Wednesday, March 19, 2014

NBA Team of the Week: The Chicago Bulls and Noah's Art

Alex Theoharides (@Minne_Pop, @TWolvesDaily) on Chicago's title chances and Joakim Noah's brilliant style of play.

More than any other sport, the NBA is a league in which the best teams always win. Sure, potential matters. Young talent is fascinating to watch. And incredible shooting performances can pull off a single game upset. But in a seven game series, ultimately the best team wins.

There is one big “HOWEVER”: and that is the question of who the best teams have to play to reach the Finals. In other words, the journey matters. If teams slip too easily through the playoffs without being fully tested, they could fall apart under the pressure of the NBA Finals. Likewise, if a team has to scrap and claw just to make it to the Finals, they might be too weary to compete at the highest level once they arrive.

Over the next few weeks of the season, the smart teams (read: The Spurs) will begin to position themselves for the most success. Last week Domino made a strong case for the rise of the Houston Rockets into the ranks of potential Western Conference title contenders. His overriding point was that the Western Conference playoffs are going to come down to match-ups. If the Rockets play the Spurs, they will most likely lose and badly. But if they wind up playing the Clippers or Thunder? It’s anyone’s game.

The Eastern Conference race is far less muddled. As of Wednesday morning, the third place Toronto Raptors sat 12 ½ games behind Indiana and 9 ½ games behind Miami. Still, in its own way, the East is about match-ups too. The one team lurking in the path of the Heat and Pacers on their way to an Eastern Conference Finals rematch is the Chicago Bulls, who currently sit 4th in the East with a record of 37 wins and 30 losses.

It is difficult to explain the Bulls’ success. Their most talented player, Derrick Rose, has missed almost the entire season with yet another knee injury and the pallor of his potential return looms over every game the Bulls play. Their best all-around player (whatever that means) Luol Deng was gift-wrapped to the Cleveland Cavaliers mid-season. Over the past two years, their two best shooters, Kyle Korver and Marco Belinelli, have left Chicago to play critical roles for the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs respectfully. Their starting point guard DJ Augustin is a bargain-basement pickup, who wasn’t good enough to be considered a reliable backup point guard for the Pacers last season. Their big offseason acquisition, Mike Dunleavy, spent the previous two seasons toiling in the obscurity of the Milwaukee Bucks. Their starting power forward, Carlos Boozer, is a stat-head’s nightmare, who thrives on midrange jump shots and ball stopping post-ups.
So what makes this Bulls team tick? Why doesn’t anyone want to play them?    

Let’s begin with a mind exercise. If you had to win one NBA series, not a game, mind you, but a series, who would you draft first for your team? Almost certainly, we would all start with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. So let’s take them out of the equation.

Once they’re removed, the question gets more complicated.

Chris Paul is a logical choice, but as an undersized guard he seems fated to always be a runner-up never a champion. Paul George is the most talented option overall, but his game comes in waves that go out as easily they come in. Carmelo Anthony? He can shoot, but he doesn’t play the elite defense needed to win championships. Ditto for James Harden and Kevin Love. Former champs, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki are too old to rely on for a full series. Tony Parker is fantastic, but he has only ever flourished in the system offense of the San Antonio Spurs. Dwight Howard has the tools but not the passion.

So what about Joakim Noah? He shoots the ball like someone who grew up as the son of a professional tennis player. Which is to say that his shot slices its way toward the rim as if at any moment it might decide to come back the other way. He isn’t athletic enough to be an explosive shot blocker like Dwight Howard or tall enough to defend the rim via verticality like Roy Hibbert. In post game interviews, he quotes Bob Marley. His hair is ridiculous unless we’ve traveled back in time to 1996, which we haven’t, so yes, his hair is ridiculous.

But here’s the key: no one wants to play against him. Joakim Noah’s greatest gift is his ability to grind on his opponents. The cliché argument is that he “plays harder” than the opposition. Although there is some validity to that, it belies the mental strength of his game. On offense, he is a brilliant passer from the high post, who is able to find Boozer and backup forward Taj Gibson consistently for easy lay-ups down low. He is also quite simply the most talented player in the league at irritating opponents through his non-stop chatter, the physicality of his game, and the way he hustles just as hard on meaningless possessions as he does in the 4th quarter of a close game.

The Chicago Bulls are not going to win the NBA championship this season. Their offense is too thin and their talent too depleted. However, the Bulls and their star Joakim Noah could decide the fate of the Heat or the Pacers. Smart money says that whichever team doesn’t have to play the Bulls this year is the team headed to the NBA Finals.

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