Joakim Noah: The one-man zone

Mike Ehrmann

Joakim Noah's defensive impact didn't always live up to his reputation, but that has changed in a big way, thanks to his growth over the past couple seasons.

The fundamentals of Tom Thibodeau's famed strong-side zone defense haven't changed much since his days as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics. There might be less trapping and more soft coverage on the pick and roll, but otherwise, it's still about sending an extra defender to the side of the floor with the ball and positioning the other three defenders to take away the simple passes.

Joakim Noah's importance in that system, on the other hand? That has changed for the better.

Noah was always a good defender, of course, but the Bulls' system used to live on fine without him. Some of this is because of Noah's replacements; Omer Asik could replicate a lot of the same responsibilities, and Taj Gibson was healthy and effective in ways he wasn't last season. But some of this was also because of Noah's own development. Perfectly molding his whirling dervish of a motor with an understanding of the system's principles has taken some time.

But we saw the optimal balance with Noah last year. There was still a lot of the same activity that we have seen for several years that has become the foundation of his success. Noah is still sleek enough to stay with perimeter threats on switches, like he does here with Dwyane Wade.


And he's still agile enough to close out on all sorts of players. A center should not be able to do this to Greivis Vasquez, especially in a late-game, don't-foul situation.


Nor should they be able to cut off a guard like Dion Waiters in a late-game situation.


But Noah's improved defensive intelligence means he doesn't have to do these things as much anymore. Like Marc Gasol, Noah has developed an uncanny ability to both recognize and anticipate plays. He relies as much on positioning as he does on his natural abilities.

This obviously applies for isolations, against which Thibodeau's strong-side zone is most effective. Noah's positioning in this sequence from Game 2 of the Bulls' first-round playoff series win over the Nets could not be better.


This is a simple rotation in Thibodeau's system, but Noah's execution is pristine. Two things stand out. One, he immediately recognizes the Nets' play, so he doesn't even bother to come out at Lopez as he sets the screen to try to free Joe Johnson.

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Two, he only turns to double-team Johnson when he's sure the man behind him, Carlos Boozer, will pick up his man. In past years, Noah may have doubled too quickly. This time, he waits until the right moment.

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All that contributes to Johnson's air ball.

Noah also has figured out ways to conserve energy when defending pick and rolls. After spending more time hedging and recovering in previous years, Noah now almost exclusively drops back like most centers. Sometimes, he drops back really far, even against dangerous shooters like Kyrie Irving.

Screen_shot_2013-10-02_at_4

Noah's even further back on LeBron James here.

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That's the kind of coverage you normally see from lumbering giants like Roy Hibbert, but Noah's smart about it. He knows that Irving and LeBron have no interest in pulling up for the jumper on these plays. What's the point of wasting energy to get out higher when they're hoping to drive anyway? Noah understands this and is able to contest both of their wild 10-foot floaters, which miss badly.

But Noah's spider sense has developed beyond his basic responsibilities in Thibodeau's system. He can play the Boozer role in the Johnson screenshots as well as anyone. Notice how he's perfectly positioned to guard two players as the Bulls double-team Klay Thompson here.

Screen_shot_2013-10-02_at_4

Thompson eventually throws the ball away to Noah trying to find David Lee.

Noah's play recognition off the ball has also dramatically improved, to the point where he might be Gasol's equal. Notice this play from the same Warriors game, where Noah blows up the Warriors' initial play -- a screen-the-screener set that called for Andrew Bogut to come from the opposite side to screen for Stephen Curry -- and their secondary play -- a down screen for Klay Thompson -- by positioning himself directly in the plays' paths before they are executed.


Noah's activity was on full display there, but he also needed to have the intelligence to understand the Warriors' set and triggers. The activity has always been there. The intelligence is what is now fully developed.

The combined package is what makes Noah the Bulls' most essential defender. Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are all great and important, but they can't do the things they do without Noah. Noah's ability to be the Bulls' one-man zone allows them to guard their man tighter, making them look even better when their man flings the kind of wild shot that Johnson took in one of the above videos. It's no secret that the Bulls' defense looked positively unThibsian from the moment Noah's plantar fasciitis started becoming a problem in late March (see table)**. They need Noah more than ever.

Certainly, the absence of Asik and the lessening frontcourt depth has a lot to do with that. But the more important factor is Noah's own development. With the combination of his intelligence and athleticism, Noah truly is a one-man zone.

***

* Noah did play in three games down the stretch, but only for a total of 49 minutes, so this sample isn't statistically relevant.

** Chicago's defensive rating dipped to 106.8 in the playoffs as Noah hobbled around at much less than 100 percent, which is obviously much worse than 103.1. But playing Miami and the absences of Deng for some games and Hinrich for even more had a lot to do with that.

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