Is Joakim Noah the NBA's top center?

Is Joakim Noah the NBA's top center?
March 4, 2014, 3:45 pm
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With Joakim Noah’s career-high 14-assist game Sunday against the Knicks — part of his second triple-double of the season and fifth of his career — now in the rear-view window, it’s a little bit easier to put into context how the All-Star center compares to his peers at the position.

There’s no question that the Bulls’ offense revolves now around its leading assist man on the season, no matter how unconventionally it occurs. Nor is his impact as a upper-echelon defensive player or top-tier rebounder (Noah presently ranks sixth in the league in that category) debatable.

Noah has hurdled his perceived ceiling as a high-energy role player, and despite not being an explosive scoring threat on a regular basis, is now approaching superstar territory based on his work over the last two seasons. Given that a frequent lament around the NBA is the decline of the center — not that Noah is a traditional player in any sense — examining where he ranks among his counterparts is valid, especially in this campaign, where he’s been able to display his full complement of skills, even as he insists that he isn’t altered his game to showcase his ability to distribute.

“It’s not that,” Noah explained. “I think it’s just my teammates trusting me and giving me the ball at the top of the key. I’m touching the ball a lot and it’s just giving me confidence that my teammates are looking for me to make plays, and I feel comfortable doing that.”

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A nightly triple-double threat, he’s also an All-Defensive Team player capable of pulling down a defensive board and leading a fast break, yet is still developing a consistent back-to-the-basket offensive game, complementing his unorthodox outside jumper, uncanny playmaking ability and dribble penetration from the high post.

“He’s a very high basketball I.Q. guy. He’s a very intelligent guy — he’d probably be mad if he heard me saying that; he wants to keep that a secret — and that’s what makes him so good,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of his center’s passing ability. “I think his intelligence, his knowledge, it makes him even quicker than he is. He sees things ahead of time. But we have a team full of guys like that. And knowledge is quickness. If you know what’s coming, you’re going to be a step quicker. So that’s the way we have to play. I think our guys all know, if you cut and you’re open, you’re going to get it. So they don’t stand and I think that’s important, as well.”

It should be noted that the relationship between Thibodeau and Noah, both intense competitors who value winning over everything, but have vastly different approaches to the end result, has blossomed over time, with the coach trusting and empowering the player’s development.

His impact, however, can’t be measured in a description of his skill set, let alone rattling off his statistics. Noah’s motor — he symbolizes Thibodeau’s “multiple-effort mentality” on the defensive end of the floor and changes ends of the floor with his distinctive gait like he’s sprinting to catch the last train out of the station, on each and every possession — passion for the game and commitment to winning set him apart from the majority of his competition.

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Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez, even when he’s healthy, might be a much more naturally gifted offensive player — the oft-injured Nets center, currently sidelined for the season with a chronic foot ailment that harkens Bill Walton’s career, is perhaps the best scoring center in the league — doesn’t have anything remotely resembling Noah’s defensive presence or rebounding prowess, as evidenced in last spring’s first-round playoff series.

Detroit’s Andre Drummond of the Pistons, only in his second professional season, and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, the NBA’s leading rebounder on the campaign, are more athletically explosive players, but lack Noah’s savvy and feel for the game.

If natural power forwards that play center — such as Chicago native Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, Noah’s oft-injured college teammate Al Horford of the Hawks, Miami’s Chris Bosh, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson or future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan of the Spurs — are included, then the list of worthy players at the position gets a little longer. But excluding those names, when it comes to elite centers, Noah is in a select group, one of the five best in the league, along with Houston’s Dwight Howard, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Indiana’s Roy Hibbert.

From there, it becomes a matter of preference.

Cousins is the most offensively talented of the bunch, a gifted scorer and passer, tenacious rebounder and better-than-advertised defender when motivated on that end of the floor. But Cousins, who is probably a top-five NBA player in terms of natural ability, is also an undeniably volatile on-court personality and despite his productivity, it hasn’t translated into much, if any, success for the Kings and given Noah’s track record of winning, he has to get the edge for right now, though it’s still very early in his career.

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Hibbert, based on his team’s present status and playing his defined role of lane clogger, rim protector and occasional post-up threat, is worthy of consideration, though it can be argued that his All-Star nod was more due to Indiana’s collective success as a team than personal merit. As much as Hibbert should be lauded for his progress since entering the league, even with his massive frame, underappreciated passing and better-than-advertised mid-range jumper, Noah’s versatility is a decided advantage.

Gasol is more in the mold of Noah, as far as possessing formidable passing ability and his defensive impact — albeit in a different manner, relying more on position defense, though last season’s Defensive Player of the Year award might have been overstating things a bit — but is more of a burly, plodding type with post-up skills and a deadly mid-range jumper. As a major part of the Grizzlies’ changing fortunes and his fantastic chemistry with power forward Zach Randolph, Gasol perhaps gets more individual credit than deserved and although he’s certainly worthy of being an All-Star in the West when healthy, it’s a stretch to say that he’s an outright better player than Noah, given that he’s also not a huge scorer and his lack of foot speed is a severe limitation in a more fast-paced style of play.

That, by default if not the most decisive selection process — everything is subjective based on a number of factors, including team personnel, but it’s safe to say that Noah would be effective on both ends in any system, while the same can’t be said as definitively for the centers previously mentioned — leaves Howard. Although the way he exited Orlando, and to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, left a lot of fans with a sour taste in their mouths, what the Rockets center does on the court can’t be denied.

No, he still doesn’t have the most sophisticated back-to-the-basket game, he isn’t a passing savant and his explosiveness in Houston still doesn’t seem to be at the level it was when he was with the Magic (which could be a byproduct of both age and injuries), but he’s still the league’s most dominant interior presence. As good as Noah is defensively, Howard is the one center who consistently gives him trouble when matched up individually and unlike most players who use their power against him, agility in the halfcourt or in the transition game can’t be used as a weapon.

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Still, even as Howard has settled in to form a potent inside-outside tandem with All-Star shooting guard James Harden, leading their team to near the top of the Western Conference standings, no center has been more valuable to their team this season than Noah.

“He might be,” agreed teammate Jimmy Butler, talking about this season specifically. “He’s tough and he does everything. Shooting the ball, passing the ball, handling it, defense.

“I think the only aspect left he needs to get in his game is to get that trey-ball,” the swingman jokingly added. “I mean that! He shoots corner threes in practice. I’m not going to say he hits them, but he shoots them, so might as well.”

But more seriously, what truly puts Noah over the top this season is his unparalled will to win, something he wears on his sleeve like a badge of honor.

“Just coming where we came from, people really counted us out. We’ve gone through a lot and just to be in this position feels good,” he said in a typically passionate statement. “We’re not satisfied. We’re still as hungry as ever. We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA and when you’ve got that feeling, I think we’ve got a ways to go. It feels good.

“We’re fighting. We’re hungry. We want more. We’re not satisfied with where we’re at right now. We just want to get the best seed possible because we know when the playoffs come, we want to play in this building. We know what it’s all about. Playing at the UC, playing well in the UC, especially in the playoffs,” Noah continued. “Everybody knows what this team is going through, playing without our best player and we feel like we’ve come so close to getting that ring. So right now, our mentality is we just want to get better playing those big games and do everything we can to play the best basketball possible. So when our young boy comes back, we’re ready. I want a ring. I want a ring so bad and I know that one day our time will come.”

Whether he knows it or not, Noah’s time is here.