It was long overdue. A feature on the Bulls’ physical center. Perhaps a piece on his “no stone unturned” mentality? Or on his penchant for making key plays when his team needs them (his block on LeBron comes to mind)?
But alas, it was neither. Instead, it was a flurry of opinions — measured responses, spiteful lambasts and everything in between — from journalists worldwide on Joakim Noah’s inflammatory retort to a fan’s provocation. I will not speak as if I have an enlightened perspective, because I do not. But from what I’ve read, it seems more likely that Noah’s word choice was involuntary due to the comment’s reactionary nature than a remark that spoke of a deep-seated prejudice.
I don’t think Noah is homophobic, but he is no saint either. Regardless of intent (or lack thereof), in no way should he be absolved for his abhorrent remarks. He deserves to be punished, and rightfully so. But the flippancy of his outburst merely confirmed what everyone had surmised: such unhealthy, homophobic taunts are more deeply ingrained in the language of an all-male sports environment than once thought.
Retroactively, it was the timing of his retort rendered it all the more egregious. It was sandwiched between NBA commercials addressing the very topic of homophobia and came on the back of not only Kobe Bryant’s now infamous anti-gay slur at an official, but also Phoenix GM Rick Welts’ open confession to the media. Nonetheless, however offending his remark may have been, recognize that Noah is also a victim of inopportune circumstance.
(As a side note: check out Kevin Arnovitz’s interview with a distraught Noah. Amidst such media scrutiny, coupled with the fact that the man facing him was an openly gay journalist who seemed pretty displeased, Noah sounded truly overwhelmed and didn’t know how and whether to defend his actions.)
Joakim Noah: Hustle and Grit Personified
I’ve expressed my view on the NBA’s latest homophobic outburst and now I’d like to go back to talking hoops.
What do you think of when you think of Joakim Noah? Gritty. Physical. Combative. Heck, he’d probably go toe to toe with King Leonidas and come out the victor. He’s a fighter, a warrior, and the heart of the Chicago Bulls.
He parades a robust and hefty frame, an underrated basketball IQ and an exotic set of curls that belie his American heritage. He can’t shoot, is limited offensively, but rebounds and defends at an elite level — a archetypal center in today’s evolving basketball landscape. He is talented, there is no doubt, but his rudimentary exploits on offense is matched — and often superseded — by his more gifted peers (Bynum, Gasol (Marc), Horford). They can generate points through a drop-step or an elementary pick-and-pop; Noah can’t, and isn’t a scorer, he’s a different animal. He’s a scavenger who revels in putback opportunities and feeding off teammates’ scraps; in that respect, he is peerless. He knows his limits, and puts himself in situations that maximises his production and curtails his shortcomings.
- Knowing his role on offense
Noah is a pretty smart guy. He knows he’s dead weight beyond 15 feet, and is only a legitimate threat from close range. He doesn’t try to explore his boundaries, but instead roots himself in the fundamentals and plays within himself. If he ever ventures beyond his comfort zone, it is to avail himself as a target for his point guard.
On pick-and-rolls, it is not uncommon for opponents to trap Rose, and when that happens is where Noah becomes an asset to his team. You’ll often see him flash to the top of the key, arms flailing wildly to catch Rose’s attention. It may seem an extension of his frenzied demeanour, but do not mistake Noah’s effort for a waste of energy. When exceptionally lanky defenders — such as LeBron and Bosh — converge on Rose, his vision diminishes rapidly. The slightest visual cue Noah provides can signal Rose of his presence, allowing him to release a pass that, if delayed for a split-second, could have resulted in a deflection or turnover.
Once he receives the ball, Noah’s above-average handle and underrated passing ability enables him to unlock the Heat’s defense. The key here is Noah’s self-awareness and team-first mentality: he has an open lane but he recognizes that slight penetration and a dump pass down low to Boozer (or a kick out to Deng in the corner) represents higher percentage options than if he were to take it to the cup himself. And he enjoys setting up his teammates this way. But don’t take my word for it, Brett Koremenos of Hoopspeak (absolutely brilliant blog by the way) offers up some insightful analysis on this issue. Sebastien Pruiti of NBA Playbook has also given Noah credit for his heads-up play.
