20 in 20: Will Noah become an elite center?

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20 in 20: Will Noah become an elite center?

Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010
4:40 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.

11. Will Joakim Noah become an elite NBA center this season?

On the cusp of an All-Star berth before plantar fasciitis sidelined him last season, Noah's contribution to the Bulls went far beyond the 10.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks he averaged last season. In a nutshell, here's Noah's value: Derrick Rose is the best player on the Bulls; Noah is the most important. Any arguments can be dismissed simply by recalling the team's woeful skid in his absence last season, during which Chicago resembled a bottom-of-the-barrel squad, as opposed to their take-on-all-comers aura with the Florida product in the lineup.

That said, Noah can't yet be quite regarded as an elite--meaning a player more or less guaranteed to not only impact individual games, but dominate them within his realm of control on a nightly basis--center; not yet, at least. The day he gains that status, however, appears to be coming sooner, rather than later.

Noah will never consistently score a boatload of points. Nor will he kill his opponents softly, in a fashion where his stats outstrip his impact. Instead, the inverse is true.

The type of player where a single-digit scoring game doesn't always accurately reflect his impact, Noah gets as excited about taking a charge, fighting for a key rebound, blocking a shot or even a big play by a teammate as he gets about two points of his own. His infectious energy, burning desire to win and ability to remain unrattled under pressure--after winning two national championships in college, his breakout playoff series against Boston in 2009 and facing the scorn of seemingly the entire city of Cleveland, it's safe to say he doesn't get fazed by much--are both endearing and unique, in a league where even some of the most passionate players treat the game as a business.

His physical gifts are more than adequate, although the league possesses plenty of players with comparable size, length and athleticism. The difference with Noah, however, is that not only does he make the most of his 6-foot-11 frame, but he simply outworks his opponents, whether it's running the floor in transition, hustling for loose balls, moving his feet defensively on the perimeter or ekeking out the most of the strength in his spindly frame to fight for position with behemoths in the low post and of course, battling for rebounds on both ends of the floor.

One of the NBA's best rebounders, Noah has an innate ability to anticipate where errant shots will land, coupled with a determination to beat his man to the ball, maximize his wingspan and quick feet and just desire caroms more than anybody else on the court. Defensively, he may not be a shot-blocking force in the mold of a Dwight Howard--although he swats his fair share of shots--but his understanding of help defense, ability to move his feet well enough to defend quicker players on switches and generally protect the rim are severely underated.

But while he gobbles up bushels of boards and is stout on defense, the subtler qualities of Noah's game often go without mention. Described universally as free-spirited, he's earned the respect of teammates with a strong work ethic and leadership by example. He's often credited with being the team's emotional leader, but that almost takes away from his high basketball I.Q., as he frequently takes responsibility for the entire squad defensively, instructing his teammates on where to be in position in anticipation of the opposition's offensive plays.

Yes, Noah is still a work in progress on offense, although his sheer effort and favorable matchups make it possible for him to put up big scoring numbers on occasion. As last season went on, though, his post moves became more effective, and although fans might cringe at the sight of Noah launching his unconventional jumper from 15 feet out, it became an increasingly accurate weapon in his arsenal. His best offensive attribute--which goes hand in hand with his savvy--is his passing ability. Noah's passing isn't quite at the level of former teammate and close friend Brad Miller, but even without being viewed as a major threat from the mid-range area, he's effective in the high-low game as a passer and is a playmaking threat on his occasional coast-to-coast jaunts on fast breaks.

When the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs in the spring, Noah vowed to come back physically stronger, to better withstand the pounding he takes in the paint from bigger giants in the post. Combined with an improved offensive repertoire, his ascension to one of the league's elite at his position--along with his debut All-Star appearance--should occur in the very near future, especially with defensive-minded new Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm and the addition of power forward Carlos Boozer alongside him on the block. Now, all he has to do is stay healthy.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

The big red button was pressed and Jimmy Butler was ejected from the Chicago Bulls’ present and future as they finally made the decision to rebuild after two years of resisting.

Trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the ability to draft Lauri Markkanen represents the Bulls committing to the draft lottery and fully going in on the Fred Hoiberg experience for the foreseeable future, as the prospect of trying to improve through shrewd moves in the East while also facing the likelihood of Butler commanding a $200 million contract wasn’t palatable to their pocketbook or their sensibilities.

On one hand, making a decision — any decision — can be applauded on some levels after years of their relationship with Butler being complicated at best. But the idea of rebuilding and the application of it are often two separate ideals, because the evaluation of a rebuild can often be as murky as the land the Bulls just left.

“What we’ve done tonight is set a direction,” Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson said. “We’ve gone to the past where we make the playoffs, but not at the level we wanted to. You know in this league, success is not determined that way. We’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster.”

“We’re gonna remain patient and disciplined. The development of our young players is important. The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. We’re gonna continue down that path. We’re not gonna throw huge money at people.”

