The I-76ers

Sixers/Bulls Preview: Joakim Noah’s Greatness

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(image via Nam Y. Huh/AP)

With less than a month left on the season, the 76ers tipoff tonight against the Chicago Bulls. The focus over these final few weeks, as it has been for the majority of the season, remains on the bottom tier of the NBA standings, as the Sixers vie for the league’s worst record. After their overtime lost against the Portland Trailblazers last night, the Milwaukee Bucks stand two-and-a-half games below the 7-6 for opportunity to have the best odds in May’s draft lottery. Their spot in the standings should improve tonight, however, as they take on a steadily-improving Bulls team led by a reinvigorated Joakim Noah.

As Derrick Rose was expected to return to the Bulls’ lineup this season, expectations were high that Chicago had positioned itself as a team with ample opportunity to knockoff the Miami Heat in the playoffs and deny their quest for a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance. That dream quickly seemed to evaporate after Rose played just 10 games and went down with another season-ending knee injury; however, as to be expected with a Tom Thibodeau-coached squad, the Bulls persevered. After sitting at 12-18 on New Year’s Day, Chicago has gone 25-12 and now remains just a half-game out of the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Noah has been the catalyst for this resurgence.

A two-time All-Star, Noah will likely make his first All-NBA team this season, as well as garner serious support for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Besides his obvious defensive prowess, Noah sets himself apart from the majority of the league’s centers due to ability to be a modest scorer when needed and his elite passing skills.

An intriguing way to view it is through the defensive spectrum in baseball. When players at defense-first positions in baseball (center field, shortstop, second base, and catcher) contribute significantly on the offensive end, it adds an entire new dimension to their value. A league-average hitter who can play center field well is quite valuable. Someone like the Washington Nationals’ Denard Span fits this billing; however, a great fielder in center who doubles as his position’s best offensive player is a possible MVP candidate, akin to Mike Trout’s game for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of North America of the Western Hemisphere.

A center’s primary role tends to be a rim protector defensively and a rebounder on both sides of the glass. A player doing that well can be crucial to a team’s success. Just looking at the way offseason acquisition Robin Lopez has bolstered the Portland Trailblazers as a role player doing those exact things next to Damien Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge illustrates this wholly. When a center does that, as well as scores 20 points on occasion when needed and passes superbly out of the post, he turns into Noah. While the former Florida Gator isn’t nearly as much of a legitimate MVP threat as Trout is in the MLB, he is still putting up a valiant effort for a Bulls team thought to be floundering after more disappointing D-Rose news.

So how does Noah’s season stack up to centers past and previous? Using Basketball-Reference’s Play Index, here’s  a list of centers who have posted Noah’s current game averages of 12.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, as well as a win shares per 48 minutes rate of .195 in a season:

Shooting Per Game
Player Season Age Tm FG% FT% WS/48 PTS TRB AST
Wilt Chamberlain* 1963-64 27 SFW .524 .531 .325 36.9 22.3 5.0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 1972-73 25 MIL .554 .713 .322 30.2 16.1 5.0
Wilt Chamberlain* 1966-67 30 PHI .683 .441 .285 24.1 24.2 7.8
Wilt Chamberlain* 1965-66 29 PHI .540 .513 .275 33.5 24.6 5.2
Wilt Chamberlain* 1967-68 31 PHI .595 .380 .255 24.3 23.8 8.6
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 1975-76 28 LAL .529 .703 .242 27.7 16.9 5.0
Bill Russell* 1964-65 30 BOS .438 .573 .234 14.1 24.1 5.3
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 1978-79 31 LAL .577 .736 .219 23.8 12.8 5.4
Joakim Noah 2013-14 28 CHI .485 .727 .195 12.3 11.3 5.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/19/2014.

Essentially, it’s just been Noah and the three greatest centers to ever step foot on an NBA court. While those per game statistics obviously don’t tell the entire story and the other three centers’ numbers dwarf those of Noah, this is simply an exercise to illustrate how great and unheralded Noah has been. When former Cincinnati Royals center Sam Lacey passed away last week, the official NBA History twitter account had the following to say about both Noah and Lacey:

An all-time great passing center who is as arguably the best interior defensive player in the NBA? The talk of the Bulls needing to lure another superstar to play with an eventually healthy Rose seems silly now. They already have one.

Not that the Sixers had much of a chance to win tonight anyway, but it is worth stating that Noah had possibly his finest game as a pro against the Sixers last February. Going against an inept Spencer Hawes, Noah went eight of 12 the field en route to a 23-point, 21-rebound, 11-block performance. Sixers fans should just get a head start on sending their condolences to Henry Sims now.

Tipoff is at 7 p.m. down in South Philly.