NBA All-Star 2013: Joakim Noah, a testament to self-improvement

USA TODAY Sports

Joakim Noah is shouldering a bigger burden than ever this season in Chicago, and the Bulls are reaping the benefits.

The Chicago Bulls never wanted to lose Omer Asik. The Bulls' front office emphasized this throughout the offseason, or at least until the moment they heard Rockets GM Daryl Morey had engineered a 'poison pill' offer sheet to Chicago's backup center. Asik fell under the 'Gilbert Arena Rule', implemented in the CBA to help teams retain second-round draft picks who out-performed their rookie deals. Under this provision, Asik, a restricted free agent, could not be paid more than the mid-level exception (around $5 million) in each of his first two seasons with another club.

The Rockets thought enough of Asik to make the final season of a three-season deal what was essentially a max contract. Morey is not stupid: He knew the Bulls were historically among the most frugal teams in the NBA, he knew more punitive luxury tax penalties were on the way and he knew Chicago already had big money committed long-term to four players.

The interior pillar of Chicago's incredible second unit was gone. How would the Bulls replace him? Tom Thibodeau had a radical idea. He would never take Joakim Noah out.

For the first two months of the season, this wasn't much of an exaggeration. Luol Deng was leading the NBA in minutes -- nothing to see here -- and he was closely followed by Noah. Noah was averaging 40.2 minutes per game until Christmas, putting him on pace to become one of five centers in the last 30 seasons to average more than 40 minutes per night. The Bulls were reaping the immediate rewards, to an extent, keeping their heads above .500 without superstar guard Derrick Rose. No small accomplishment.

The Bulls didn't become one of the East's best teams until January, and Thibodeau had hardly eased up on Noah. He averaged 37.5 minutes per game that month as the Bulls climbed the standings by finishing 12-4. Of course, the minutes would eventually take their toll.

After a five-game stretch to end the month in which Noah played 45, 39, 43, 45 and 40 minutes each night, the Bulls center was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. It wasn't the first time. In 2010, Noah missed 18 games with same injury in his left foot. Now he had it in his right foot, likely a byproduct of the obscene workload the Bulls place on their starting center.

Tom Thibodeau just wants to win games, almost to a fault. Thank goodness he doesn't have children, because this is the type of person that would ride the same 11 girls all match long in a youth soccer league. Giving everyone a chance is for the feeble-minded.

Thibodeau does not see the big picture, he only sees the next game on the schedule. When it comes down to winning that one game, it's easy to see why the coach would want Noah on the floor as much as possible, and why a hobbled Noah returned to the Bulls' lineup after missing only three games.

Noah has been revelation for the Bulls, and a tried-and-true example of what hard work, a willingness to be coached and a warrior's mentality can get you. Joakim Noah didn't always look predestined to become an All-Star, but he'll represent the Bulls in Houston this weekend because he refused to let his career sink under the pressure of early obstacles.

There was a time when Joakim Noah looked like a bust. He was suspended during his rookie season by his own teammates after getting into a verbal altercation with an assistant coach. When the season ended, he was arrested for marijuana possession. His endurance was poor in those early years. It was obvious he needed to get stronger.

None of this is an issue anymore.

There's a lot to like about Noah now, and it's the reason he's one of the popular athletes in Chicago. Rose might be the most famous person in the city, but his 'pitbull on quaaludes' personality doesn't always get the people going. Truth is, Rose fits in with what the Bulls want to be. It's a team that still don't allow its players to wear headbands. It's an organization that has always self-identified with the city's blue collar, a philosophy that has no time for style. And then there's Noah:

Joakim-noah-dance-tv_medium

He starts crap with with Kevin Garnett and LeBron, because that's a cool thing to do. He celebrates with finger guns, but he knows when to holster them. He likes to party and freely offers advice on how to cure hangovers. He was recently kicked off the Bulls' bench in a game against the Pacers for being too cool for the state of Indiana. Joakim Noah is a treasure.

He's also a damn good basketball player. That Noah makes his first All-Star team during the first "center" doesn't appear on the ballot is even more impressive. Noah isn't in Houston because of the East's dearth of quality big men, he's there because he's earned it.

Noah has a reputation for being a defensive-minded player, and it's largely true. The Defensive Player of the Year award looks like it will be a two-horse between him and Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. Noah's footwork and lateral quickness are the reasons why the Bulls can run the scheme they do, using Noah's athleticism to rush opposing ball handlers on the pick-and-roll while still being able to recover if the ball is swung. He's fifth in rebounds per game and eighth in blocks. But don't let the reputation fool you: Noah is still a skilled offensive player.

His ugly jump shot is easy to focus on. It looks like a volleyball set with the rotation of a globe, sometimes even a knuckleball. It has a tendency to obscure all of the other things Noah does well on offense -- passing, ball handling, crashing the glass to give Chicago extra possessions.

Noah has the second-best assist rate among centers this season. His ability to pass out of the high post is key to a Bulls' offense devoid of shot creators without Rose. He's grown increasingly comfortable with his outside jump shot, even if the percentages still aren't great. When it does go in, it opens things up even more for those crisp passes that often lead to layups for his teammates.

So many of the All-Stars in Houston this year were preordained that way. They dominated AAU, topped recruiting rankings, spent a year or two in college before leaving for the NBA. Noah has the bloodlines of a prodigious athlete and was a top-10 draft pick, sure, but he represents the power of self-improvement. Without it, Tom Thibodeau's well-oiled machine just wouldn't run the same.

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