The NBA Gods overwhelmingly voted Joakim Noah as Defensive Player of the Year, rewarding the Chicago big man for anchoring another Tom Thibodeau defensive masterpiece. Did the right guy win? It’s always tough to know with these awards, so let’s not dwell too much on whether Roy Hibbert (second) or DeAndre Jordan (third) deserved it more – you could make cases for dozens of players with appropriate juggling of stats. Instead, let’s take some time to give Joakim a little shine (and put his Game 1 shredding by Nene Sunday night down as an anomaly).
Despite giving a slew of minutes to Carlos Boozer, Chicago had the second best defense this season, restricting opponents to 43% shooting (for comparison, the Pacers were first at 42.0% and Utah was last at 47.3%). Coach Thibs is well known for his defensive schemes, but, as Kobe has reminded us, this means nothing without execution. Noah has executed at near-perfect levels this season on the defensive end. In addition to his already well-known energy, hustle and nous for getting his hands on the basketball, he has reached new heights with his game-reading and decision-making.
Great defensive players generally make the right decision on where to move on pick-and-rolls – Noah always does; great defensive players generally end up in the right place when helping out on a teammate’s blown assignment – Noah always does. This mix of passion, hustle and defensive basketball IQ is potent, and we’ve seen it all come together this year with impressive results.
The above graph is one metric revealing Noah’s worth – he leads all traditional big men (where “traditional” is defined as guys who averaged over 8.5 rebounds per game) in total distance covered this season, per NBA.com. This shows both how he has managed to stay on the floor for long periods and just how much ground he covers on defense (he isn’t getting those miles on fast-break plays like Blake and DeAndre – the Bulls are fifth-last in fast break points).
Watching Noah on defense is a joy for us guys who love playing it in pick up games. In one possession you’ll routinely see him fight through a pick, disrupt the guard coming around it, hustle back to his man, provide pressure on the weak side, place himself perfectly to thwart a last-gasp layup attempt and then secure the rebound.
All this technical analysis of his game, of course, fails to account for the emotional edge he also gives his teammates. He is a natural leader, which we all saw back in his dual National Championship-winning Florida days. The Bulls should be commended for recognizing this team-oriented, win-at-all-costs mentality at the 2007 draft, while other teams focused on a perceived lack of power and a shaky shooting mechanic.* Whether he got this competitive spirit from his multi-talented father Yannick, or developed it on his lonesome, here’s what simply can’t be denied. The guy never takes a play off, and inspires his teammates to compete in a similar vein (even Boozer, from time to time).
So, let’s give it up for the big guy. In spite of his popularity with the ladies, it’s hard to hate on Noah. Anyone who gives that much of a damn about being the best he can be deserves all the respect he can get. Bulls in seven.
* – The Bucks famously took Yi Jianlian at No. 6 – three spots higher than Noah – because he looked impressive in a workout posting up chairs. I kid you not, NBA GMs are incredible.