Chicago Bulls Big Man Joakim Noah Can Be Elite Again if Healthy


Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah was reduced to a shell of his old self last season due to recurring knee problems resulting from offseason arthroscopic surgery. Critics are already dubbing Noah as over the hill and incapable of returning to the type of form that put him on the All-NBA first team for the 2013-2014 season. They are completely wrong; if Noah can stay healthy next season, he can return to elite form.

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At one point Noah was unquestionably elite. During the 2013-2014 season after Derrick Rose went down with another season-ending injury and Luol Deng was traded, Noah rallied his team to a 48-34 record and a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Noah’s herculean efforts that season didn’t pass unnoticed. He was named the NBA’s defensive player of the year and earned placement on the prestigious All-NBA first team. In addition, Noah finished fourth in MVP voting.

However, in the Bulls first round playoff match-up against the Washington Wizards, all the good came crashing down. CSN reporter Aggrey Sam explained what happened to Noah in an April 2014 column on CSN Chicago’s website.

"Visibly hobbled while running the floor, Noah gutted out the contest and although it was teammate Taj Gibson that would have to leave the floor — with 7:51 remaining, Gibson suffered a gruesome left-ankle injury and unable to talk under his own power, had to receive assistance going to the locker room — the versatile offensive facilitator and defensive anchor would later acknowledge that he wasn’t at full strength, albeit reluctantly.“There’s really no excuses right now. It’s been a long year and yeah, I’ve got things I’ve got to take care of,” Noah said. “My knee. My knee is bothering me. My left knee. I’m not sure what it is, but I was able to play today. I think I was limited a little bit. But it’s no excuses. I’ll check it out, find out what’s wrong and take care of it. And now, we’ve got a lot of time to take care of it.”"

In early May, Noah received what the organization deemed as “minor” arthroscopic knee surgery to repair damage in his left knee. At the time, doctors estimated that he would have to undergo an 8-12 week rehabilitation period before regaining full use of his knee.

At the beginning of March, Noah revealed that the offseason knee surgery was far from minor.

"“It was more than a scope. That’s what it was supposed to be. So it definitely took longer than we expected. But it’s nothing that I can’t recover from and be back 100 percent.”"

Noah’s downgraded performance resulted from the lingering impact of his preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. If he can stay healthy next season, he will return to the form that earned him a position on the 2014 All-NBA first team.

May 12, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) reacts after a dunk against Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov (20) in the first quarter in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Noah thrives off of his activity both offensively and defensively, and the lingering effects of his offseason arthroscopic knee surgery seriously limited his activity and neutralized his effectiveness as a player. His “hustle stats” are dramatically reduced from a season ago.

During the 2014-2015 season, Noah averaged 9.6 rebounds per game, the lowest of his career since his second year in the league. When taken individually, both his offensive and defensive rebounding averages were among the lowest of his career last season. According to basketball reference, Noah only accounted for 17.1% of the total rebounds on the team, which is the lowest of his career since his rookie season in the NBA. Also, he accounted for only 11.9% of the total offensive rebounds on the team, which is another statistic that is the second lowest of his career.

Obviously, a pretty simple explanation for Noah’s decline in rebounding efficiency is the presence of Pau Gasol. During the 2014-2015 season, Gasol actually out-rebounded Noah in terms of rebounds per game. However, Gasol accounted for only six percent of the team’s offensive rebounds, meaning his presence doesn’t suffice in explaining Noah’s lack of offensive rebounding. In his time in Chicago, Carlos Boozer averaged a higher percentage of the offensive rebounds on the team than Gasol did this season. This further proves that lack of offensive activity due to the injury impacted Noah’s offensive rebounding to a much greater extent than the presence of Gasol on this roster.

May 6, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) and Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In other “hustle categories,” Noah has seen reductions in per game statistics. He averaged 1.1 blocks per game this season, which is the second lowest of his career. In terms of defensive steals, Noah’s 0.7 per game was significantly lower than the 1.2 he averaged in each of the previous two seasons.

Defensively Noah’s numbers have dropped as well. According to basketball reference, Noah’s defensive win shares dropped to 3.1 games (third lowest of his career), which means he isn’t contributing defensively to the extent that he had in previous seasons.

It isn’t a coincidence that Noah’s averages in “hustle categories” have plummeted in the same season in which his activity has been limited by offseason knee surgery. Noah became the defensive player of the year last season because of his effort defensively. This season he has been unable to replicate these numbers, because he is physically unable to produce the effort needed to make the same type of impact.

The lingering effects of the arthroscopic knee surgery also led to Noah’s troubles finishing around the rim, because the lift on his shot was dramatically reduced for the majority of the season.

Notice in the vine how far Noah gets off the ground. His jumping ability clearly isn’t in top form. Draft Express reported in 2007 that Noah had a 37.5 inch vertical at the NBA Pre-Draft camp. His no-step vertical was 32.5 inches.  To put these numbers in perspective, the average no-step vertical jump in the NBA is 28 inches.

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The lingering effects of the arthroscopic knee surgery have clearly neutralized Noah’s leaping ability, making it harder for him to finish over people. The advanced stats indicate that Noah has struggled immensely in finishing shots around the basket.

During the 2014-2015 season, over 78 percent of Noah’s shots came from within ten feet of the basket, yet he only shot 47.4 percent on shots from this range. In the playoffs, his struggles finishing around the rim were even more pronounced. Over 93 percent of his shots came within ten feet of the basket, yet he shot 43.7 percent from this range.

In addition, according to basketball reference‘s shooting statistics, Noah shot a career low 51.5 percent on shots that were within three feet of the basket. He also only dunked the ball 25 times this season. The lack of lift as a result of the knee injury explains these statistics because his knee physically prevented him from finishing over defenders or dunking over people.

May 12, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

One bad season doesn’t define a career, especially when the season in question was plagued by injuries. Statistical analysis proves that that the stats dependent on hustle and energy were down due to his knee injury preventing Noah from bringing the activity that has defined his game all these years. The best prescription for him this offseason is rest and rehabilitation, because when healthy he is one of the best players in the league.

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