Don’t let the sideways tornado shot fool you. If I was building a team to go to the finals this year, then Joakim Noah would be the best center for that team. No offense to a certain number 12 in Houston, but Noah has eclipsed him en route to a potential dark horse spot on the first team All-NBA. This claim will certainly need to be qualified, and to do so I must define what I mean when I say ‘Best.’ I’m not implicating that Noah’s statistics, physical gifts, defensive dominance, rebounding prowess, or even his decision making or intangible assets INDIVIDUALLY are the best in the NBA. But his unique combination of all of those things is redefining what it means to play center in the NBA, and there is no big in the league that could mirror what he does on a nightly basis in Chicago.
At first glance, it’s hard to take Noah seriously. Looking back to draft day, with his comical suit, cheesy smile, and long curly hair emanating from a Chicago Bulls cap, Noah was pictured at best as a high energy motor guy, comparable perhaps to an Anderson Varejao. His offensive skills were unrefined if not completely non-existent, and even his attitude needed work as noted by his two game suspension in his rookie season as voted on by teammates. But year after year, Noah has added elements to his game. He’s always been a great rebounder. Slowly but surely, the twister-like jumper took form and Noah developed a mid-range game. Tom Thibodeau came to Chicago and Noah became the anchor of one of the league’s top defenses. The free throw percentage improved year over year, and now Noah ranks among the top free throw shooters at the position (which allows him to stay on the floor to close out games). And now, on a team that is void of playmakers, Noah has developed into a point center and averages over four and a half assists per game.
You can sometimes even take the little things for granted in Noah’s game; the little things that show how much work he puts in and how unique he really is. In one sequence in late Feburary against the Atlanta Hawks, Noah scored on a running left hand hook shot, and the momentum carried the 6’11 center out of bounds. Jeff Teague quickly scooped up the inbounds pass and sprinted down the floor to try and catch the Bulls defense napping. He was forced into a miss, and who else came down with the rebound but Joakim Noah, who had chased the speedy point guard down the court to protect the glass. But Noah’s work wasn’t done there; he immediately sprinted back down the floor again and LED the Bulls on the fast break, culminating in a pinpoint bounce pass to a streaking Tony Snell for the two-handed dunk. Dwight Howard or Roy Hibbert couldn’t do that, not by a long shot. Noah doesn’t need offense run for him (and consequently, will never stagnate an otherwise ball movement-oriented offense), but you can run your offense through him if needed and rely on him to set up your scorers. He could not touch the ball on an offensive set, and still be guaranteed to be completely invested in the play and score some scrappy points through tip-ins and offensive boards. Then he’ll go down the court and lead the defense. Finally, his emotion and intensity will orient the team towards the final prize.
When all is said and done, Joakim Noah is a winner. On a team that should be looking forward to the lottery right now based on its personnel, the Bulls instead are comfortably sitting in the fourth spot in the Eastern conference, on pace for home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. And no one would question who the leader of this team is. He may not be the most skilled, the most dominant in the post, or the most athletic, but his ability to lead a team and deliver wins makes Noah the choice for best center to go to war with.