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Joakim Noah’s Slump Could Prove Fatal to Bulls

The Bulls go as Joakim Noah goes. It used to be a point of pride. Now, it’s just a problem.

While Derrick Rose may be the heart of the team and Jimmy Butler the crown prince to the throne, Noah has been the energy and muscle comprising Chicago’s engine room on both ends of the floor.

When Rose first collapsed to the court back in 2012, his left knee torn up and the future of the franchise up in the air, it was Noah who stepped forward as the leader of the locker room, galvanizing the players and leading the team through the next few years.

Noah quickly improved his offensive contributions, posting career highs in multiple offensive categories in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, cementing himself as the fulcrum of the Rose-less Bulls. The offense now ran through Noah in the high post, using his superior passing and vision to make sure the Bulls’ offense didn’t totally crater in the absence of their dynamic point guard.

His off-ball impact was equally crucial. While Noah’s comical-looking shooting stroke has never been close to being called accurate, he began knocking down mid-range shots at an almost 40 percent clip, enough to force his defender – often the opponent’s center – to stay tight to him up to 16 feet from the hoop, providing the space inside without which the Bulls’ attack would founder.

With no offense coming from a player seeing more than 32 minutes in the playoffs, the spacing the Bulls once enjoyed when using Rose, Butler, Pau Gasol, Noah and Mike Dunleavy is severely compromised. Noah’s defender is able to float around the floor, pressuring the ball handler and closing driving lanes.

The defensive improvement of Noah over the past few years was just as important, and even more evident. Noah was always a staunch defender, but the loss of Rose and his emergence¬†as the heart and soul of the team saw Noah’s intensity reach a fever pitch. He covered all five positions, taking on some of the best offensive players in the game and consistently coming out on top, posting a career high in Defensive Win Shares in 2014 on the way to taking the Defensive Player of the Year crown.

Noah’s defense off-ball, like his off-ball offense, was also crucial. His ability to hustle and harass his mark around the court out of good post position while shepherding his man away from the ball continuously forced opponents to abandon their set plays and force up bad, contested shots.

Fast-forward through that to 2015.

Noah’s knee injury – undisclosed in severity but apparently pretty bad – has robbed him of the lateral quickness he exuded in the past three years. He has been consistently exposed by quicker players driving past him and with no explosiveness left, he can no longer pull off the dramatic blocks from behind to make up for his mistakes.

Another side effect of that lack of explosiveness has been his regression as a rebounding force. Noah has been unable to score on as many put-backs and tip-ins around the basket, and the Bulls have been prone to giving up offensive rebounds at the most inopportune times.

It’s painful to watch Noah at this point. His defense has regressed and his offense has died. Teams often don’t even bother guarding him anymore. Just look at this:

And perhaps most worryingly, Noah’s free throw shooting in the playoffs has been nothing short of horrific. Hitting 1-14 in eight games so far is symptomatic of more than just a knee injury, but to something deeper.

It all adds up to give the Bulls a fatal headache. Joakim is too important to the psyche of the team to play this badly, but he’s now playing so poorly that every minute he appears on the floor pushes the Bulls closer to the playoff exit door.

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