Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg’s decision to bring Joakim Noah off the bench to begin the season made sense idealistically. Noah, who really, really struggles to score the ball could bring some energy off the bench and have a better chance of scoring against backups. Nine games into the season, Noah’s move to the bench hasn’t helped his scoring at all. He’s actually taken a significant step back.
Noah is shooting (WARNING: GRAPHIC NUMBERS ARE AHEAD) 30.8 percent from the floor, 33.3 percent from the line and scoring 4.8 points per 40 minutes. He’s passing up easy layups when they’re available and blowing them when he musters the confidence to take a shot. He can’t gain any separation on his defender, who’s usually located five feet or so off of him and waiting to disrupt a Bulls player who actually has a chance of scoring. Usually a player with those numbers and the near inability to make a layup sticks on the bench, but Noah is playing 20.9 minutes per game and finishing close games. That’s because Noah is doing everything else at an elite level.
Per Basketball-Reference, Noah became the first player since at least 1986 (the database only goes back that far) to finish a game with 18 rebounds and six assists while playing 23 minutes or less, a feat he accomplished against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. That discovery doesn’t come as a surprise, because finishing with those numbers in that little of time is something only Noah is capable of doing. It means he rebounded at a maniacal pace, passed with sheer brilliance and completely ignored scoring. Although that game was an anomaly, Noah has been rebounding and passing at elite levels throughout the season.
Noah’s 8.5 rebounds per game are his lowest since his sophomore season, but remember his minutes per game are also among the lowest of his career. His rebound rate of 20.5 ranks ninth in the league and is currently the highest number in his career. Noah realizes his responsibility coming off the bench means he needs to bring energy into the game. He does that by crashing the boards and bodying up his opponent as soon as he touches the floor.
The Bulls have been a sub-par rebounding team so far this season with a rebound rate of 48.7, which ranks 19th in the league. With Noah on the floor that number jumps to 54.2 percent, per NBA.com, which would rank second in the league. Chicago’s rebound rate of 45.4 percent with Noah on the bench would rank dead least.
The frontcourt of Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol is allergic to rebounding. Although Gasol is seemingly a good rebounder, in reality he gobbles up a ton of uncontested boards and rarely puts his body on players. Noah is still a monster on the glass, even if his knee surgery has derailed much of his athleticism. He’s also still a fantastic passer:
The list of the top players in assist ratio are four point guards and Noah. His assist ratio of 40.1 is a career high, meaning over 40 percent of Noah’s possessions end in an assist. His assists per 40 minutes of 7.4 are also a career best. Noah is still an expert at finding players on cuts and dishing out the ball to open shooters. He’s also among the best players at sticking out his butt on handoffs to open up players for easy shots. Noah is even more unselfish now that he’s rarely ever looking for his own shot:
Noah has 8 inches/30 lbs over Lin. Instead of going up, he dumped to Niko who had to chuck to avoid a 3 sec call. pic.twitter.com/cYAiyEMgdt
— Stephen Noh (@hungarianjordan) November 4, 2015
Noah’s insistence to pass at an extremely high rate has its drawbacks. His turnover ratio of 19.4 is by far a career worst. He takes far too many risks on alley-oop attempts or when he tries to hit someone backdoor that isn’t open. His one-handed whip passes look beautiful when he hits a cutter in stride, but they look just as ugly when the ball sputters out of bounds. Nonetheless, Noah’s persistence on the offensive glass and passing skills have made the Bulls slightly better offensively with him on the floor, per NBA.com. That’s pretty shocking considering he’s having one of the worst shooting seasons in NBA history.
In addition to his outstanding rebounding and passing so far, Noah is also defending near his Defensive Player of the Year output in 2013-14. His 0.8 blocks and steals per game are nothing spectacular, but he’s defending the rim at an elite level. Noah’s 42.5 percent opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim ranks tied for 14th in the league, per SportVU (min. 5 GP and five field goal attempts at the rim defended per game). That number is well below his 51.5 percent mark last season and even during his DPOY campaign (47.1 percent).
The Bulls’ defensive rating of 96.2 with Noah on the floor is only slightly better than their numbers with him off of it (96.4), but the mark is still leaps and bounds better than his 101.4 rating last season. Noah is still an active defender and has even more energy late in games with his steep decline in minutes. He represents a stark style change from Gasol, who’s noticeably lost in pick-and-roll schemes and is only effective defending the rim.
Noah finished fourth in MVP voting in 2013-14 because he was an outstanding defender, rebounder, passer AND he averaged a solid 12.6 points per game. That Joakim Noah might be gone for good, but he can still dominate aspects of the game outside of scoring. He’s valuable to the Chicago Bulls as long as that’s the case.