The Point Center
By Brian Martin
The 2013-14 Chicago Bulls season can essentially be broken down into three phases:
- The optimism of Derrick Rose's return to a team that made the second round of playoffs in his absence last season. That lasted just 11 games. The Bulls were 6-5.
- The resolve that this team of overachievers -- anchored by All-Stars Luol Deng and Joakim Noah -- could still make a playoff run for the second straight year without the former MVP. Luol Deng was traded on Jan. 7. The Bulls were 14-18.
- The incredible/surprising/uplifting/insert-adjective-here run that the Bulls have gone on since losing a player that coach Tom Thibodeau called "the glue" of the team. The Bulls are 33-26 and fourth in the Eastern Conference standings entering Monday's game with the Brooklyn Nets.
Rose injured. Deng gone. The only Bulls All-Star remaining since the Jordan and Pippen days is Noah. And he has been the centerpiece of this remarkable run over the past two months.
Since Deng's departure on Jan. 7, the Bulls have gone 19-8, a 0.704 win percentage that is only topped by Houston (0.750), Indiana (0.731), Miami (0.727), Memphis (0.720) and the LA Clippers (0.708).
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls have always ranked among the league's top defensive teams. And this year is no different. Before the Deng trade, the Bulls ranked second in defensive efficiency (behind Indiana) at 97.8 points per 100 possessions allowed. In the 26 games since the trade, the exact same 97.8 rating and No. 2 overall ranking.
The key difference has come on the offensive end, the side of the ball where Thibodeau squads don't always excel. On Sunday, the Bulls defeated the Knicks 109-90, the fourth straight game in which the Bulls had exceeded 100 points. That had never happened in the four-year Thibodeau era.
And the catalyst all game was Noah -- the point center -- who picked apart the Knicks from the high post, setting up his teammates on handoffs, backdoor cuts, skip passes for threes (watch all of assists here). In the end, Noah tallied a career-best 14 assists, with only one turnover, as part of his second triple-double of the season.
"It's really all my teammates," said Noah after the game, deflecting all praise. "I think we're getting better every game."
This was Noah's fourth game this season with at least 10 assists and all have come over Chicago's last 11 games. In the first 442 games of his career, Noah had just three such games.
He's always had the ability to make plays for his teammates, but without Rose and without Deng, there is a necessity for him to carry the playmaking load for this team now more than ever.
"It gives us another weapon. It opens up a lot of things for us," said Thibodeau.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Noah's 14 assists on Sunday were the most by a center since Sam Lacey on Dec. 6, 1978. Over his last 11 games, Noah is averaging 7.4 assists. Looking at all teams' last 11 games, Noah is tied for ninth in assists, with only point guards ahead of him.
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||31||3.5||18.6%|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||26||6.2||28.1%|
Since Deng was traded to Cleveland, Noah's assists have risen by nearly three per game and his assist percentage -- the percentage of his teammate's field goals he assisted while on the floor -- has risen by nearly 10 percent. His assist percentage since Jan. 7 is tops among centers and 23rd overall in the league, with only point guards and two forwards (LeBron James and Kevin Durant) ahead of him.
SportVU data helps us break down Noah's rise in playmaking even further.
|Split||GP||MIN||AST||Passes||AST OPP||PTS created by AST per game||PTS created by AST per 48 Min|
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||31||32.4||3.45||55.42||6.32||7.90||11.68|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||26||36.4||6.15||70.19||11.15||14.46||18.98|
Since the trade, Noah is throwing nearly 15 more passes per game, leading to just under five additional assist opportunities (passes that lead to shots that, if made, would result in an assist for the passer). With those added opportunities, Noah's teammates have scored nearly seven more points per game off of Noah's dishes.
If you break it down even further, before the trade, the Bulls were scoring 1.25 points for every Noah assist opportunity and 0.143 points for every Noah pass. Since the trade, those numbers are up to 1.30 and 0.206, respectively.
Noah is playing an additional four minutes per game since the trade, which accounts for some of his additional production. But by comparing his points created by assists per 48 minutes, we still see a dramatic rise (11.68 to 18.98) over the past two months.
Since the trade, the Bulls have played 27 games, with Noah missing one due to illness. Of the 26 games he's played, Noah has led the team in assists outright 11 times and tied for the team lead twice. For the season, Noah is averaging a career-best 4.7 assists, second on the Bulls to D.J. Augustin, who joined the team on Dec. 13. Noah leads the team in total assists with 269 and has led the team in assists in 18 games, second only to Augustin with 19. Let's not forget -- Noah is a center.
