Joakim Noah is keeping the Bulls afloat

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls' center has been his team's life vest, singlehandedly propping up an otherwise-mediocre squad with his defense and high-post playmaking. Elsewhere, a look at two young guards being stretched beyond their comfort zones and much more. SB Nation's GIF Tournament V

It's a testament to the indomitable, inexplicable Chicago Bulls that it's nearly impossible to discuss them without resorting to cliché. They're led by a center who is unselfish, plays every game like it's his last, doesn't care about numbers, shows the heart of a champion and is a throwback to an era in which players played for love of the game instead of a paycheck. Their coach is a firebrand, and his selfless, blue-collar team embodies Chicago toughness, responding in the face of adversity and heroically going to battle despite the odds being stacked against them.

That all tells you nothing, of course. But those phrases, despite being repeated into meaninglessness generations ago, actually make sense where the Bulls are concerned. There really is something inspiring about the way they've rolled through their schedule since trading Luol Deng in what was supposed to be a throw-in-the-towel move. Since the deal, the Bulls are 19-9, despite not having Deng or guard Derrick Rose, and are in prime position for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference.

And, that laundry list of familiar praise aside, the Bulls certainly have their center to thank. It's easy to love Joakim Noah, but clichés too often get in the way of substance when discussing his impact. We can say Joakim Noah is a valuable player, but few would go so far as to suggest that he's one of the very most important in the league. But the way he's playing now, there's a case to be made that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant are more essential to their team's success. We might as well make it.

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Noah is, of course, an elite defensive player. He can protect the rim, guard an opponent's best player, switch and cover smaller players as needed, roam off his man to clog driving lanes and deter anyone from getting where they want on the pick-and-roll. He's fantastically good at using his arms to aid his feet. Notice here how he extends his hand at Vince Carter as if he was holding a stop sign, which momentarily stops Carter from attacking this pick-and-roll:

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Most importantly, Noah can perform multiple tasks at once. He can slide to cut off the ball-handler, then scurry back to his own man before they can get a good shot off:

Noahpnrd

But we already knew Noah was a great defender. The real change has come on the other end, where he's singlehandedly propping up Chicago's attack without Rose and Deng. His transformation began last year when Tom Thibodeau rejiggered the team's offense to use Noah's passing skills more with Rose out, but it has ascended to another level this season without Deng.

Simply put, Noah's passing is the Bulls' offense. The Bulls are nearly seven points better per 100 possessions with Noah in the game, going from a respectable unit to the worst in the league when he sits. Noah himself is assisting on nearly 24 percent of the Bulls' possessions when he's in the game, per Basketball Reference. That's the highest mark for a center since Vlade Divac in 2003-04.

It all works because Thibodeau puts Noah in the high post and runs cutters off him. It doesn't matter that Carlos Boozer isn't really willing to back guys down, or that Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell are wings uncomfortable with creating their own offense off the dribble. It doesn't matter that Kirk Hinrich has lost any creativity he once had and that D.J. Augustin looks to score first. With Noah sliding across the pinch post like a center midfielder, the rest of the Bulls can focus on doing what they do best. All of them are fine cutters off the ball, and Noah's passing plays to and plays up those strengths.

Consider this play, for example:


There's a very small window for Noah to slip in a bounce pass to Boozer, but the delivery is so on point that all Boozer needs to do is turn left and he's at the rim. No post moves are necessary.

And as the New York Knicks know, taking Noah out of the lane opens it up for his teammates to go backdoor. Noah doesn't need to see much separation to deliver passes like these:

Noahbackdoorsnell

Noah's high-post versatility also helps minimize his biggest weakness: his much-maligned jump shot. For all the talk of Noah's improvement in this area, he's still shooting under 34 percent on mid-range attempts, per NBA.com. The solution would seem clear: Leave Noah alone and let him freely fire away from the perimeter.

But it's not that simple, for two reasons. First, if a team ignores Noah, they give him a free look at the rest of the court. The best way to disrupt backdoor plays and post entries is to pressure the passer; when a defense doesn't do that, it makes spotting the openings easier. In this case, Jermaine O'Neal ignores Noah, which gives him a clear look at a backdoor cut Butler makes on Stephen Curry:

Noahpasss2

Also, not pressuring Noah puts the defense at a disadvantage when trying to defend the Bulls' dribble handoff sequences. Noah is the best in the league at coming to a teammate and turning it into a screen play. He can spring a guy like Dunleavy or Butler, and if their man overplays, Noah will hit them cutting backdoor. But if the opposing big man is playing way off Noah, it leaves the other team's perimeter defender all alone to defend a difficult two-man action. It's very hard for one man to guard a dribble hand-off, much less one involving the best passing big in basketball:


In this way, Noah forces his man to honor him without shooting. And when that defender tries to get too close, Noah has the ball-handling ability to make a move and the creativity and craft to make split-second pass/shoot decisions against pressure:

Noahlayupdrdive

Without Noah, the Bulls' offense just doesn't work. They lack playmakers at every position, and all the motion in the world wouldn't fix that. But Noah's high-post play allows them to generate the right kind of spacing anyway, and his pinpoint deliveries turn them into finishers instead of creators.

