 in Defensive Rating once, and never reached the top 20 in defensive win shares.
In 2010-11, defensive guru Tom Thibedeau became the Bulls head coach, and Noah’s defensive numbers soared. Over the next four seasons, Noah ranked 3rd, 4th, 7th and 1st in the NBA in Defensive Rating. He fell outside of the top 20 in win shares in 2011(only because he missed 34 games), but finished 6th, 11th, and 1st the next three seasons.
So, looking at those numbers, how could one argue that he was an overrated defender? Well, by looking at where some of his less-heralded teammates ranked on those lists, the statistics in question become much more… questionable.
Carlos Boozer: Defensive Mastermind?
Carlos Boozer, who joined the Bulls the same year Thibedeau did and played four years in Chicago, is widely considered the worst defender of the Tom Thibedeau era by fans, the media and observing coaches.
If you watch that video from the 1:25-2:20 mark, it’s not hard to understand why Chicagoans emphatically agree that Boozer was a defensive liability.
However, according to the numbers, the same numbers you’ve been told with absolute certainty prove Noah to be a defensive wizard, Boozer’s defense was dominant.
From 2011-2014, Boozer finished 7th, 2nd(two spots ahead of Noah), 19th, and 9th in the NBA in Defensive Rating.
In Defensive Win Shares, Boozer finished 19th, 5th, 13th, and 13th.
The biggest difference between Carlos Boozer’s time and Joakim Noah’s time in Chicago is simply fan perception. Boozer occasionally suffered from mental breakdowns and effort lapses, as every player does throughout the course of an 82 game season. However, according to Bulls fans, he was not allowed to have those lapses after signing a 5 year, $80M contract as a consolation prize after the Bulls whiffed on Lebron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh in free agency.
Joakim Noah, on the other hand, was drafted by the Bulls, praised the way the city welcomed him and truly, sincerely cared about playing and winning in Chicago. I mean, just listen to this interview he gave in January of 2014:
“When I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. (It’s) cold outside — when he sees me driving by, he’s excited. You know what I mean? He’s excited. He’s like, ‘All right. Let’s go Bulls! Get it done tonight!’ I feel like I play for that guy.Like when I look at the top of the arena, and I look up top and I see teams call timeout, and I see the guy who looks this big and he’s up cheering up and down, jumping up and down, that’s the guy I play for. To me, that’s what this city represents. There’s a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city, and I feel like when I play basketball I want people to be proud of their team.”
Who doesn’t want to root for that guy?
As Boozer was constantly ridiculed for effort lapses, the roof almost blew off the United Center anytime Noah hit the floor chasing down a loose ball. That crowd noise was typically led by Noah’s exuberant reactions to his own mundane accomplishments, with his celebrations often looking less coordinated than a three-legged baby giraffe trying to sprint.
It didn’t matter if half the time he was on the floor, it was diving after a pass that he dropped after being set up perfectly for a layup, or that he had to dive because he wasn’t fast enough to outrun an opposing player that he had a 10-foot head start on. He showcased effort every single night and he did so passionately. That’s all you really need to do to become an overrated athlete in this city. Just ask a random fan on the street what they think of Andrew Shaw, Joe Crede, Mike Fontenot or Dane Sanzenbacher. The reviews will likely be glowing.
The biggest difference between Noah and the athletes I just named is that there are legitimate defensive metrics that show Noah did things on the basketball court that few others could. However, unfortunately for Noah’s sake, the surprising names of former Bulls atop the Defensive Rating list don’t end with Carlos Boozer.
Joakim Noah’s career Defensive Rating in Chicago (according to Basketball-Reference, rounded to the nearest whole number per 100 possessions) was 100, which is well above league average.
In 2011 and 2012, Noah’s backup center was Omer Asik. His Defensive Ratings? 97 in 2011 and 92(!) in 2012. He was limited to less than 14mpg in his time with the Bulls due to his severe offensive limitations, but you could argue he was at least as good defensively as Noah was, if not better.
Another big man for the 2011 Bulls, Kurt Thomas, made 34 starts at center when Noah was sidelined with foot problems. In 22.7 mpg over 52 games, the 38-year old Thomas posted a Defensive Rating of 98. His best rating since 2001.