As impressive as the assist numbers are, Noah has been more than just a playmaker. He ranks sixth overall in rebounding at 11.5 per game, and similar to his assists, the rebounding numbers have been on the rise since the Deng trade went down.
"What can you say? He is playing MVP basketball," Taj Gibson said of his teammate. "He is doing everything in all facets of the game."
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||31||32.4||3.5||6.6||10.1||12.2%||22.8%||17.5%|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||26||36.4||4.0||9.1||13.1||13.0%||27.6%||20.5%|
The rebounding numbers are up on both sides of the court, but especially on the defensive end, which are up 2.7 per game as Noah's grabbing 4.8 percent more defensive rebounds while he is on the court than he did prior to the trade.
Once again, SportVU lets us delve even deeper into the rebounding numbers.
|Split||GP||MIN||REB||REB Chances/game||PCT of REB/chance||Cont REB||Uncont REB||Cont REB %|
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||31||32.4||10.1||17.1||59.2%||4.2||6.0||41.1%|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||26||36.4||13.1||19.7||66.6%||5.6||7.5||42.5%|
While Noah's rebounds per game have increased by 3.0 since Jan. 7, his rebounding chances per game have only increased by 2.6 per game. A rebound chance is defined as being within the 3.5 foot vicinity of the ball when it is rebounded. Noah is grabbing two-thirds (66.6%) of all rebounds when he has a chance at them, up over seven percent from before the trade. His three-rebound increase has been split evenly between contested and uncontested rebounds, with 42.5 percent of Noah's rebounds coming with an opposing player in the 3.5 foot vicinity of the rebound.
And let's not forget about scoring ... that is up too over the past two months for Noah.
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||31||32.4||10.9||5.0||10.2||45.8%||71.8%||51.4%|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||26||36.4||13.4||4.1||8.9||49.2%||72.4%||54.9%|
Noah is only attempting 1.3 more field goals per game, but has raised his scoring by 2.5 points. Both his field goal and free throw percentages are up, raising his true shooting percentage to 54.9 percent. While he is not shooting the lights out (he ranks 13th among centers in true shooting percentage since Jan. 7), it is marked improvement from the first two months of the season. And with the Bulls, every point matters, as they are the fourth-worst offensive team in the league at 98.9 points per 100 possessions on the season.
A key takeaway from all of this is that Noah has been at his best when his team has needed him most. But we can't forget his early season struggles, either. After a groin injury sidelined him for nearly all of training camp, Noah struggled in the opening weeks of the season, when the Bulls were at full strength with Rose and Deng in tow.
Looking at Noah's on-court/off-court numbers, the Bulls were actually better with him on the bench prior to the Deng trade.
|Split||OffRtg ON||DefRtg ON||NetRtg ON||OffRtg OFF||DefRtg OFF||NetRtg OFF||DIFF|
|Oct. 29 to Jan. 4||97.7||100.7||-3.1||93.7||92.3||1.4||4.5 pts per 100 poss better with Noah on bench|
|Jan. 7 to Mar. 2||103.3||96.0||7.3||93.1||102.6||-9.6||16.9 pts per 100 poss better with Noah on floor|
Since the trade on Jan. 7, those numbers have made a huge turn with the Bulls nearly 17 points per 100 possessions better with Noah on the floor than when he's on the bench.
But it took some time for Noah to get back to his All-Star form, something that Thibodeau has discussed throughout the season.
After the opening week of the season, Thibodeau called Noah a "work in progress" as he worked to get his timing back after the prolonged absence.
"I'm not surprised that some people are not in rhythm yet," Thibodeau told NBC Chicago on Nov. 6. "You can't miss an entire training camp or a good chunk of it and expect to play well. You have to put the time and work into it."
Fast forward a month and there were signs that Noah was staring to come around.
"I think the biggest problem that he's had this year is missing training camp. So basically this would be like if he had gone a month from camp," Thibodeau told CSN Chicago on Dec. 6. "So you could see his timing's coming back and he's getting a lot more comfortable with the ball. His defense has been there, but his reaction, his timing, all that stuff is pretty good right now."
Once the calendar flipped to 2014, the real Noah was back and Thibodeau began singing his praises.
"He's doing just about everything. Laundry, everything," Thibodeau told CSN Chicago. "You can't play any better than he's playing right now. In every aspect of the game, the defense has been there all season, the rebounding off the charts; but the playmaking, the decisions, quick decisions, multiple effort, it sets the tone for our team."
That last quote came on Jan. 18, shortly after the Deng trade but still a few weeks before Noah's barrage of double-digit assist games.
Apparently, he could play better than he was just six weeks ago.