Toss in his elite defense and all those clichés start to seem perfectly apt, and utterly un-clichéd.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.

I didn't go to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, but I was intrigued reading about the Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein panel discussing the how great athletes are developed. Hardwood Paroxysm's Amin Vafa astutely noted the parallel to how younger NBA players hone their skills:

If you take "the sampling period" out of this setting and move it into a smaller arena -- say, the NBA -- you might be able to tease out similar evidence that leads to both player success and team success. For example, teams like Philadelphia and Orlando have very few short-term goals in terms of wins and losses; with young rosters, they are in a unique position to experiment with the skills of their recent draft picks. Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo weren't necessarily seen as multi-skill guards coming into the NBA this past season, but since their teams are invested in their development, they have given them their own micro-level "sampling period" in which they can try out and perfect (or throw out) new skills. Is playing Oladipo -- a shooting guard -- at point guard an implicit admission of tanking by the Magic, or is it an effort to tease out and hone any latent ball-handling skills? If Oladipo is tasked with scoring, handling the ball, rebounding, and other skills, is it a waste of his professional development, or does it help sharpen and focus his abilities on his one or two most apt traits?

This immediately applies to two young off-guards who have had somewhat disappointing years statistically: Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal. Both are elite three-point shooters, yet both take a ton of difficult mid-range jumpers that they don't convert at a high rate. Neither gets to the free-throw line enough, so despite their reputations as elite shooters, they are inefficient. And hardcore fans of their teams, in turn, wonder if they are being used incorrectly. This tweet sums up the issue with Thompson, while scores of Bullets Forever comments have addressed the Beal issue.

But what if both teams are taking the long view? What if their current ineffectiveness is simply due to sampling? What if today's struggles are designed to widen their development in the future?

In Thompson's case, he could run and shoot threes with Stephen Curry all day. It'd make him incredibly efficient. In the long run, though, it'd also make Golden State's offense predictable, with only Curry and David Lee to act as primary scorers. If Thompson also became an elite guard, one capable of effectively creating offense off screens and posting up smaller players on mismatches, it'd make the Warriors so much more dangerous.

In the short term, he's not there yet. This might look like an open shot, but the defense would much rather he take it than someone else:

Klayt2

And this play probably made Warriors fans cringe:

Klayt

But what if the Warriors ran the same exact plays, but Thompson made better reads instead? Look at this screenshot of the first play again:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_4

If Thompson had a little more experience, he'd know that the right play is to sell the defense on his shot, then drop it off to a rolling Lee for a dunk.

Similarly, if Thompson had a little more recognition in the second play, he'd realize that Andrew Bogut was setting a flare screen to free Curry:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_5

Thompson doesn't see those passes now. But if he keeps sampling, he may learn how to read the situations better in the future.

The same dilemma is happening in D.C. Beal is an elite shooter with advanced off-ball movement, but he never was much of a ball-handler. Sensing that they rely too much on John Wall's playmaking -- the All-Star guard controls the ball for more time than any other player in the league, according to the latest SportVU data -- the Wizards are trying to use Beal more in pick-and-rolls.

In the short term, that has frustratingly resulted in a lot of this:


Long, contested two-point jumpers aplenty. This is how one of the league's best three-point shooters manages to be a 41.2 percent overall marksman from the floor.

But, again, what if the Wizards see it as Beal sampling a new skill? What if they accept sub-optimal results now because they want Beal to gain experience learning how to properly attack those kind of coverages? In the long run, perhaps it teaches Beal how to read defenses and develop the kind of moves needed to create better opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Moves like this, for example:

Beal

Would Beal have the capacity to come off that pick with his whole body by Courtney Lee, throw in a hesitation dribble to make a great defender like Marc Gasol retreat and get to his spot to finish with a tough floater if he hadn't been involved in so many pick-and-rolls before that play? I doubt it.

There's a fine line here, one both teams might be crossing. Perhaps they are asking too much of their young players. Perhaps it'd be better for their confidence to focus on what they already do well instead of trying to stretch them into roles they cannot yet and may not ever fill effectively.

But if either player makes a big jump in the future, the experience gained in sampling situations out of their comfort zones will be a huge reason why.

LEFTOVERS

Ten other observations from the week that was.

1. I don't think Chandler Parsons gets enough credit for the Rockets' success. Want to know how the Rockets' offense generates great spacing despite actually being a mediocre three-point shooting team? It's players like Parsons squeezing through small gaps when the defense momentarily shifts:

Parsons1

Parsons2

Notice how he's already getting a running start as the ball is delivered. He stands well behind the line, allowing him to maximize the space he gets for his drives:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_12

Parsons also has deft passing touch, so he's not just a scorer on these plays:

Parsons3

His defense is still not great, but it's getting better. He matters more to the Rockets than many realize.

2. There are so many problems with the Pistons that go way beyond Andre Drummond. He's putting up incredible numbers, dominating the offensive glass and showing why he is a potential future star.

