When the Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng for what basically amounted to some draft picks and future flexibility, Joakim Noah refused to speak to the media for several days. With one of his "brothers" traded away and the Bulls mired in another Derrick Rose-less season, times were tough for the eccentric All-Star center.
Making things even worse for Noah, tanking became a hot topic of discussion in Chicago. The argument went something like this: With championship dreams dashed thanks to Rose's second major knee injury in three years, a chance at a high draft pick seemed preferable to grinding out a decent record and possibly winning a playoff series before bowing out like last season.
The issue with that strategy, of course, is that Noah isn't exactly the tanking type. When Noah finally spoke in the wake of the Deng trade, he made it emphatically clear the Bulls weren't going that route, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
"I just think that all this adversity makes me stronger," he said. "It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I think I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot; [Derrick Rose's] injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we're going to go out there, and like I said, there's no tank in this team. We're going to grind and make this city proud."
Noah's words have proven true, as he has only gotten stronger as the year has gone on. Not only were the Bulls as a team mired in Rose-less doldrums, but Noah didn't look anything like himself during Chicago's 12-18 start. The big man missed a good chunk of the preseason with a groin issue, and although he was ready to start the season, he wasn't really "ready" to contribute at a high level.
Noah wasn't all that good in the Bulls' two October games, and in the month of November, he averaged just 9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. And not only were Noah's basic statistics rather pedestrian, but he also didn't have the major impact on the Bulls' defense like he did last season, when he was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before plantar fasciitis took its toll late in the year. From the start of the season to the end of November, the Bulls' defensive rating was 16.3 points per 100 possessions worse with Noah on the floor, according to NBA.com's stats page.
But things have steadily improved, with Noah's play reaching a peak in January when the Bulls went 11-4, with nine of those wins coming after the Deng trade. Noah averaged 13.6 points, 14.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.9 blocks in January, notching 10 double-doubles and reaching double-digit rebounds in every single game he played in. Following one of his best games of the year to date, a 26-point, 19-rebound, six-assist masterpiece in a 128-125 triple-overtime victory over the Orlando Magic, Noah delivered another message about tanking. This time, he spoke directly to the fans who advocated the strategy, according to Friedell:
"What do I say to those fans?" Noah told ESPNChicago.com after the Bulls' 128-125 triple-overtime victory Wednesday over the Orlando Magic. "I don't say nothing to those fans. It's all good. You're allowed to have your opinion. It's just ... that's not a real fan to me. You know what I'm saying? You want your team to lose? What is that? But it's all good."
Despite having one of the NBA's worst offenses, the Bulls currently sit at 27-25 and are only a game out of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls' elite defense, with Noah as the backbone, is mostly to thank for this. Chicago is second in the league in defensive rating, ranking only behind the especially stingy Indiana Pacers.
And while the Bulls' offense is bad, it would be even worse if not for Noah. Like last season without Rose, the Bulls often run offense through Noah in the high post, and his elite passing ability often gets good looks for willing cutters, like third-year wing Jimmy Butler. Noah really showed off his exquisite passing just a few days ago against the Atlanta Hawks, racking up 11 assists as part of his first triple-double of the season and the fourth of his career.
Noah's work on the offensive glass is also imperative to whatever success the Bulls' offense does have, as he makes hay on tip-ins and put-backs. Noah's 12.5 percent offensive rebound percentage ranks fifth among centers playing at least 30 minutes a game, per NBA.com's stats page.
Noah's excellent play and quirky nature has really endeared him to fans over the past few years. He's the guy you love to have on your team and the one you hate to play against thanks to his relentless nature. After being selected as an All-Star reserve last season, he delivered a Twitter acceptance speech that was Oscar worthy. How can you not love a guy who does that, or who does this when ejected from a 99-70 blowout loss at the hands Sacramento Kings?:
The game after the Kings debacle, the Bulls improbably beat the Phoenix Suns for the second time this season. Noah had 14 points and 12 rebounds while also buoying an excellent defensive effort against the high-scoring Suns. The victory highlighted a theme for the entire year: When faced with adversity, the Bulls often respond with a big effort.
Much of the credit for that goes to Joakim Noah, anti-tank commander. He's now also Joakim Noah, two-time All-Star.