When Thomas and Asik left, Chicago native Nazr Mohammed (in his age 36 & 37 seasons) became Noah’s backup for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In a minimal role, he posted Defensive Ratings of 100 and 97. He hadn’t posted a Defensive Rating of 100 or lower since 2006.
In 2015, Joakim Noah was moved to a more perimeter oriented role defensively so that free agent acquisition Pau Gasol could play the role of rim protector. Noah posted his worst defensive rating in 6 years (102) while Gasol posted the 19th best Defensive Rating in the league (100.6) and finished 5th in the league in Defensive Win Shares. It was the second best Defensive Rating of Gasol’s career, and his Defensive Rating the season before in LA was 108.
See the pattern?
Thibedeau implemented a defensive system that allowed any center with a pulse to play *elite* defense. Take one premiere perimeter defender (Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler) and a point guard that can provide consistent ball pressure (pre-ACL tear Derrick Rose,Kirk Hinrich), sprinkle in a few young, energetic athletes (Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson), a spray-painted goofball that eats rebounds, and any 7-footer willing to listen to orders, and you got an elite NBA defense courtesy of Tom Thibedeau.
From an offensive standpoint, Noah’s career production is pretty meh, averaging 8.9 points with a 49.0 eFG% over his career, with the majority of his shot attempts coming within 10 feet of the rim. On top of his forgettable statistics, he was quite possibly the least aesthetically pleasing offensive player to wear a Bulls uniform in the post-Jordan era.
After all of the numbers, circumstances and highlights that we’ve broken down thus far, there might not be anything more damning to his all-star reputation than his postseason performance.
To be fair, in the only game 7 he’s ever played in, game 7 of the Bulls 2013 first-round series against Brooklyn, Noah had arguably the best game of his career. it was on the road, and the Bulls were down two starters, including their best player Luol Deng. Noah scored 24 points on 12-17 shooting, with 14 rebounds and 6 blocks. It was an outstanding performance that continued the Bulls season, and a great example of the effort and desire to win that Noah played with every single game.
He also provided Bulls fans with this memorable play in his first career playoff series back in 2009.
He had some moments on the big stage, and those moments will be remembered fondly, but over a 60 game sample size, the numbers show he was pretty mediocre when it mattered most.
The one thing he did really well on a consistent basis was rebound, averaging over 11 a game in his postseason career. But he’s averaged just under 10ppg, with an eFG% of 46.5 and an Offensive Rating of 109 in the postseason. For context, the NBA league average for eFG% and Offensive Rating this season are 52.1 and 108.3 respectively. For all that he (supposedly) does on the defensive end, the NBA is an offense first league, and he simply did not provide enough of it.
In his two all-star seasons (2013 and 2014), he posted postseason Defensive Ratings 7 full points worse in the postseason than he did in the regular season. His 106 DRtg over 12 games in the 2013 playoffs is a below league average number, and his 2014 DRtg of 103 in the Bulls 5 game first round series is a far cry from the league-leading number that he posted during the regular season.
No matter how often Noah spastically waved his hands or shuffled his feet, there was nothing he could do to that series to slow down Nene. Nene is a good offensive the player, but he’s not a guy talented enough to routinely pants a top-tier defender the way he routinely pantsed Noah that series.
At the end of the day, Chicago is not New York or Philadelphia, our fanbase isn’t programmed to hate you until you prove us wrong. Chicago embraces their athletes, roots for their athletes, and will welcome you with open arms for the rest of your life as long as you’re appreciative of our support, especially if you win.
Noah embraced Chicago and then some, and he will always be loved in Chicago because of it, as he should be in the way Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich are loved.
However, he’s mistakenly loved the way Chicago stars such as Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Mark Buehrle, Kerry Wood, and Marian Hossa are loved. That’s a category in which he simply does not belong.
Joakim Noah is a part of Chicago sports history, he’ll be remembered forever. When reminiscing about him and his Bulls past, let’s try to remember him for what he actually was, instead of the faux star we turned him into.