- ‘D’s up like no other
But everyone knows Noah’s true value is on the glass and on defense. He always boxes out his man, secures every rebound within his reach and treats every defensive possession as a pre-draft workout. His peerless effort and indefatigable nature has often pushed writers to their last resort: using the phrase “he was everywhere on the court” to encompass Noah’s omnipresence on defense. He knows not of the term restraint and it is that very lack of restraint that is signature of Noah’s play.
People rave about Tom Thibodeau’s impact on Chicago Bulls defense (and I’m one of them too). He brought his brand of “strong side overload” defense to Chicago, and ratcheted up the intensity twice over. But lost in translation was the system’s intrinsic need for a vocal and effusive big man as its anchor.
In this scheme, Joakim Noah isn’t ‘the straw that stirs the drink'; he is the cup that holds the liquid inside. He holds everyone accountable, and keeps his teammates on the same page. The guy hedges and recovers on pick-and-rolls, provides weak-side help when neccessary (which is pretty often since Boozer plays heavy minutes) and anchors the paint at all times. His mere presence on the court gives his team assurance that any slip-up will not be detrimental, as he will always be there to erase their mistakes. But they know for every individual error, they can expect to hear an earful from their de facto defensive coordinator.
- Never gives up. Ever.
A sequence in Game 4 of the Bulls-Heat series reminded me of Noah’s indescribable ‘Noah-ness’. On a Miami inbounds play — with the game all but lost — Noah flew down the court to foul LeBron James, who, in moments prior, had sprinted down the Heat’s end to receive the inbounds pass. The rest of Noah’s teammates knew it was over. Deep down, Noah himself probably knew that too. But he fouled James anyway.
I could hurl a bunch of jargon words — resolute, unflinching, indomitable — hailing Noah’s spirit and determination. But no matter how I phrase it and however poetic it may be, it will always fail to do Noah justice. He’s the type of player whose efforts transcend the box score, and the assets — both tangible and intangible — that he brings to the table on a nightly basis can only be truly comprehended when one actually watches him play.
- A throwback to the past
In the modern NBA landscape, a throwback gem like Noah is music to the purists’ ears. Many a franchise have been made to suffer for their conundrums at the ‘5’ spot. In Toronto, Raptors fans’ have had to endure multiple seasons with a ‘soft’ stretch four masquerading as a center (Andrea Bargnani). In Texas, a perennial contender had to rely on a 6-7 big man to man the ‘5’ spot (Dejuan Blair). Before the Danny Ainge brainfart, Oklahoma City entrusted rim-protecting duties to a stereotypical european paperweight (Nenad Krstic). And back in Motown, the Pistons are still counting on a over-the-hill center (whose afro has finally usurped defense as most prominent feature) to get them through the season (Ben Wallace).
Only a handful of teams in the league have defensively-proficient starting ‘5’s. They are, in no particular order: Dwight Howard of the Magic, Al Horford of the Hawks, Andrew Bogut of the Bucks, Tyson Chandler of the Mavericks, Andrew Bynum of the Lakers, Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies, Joakim Noah of the Bulls. Of those I mentioned, four of them are superior defensively (Bynum, Howard, Bogut, Chandler) and other two of them are slightly below Noah’s standard. But of the four, only Howard isn’t prone to injury.
Sans Howard (who’s a freak that plays on a whole different plane), Noah is arguably the most complete, versatile, and reliable defender amongst the rest.
Though he still fouls too much and his temperament can occasionally let him down, Noah is a rare commodity that all teams covet. Every team that matters has a superstar, or three. But not every team has a Joakim Noah; and you can bet your last dollar any team would love a Joakim Noah.
Anti-gay slurs aside, I think it’s time we give Joakim Noah his due.