Joakim Noah was a great basketball player, but that was three years ago. Noah was on the Chicago Bulls then, bellowing as the gruff conductor of Tom Thibodeau's overload defense on one end, then setting punishing screens and whipping smart passes from the elbows to keep things clicking on the other. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. He finished fourth in MVP voting that same year after propelling a Derrick Rose-less Bulls squad to the fourth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
He was a star then, sure, but the truth is that he was more than that. He was a groundbreaking player, a talent whose skill set revolutionized the center position and paved the way for a new generation of big-bodied operators like Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic to push the ball up the court off defensive rebounds and dish assists that make heads spin.
Then came the injuries, and there were a lot of them. First a knee, then a shoulder, and then that same shoulder again. His body wore down, perhaps due to the heavy minute’s burden he carried under Thibodeau's hard driving regime, perhaps due simply to the exacting power of Father Time. As his body deteriorated, so, too, did his skills and his once-infectious confidence. He played 29 games for the Bulls in the 2015-16 season before succumbing once more to injury and sitting out the rest of the year.
In the summer of 2016, Noah completed the journey taken by many an NBA luminary past their prime, plagued by injuries, and looking for one last big pay-day: he signed with the New York Knicks for a contract both richer and longer than any reasonable observer could have foreseen. That four-year, $72 million contract, which will take Noah through his age 35 season, was a gamble. It was a bet that after sitting out two-thirds of a season and resting for a full summer, Noah’s body would finally have had a chance to heal. It was a bet that his intelligence would help him adapt his game as he aged into his mid-thirties, and that his signature competitive spirit would light a fire under the team that he would anchor.
So far, the bet hasn’t paid off. Though he’s improved aspects of his play recently, Noah has been bad overall. He struggles miserably around the rim on offense and has been a cringe-worthy wreck in his rare trips to the free-throw line. His defense, once his calling card, has been lackluster at best, as opponents tend to shoot slightly better than their averages when Noah is their primary defender, per stats provided by NBA.com. The Knicks as a team are worse across the board with Noah on the floor, as Noah’s minutes coincide with drops in their overall assist percentage, offensive rating, steal percentage, block percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Some of this may be due to the fact that Noah plays almost exclusively with the starting lineup’s cadre of mediocre wing defenders and isolation-loving ball hogs, but the reality is that Noah was signed in large part to shore up Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony’s shortcomings on defense and keep the ball moving on offense. In both regards, he’s failed.
Bad as he may be in his current role, however, the Knicks are likely stuck with him for the duration. His contract, age, injury history, offensive struggles, and the reality of the league’s relative depth at the center position make it highly unlikely that the Knicks will be able to find a trade partner willing to take him on. Relegating him to the end of the bench doesn’t appear to be an option, either, thanks in large part to the size of his contract and his stature in the league. Coach Jeff Hornacek will have to play Noah in some capacity, and it behooves them to find a role for him that will maximize any of his remaining abilities.
That role is clearly not with the starters. Combinations of Noah with any of the other four regular starters are bad by nearly every net statistical measure. There’s some noise in those net stats, of course, as the Knicks are a mediocre team that loses a lot of games, and mediocre teams that lose a lot of games tend to perform worse than their opponents statistically. Still, the fact that replacing Noah with backup center Kyle O’Quinn in the starting lineup yields much better results, both by the the measure of statistics and win-loss record, indicates that Noah is indeed a problem with that unit.
Besides, the starting lineup is made up of players whose tendencies don’t click all that well with Noah’s strengths and limitations. This is especially true on offense. Rose and Anthony love to isolate, and their lives are made more difficult when defenders can completely ignore Noah to pressure them. Neither Rose nor Anthony move much off the ball, and the pressure to give touches to Kristaps Porzingis and Courtney Lee means that Noah gets less time to survey the floor as a passer.
The best solution to the Noah problem, then, may be to bring him off the bench. In a bench role, Noah could function as something of a point-center, taking primary playmaking duties away from reserve guard Brandon Jennings, whose play has been lackluster to this point. Noah’s 2013-14 season, his career-best, serves a model for how a potential bench unit centered around his facilitating could work. The Bulls were largely without Rose that season and were otherwise short on playmakers. Thibodeau responded by putting the ball in Noah’s hands, allowing him to survey the floor from the elbows and the top of the key. He excelled in that role, working killer dribble-handoffs with shooters and throwing pinpoint passes to Bulls who cut from off-ball screens all around him.
A bench role with the Knicks helmed by Noah would work largely the same way. The Knicks’ bench units are full of shooters who double as crafty cutters. Guys like Mindaugus Kuzminskas, Justin Holiday, and Lance Thomas know how to move the ball, sneak through creases in the defense to get to the rim, and shoot from distance when open. It’s not hard to imagine lineups with Ron Baker, Kuzminskas, Holiday, Thomas, and Noah running Triangle-inflected sets to great effect with Noah as the fulcrum.
Noah’s fit with the bench unit is equally snug on the other side of the floor. Holiday, Thomas, Kuzminskas, and Baker are all passable-to-good wing defenders, and their ability to slow opposing guards and wings should make Noah’s job on defense that much easier.
The Joakim Noah situation is a problem for the Knicks, one that won’t soon go away. They need to find a workable solution for the remainder of this season, and it would be best if they found one that they could carry for at least the next year of Noah’s contract. Bringing Noah off the bench, then, may not just be the best solution to the issue—it might be the only one they have left.