The Bulls experienced a phenomenon in 2011 that few teams that are rebuilding experience: vast growth.
Everyone on the Bulls got better than what they were prior to this season and the results showed in how well the Bulls performed. But with the obvious exception of Derrick Rose, no other Bull showed more improvement than one Joakim Noah. Coming into this season he was still unproven, unreliable and trade bait to everyone outside off Chicago.
Even some in Chicago saw the big man as expendable.
The talks at the time included shipping Noah off as the centerpiece of a deal that would bring Carmelo Anthony to Chicago. Boy does that seem like ages ago. In 2011 Bulls GM Gar Forman made a bot of thing about sticking by his guys. This was shown later in the year when he vehemently refused to trade either Taj Gibson or Omer Asik for a shooter seeing the two as instrumental to the bench’s success. But the first glimpse we got of this loyalty was when Forman squashed all rumors and locked down Noah in Chicago for the next five years. On October 4th he inked a $60 plus-million deal and he never looked back.
Noah went on to play 24 games and amass 281 rebounds before undergoing hand surgery on December 23rd. He went on to miss the next 30 games while recovering and when he came back, he was a force.
In his next 24 games back, Noah posted 217 rebounds making his season total for 2011 498. It may seem like a low number for Noah (it’s his second lowest career total) but had he not had that injury which held him out about 37% of the season who knows what he could have done.
That doubt in what could have been is sparked by his improvement. Although it may not be in the numbers completely, it was on the court. Noah emerged as a true centerpiece in 2011, playing sidekick to Derrick Rose in the popularity contest and in terms of a team leader. It has been said Noah needs to be on your team for you to like him and this is a true statement. But why is LeBron James hated by most NBA fans: he’s not wearing their favorite five’s uniform.
Now this isn’t a comparison of Noah and James as players, but rather on a level of swagger.
An image imprinted on the minds of so many Bulls fans is that of Noah slamming in a put-back dunk and then flexing while screaming like an ancient warrior on the battlefield. If your favorite player was just dunked on, you can understand how it would appear Noah is rubbing it in.
But that’s basketball and that’s swagger. It’s what infected the Bulls in 2011 and Noah has been the personification, the poster boy of animated swagger for Chicago.
Here’s a game: Google pictures of Joakim Noah during a game and try and find one where he is smiling. You can’t find one, it’s the proverbial “Where’s Waldo” case. This is directly attributed to Noah’s sheer intensity during a game. He’s making $60 million over five years and he’s going to show you a face that wants to earn every penny of it.
Noah’s improvement was also that of a confidence it gave Chicago. Noah’s job is to rebound, which is why criticism of his shooting has always been laughable, as has situations in which he has been forced to shoot. But his rebounding is getting to be second to none. And because of that, there is a certain confidence that grows within a shooter who knows he has an ace rebounder on his court.
Take Derrick Rose for example. Even though he purposefully trained harder than he ever had last offseason, it’s hard not to find a correlation between his atmospheric shooting totals (compared to last year) and Joakim Noah. When you have him by your side and at your disposal your confidence grows. When you have a guy who’s sole job is to get the basketball and he’s very good at it, you’re going to take more shots. Bulls shooters knew that when that ball left their hands and if it went off the rim, chances were Noah was going to be there to give them a second chance.
He’s a $60 million “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
He didn’t have his best year but he showed the signs that there will plenty of monstrousness ones ahead. Joakim Noah started the season not knowing if Chicago would be his home and ended it one of it’s cornerstones. He began the year still just that kid from Florida to some people, and ended it a menace to play against. For this, Joakim Noah’s immense improvement and impact on the 2011 season, makes him the number 10 best moment of the Bulls season.