That said, given that he is the franchise's future and cannot be poisoned by the terrible mix around him, it's concerning that he's not trying to contest as many shots as he did last year. Last year's Drummond would have challenged Jordan Hamilton at the rim here:


This year, he's consistently letting guys go for easy layups and dunks. It's a little disturbing.

The best-case scenario is that Drummond is overreacting to the threat of foul trouble now that he's playing extended minutes. The worst-case, though, is that the bad habits of his disappointing teammates and the general corrosive dysfunction in Detroit are starting to wear on him. It's one thing for Drummond to still be learning the nuances of team defense, but it's another for him to not go all out on that end the way he does offensively and on the glass.

3. It's always more difficult than it appears to nail down a team's pick-and-roll scheme. We like to think there's one default plan, but in reality, every team has different coverages that depend on the players involved and location on the floor.

That said, it seems like the Pelicans are shifting strategies. Previously, Monty Williams' club would ask its big men to jump out high on pick-and-rolls, like so:

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But things may be changing a bit, due perhaps to the presence of slower-footed big men like Alexis Ajinca and Greg Stiemsma. Notice Ajinca's positioning in this pick-and-roll, for example:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_10

They'll still use Davis to hard hedge at times, most notably in Friday's loss to the Suns, but it's happening less often with everyone else. And even Davis occasionally is laying back a bit instead of coming all the way out:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_11

It's too early to say if this is a long-term shift, and even the most rigid defensive systems must be adjusted to account for unique matchups like Stephen Curry and Channing Frye.

But with their season lost, now's as good a time as any for Williams to experiment with different looks.

4. Want to know why the Goran Dragic/Channing Frye duo was rated the very best pick-and-roll combination in the league? It's because you're combining one of the league's best drivers with arguably the premier role-playing Stretch 4 in the league. It is very hard to "blue" or "ICE" a side pick-and-roll like most teams do against the Dragic/Frye combo. Try it, and something like this happens:

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_6

That leaves few alternatives. Switching forces a mismatch, whether it's in the post, where Frye can score on smaller defenders, or on the perimeter, where Dragic can zip by them. Running a third defender from the opposite side to corral Frye can be costly because the Suns space the floor so well that two quick passes can result in an open three.

So, many teams just stay connected to Frye, which in turn opens up driving lanes for Dragic:

Dragic1

Dragic is a great driver, but the threat of Frye is one of the big reasons why he's the ninth-most efficient scorer as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per MySynergySports.com. This is the very definition of pick your poison. And poison is bad for you.

5. The Wizards' offense can be needlessly complicated, with a lot of slow-developing setup motion that leads to inefficient mid-range jumpers. Look at at all the movement on this play for... a 17-foot pull-up shot. Was all that really necessary?:


That's why it's encouraging to see this quick-hitting Pistol set from Andre Miller, who made a living running this formation in Denver:


Pistol is a sideline sequence often involving two players running a pick-and-roll, with the third popping to the top of the key or acting as misdirection. It's simple, but very effective against retreating defenses. The Wizards need more of these secondary break actions in their playbook.

6. It's early, but count me as worried about how Evan Turner fits in with Indiana. Are the Pacers really going to let him pound the ball on key possessions in tight games in the playoffs with so many better options on the court?:


I know Turner was having a good game against Boston, but he needs to stay in his lane.

How does Turner really fit on a second unit anchored by Stephenson? Both he and Lance Stephenson are ball-dominant, and since Lance is such a strong playmaker, that means Turner will have to shift to off-ball mode, which isn't his strength.

There's a chance this works in the long run, and Turner is at least a better overall player this year than Danny Granger had been. But can he fit in fast enough? The playoffs aren't that far away.

7. One would think the Nets' small starting lineup would struggle defensively, but that hasn't been the case. The Nets are tied for sixth in the league in defensive efficiency since Jan. 1, even though they're playing Paul Pierce at power forward for long stretches. One key reason is the way their wings crash far into the paint to contain dribble penetration. Look at the positioning of all five players on this Randy Foye drive:

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Every good defense is about protecting the paint, but without a traditional rim protector, the Nets must do so collectively and in a more exaggerated fashion than other teams. Rebounding is still an issue and the defense still struggles mightily without Kevin Garnett on the floor, but credit Jason Kidd and his coaching staff for devising a game plan that works in the short term.

8. By contrast, the Nuggets ...

Dieng

What exactly are Quincy Miller and Randy Foye doing?

Screen_shot_2014-03-04_at_3

9. DeMar DeRozan is never going to be a great passer, but he's done yeoman's work improving his court vision to the point where it's good enough. This isn't the cleanest pass, but it's a read he would not have made in the past:

Ross

The DeRozan of two years ago would have taken that corner jumper. This year's DeRozan sees Terrence Ross cutting out of the corner of his eye and understands that he can use the attention he draws to open up Ross' move.

10. You'll be stunned to learn that the vaunted 4-1 zone defense by the Knicks resulted in an open three:

Screen_shot_2014-03-03_at_8

Someone forgot to remind Tyson Chandler about the offsides trap.

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