The Bulls aren’t exclusive to this territory, the land in which they’ve inhibited for the last couple seasons, which makes the Butler trade about more than one thing.

Not equal parts but part basketball, part fiscal, part narrative and finally, masking some mistakes that have been made over the years but are not as easily rectified. Trading Butler seemed to be the easiest vessel used as an elixir to wash away missteps. Trading a star in Butler is also the easiest way to get heat off a coach or front office in today’s NBA, because few franchises like to make wholesale changes midstream or early in it.

Trading Butler — along with shipping their second-round pick in a box marked for the Bay Area — was also financial, considering many felt if he made it through the tumultuous evening that he would finish his career as a Bull, raking in a hefty sum of cash on the back end.

It’s because of these factors that the evaluation of this trade and subsequently, a painful rebuild, cannot be in a vacuum. (Note: No rebuild is painless, it’s the size of the migraine a team can endure that determines the type of aspirin necessary).

Just taking a look at the players the Bulls got back in the Butler trade illustrates the gray area they’ve now immersed themselves into. The Bulls fell in love with Dunn before he came to the NBA, and aren’t as bothered by him being a 23-year old second-year player who struggled mightily in his rookie year.

Zach LaVine is an explosive athlete who can put up 20 every night — when he’s on the floor. Recovering from an ACL injury is no given, as evidenced by a young phenom who once graced the United Center hardwood before his body betrayed him.

And Lauri Markkanen is a rookie with promise, but nobody can make any promises on what type of career he’ll have, or if he’ll fulfill that promise with this franchise in the requisite time.

“There’s always risk in anything,” Paxson said. “But here’s a guy that’s 22 years old and averages 20 a game (LaVine). He can score the basketball, he can run. He can shoot the basketball. He shot over 40 percent from three. That’s an area we’re deficient in. Markkanen shot over 40 from three in college. Again, it’s an area where we’re deficient. It’s trying to find the type of player that fits the way that we want to play going forward.”

[RELATED: Jimmy Butler bids emotional farewell to Chicago]

General Manager Gar Forman stated after the announcement of the trade that the Bulls would have to hit on their next few draft picks to stop this rebuild from being elongated, but even then there’s no guarantee.

The Sacramento Kings drafted a rookie of the year, then two future max contract players in the same year, followed by another player who’ll command close to max money very soon. But nobody remembers Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas leading the Kings from the wilderness and into glory, unless recent memory has been scrubbed away from everyone.

Inconsistencies in organizational structure combined with multiple coaching changes and an inability to develop the right young players kept the Kings on the dais of the draft lottery every April.

The Timberwolves, heck, nobody could say they missed when selecting LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and getting Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love. It’s because it takes more than the right draft picks, or in the Sacramento Kings’ case, the right infrastructure and environment, to foster an atmosphere of winning.

The Bulls were ready, despite their claims that this was a decision that came across their table right before the draft, because common sense has to be applied. No team makes knee-jerk, franchise-altering decisions that will have reverberations for years to come on the whim of a trade offer from Tom Thibodeau. This was likely decided when the Bulls went out with a whimper in the first-round after shocking the NBA world in the first two games against the Boston Celtics, when their fortunes changed on the trifle of Rajon Rondo’s broken wrist.

It was decided that Hoiberg, the man who endured chants calling for his firing in the second half of the decisive Game 6 loss, needed to have the right type of roster to be accurately judged as a successful hire or failure, and Butler couldn’t be part of those plans.

And just as Hoiberg has been dealt an uneven hand, Butler wasn’t given the type of roster that would accurately judge how he could flourish as a leader, max player and face of the franchise — and probably had less time to show one way or the other relative to his coach.

The longer Butler stayed, the more empowered he would become as his individual accomplishments would rack up because of the dedication he applied to game, the drive he had to place himself in the upper echelon of NBA players.

The better Butler got, the more pressure Hoiberg would be under to mix and match his roster and to foster a relationship with Butler he might’ve been ill-suited to fix. The better Butler got, the more pressure the front office would be under to maximize a prime it didn’t see coming, a prime they can’t truly figure when there’s an expiration date on given Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom.

So getting rid of Butler was the solution and the Bulls have now chosen their path, definitively and with confidence. Emerging from a ball of confusion to parts unknown, from one land of uncertainty to another.

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Zach LaVine quickly made a name for himself as a prolific, epic dunker.

The recently acquired Bull won both the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contests and has plenty of awe-inspiring in-game dunks as well.

The video above has a few of LaVine's best efforts.

His signature dunks in the dunk contests were the 2015 dazzler when he caught the ball from behind the backboard and went through his legs before slamming it and the through the legs from just inside the free throw line dunk in 2016.

For in-game dunks, the time he posterized Alex Len in November was an instant-classic. It's not everyday a 7-footer gets dismissed with such authority.

Of course, LaVine's ability to dunk at this prodigious level is in question after he tore his ACL this past season. If LaVine can come back to anywhere near full strength, look for some impressive highlights from the former dunk champ in a Bulls uniform.