Memphis Grizzlies

Joakim Noah is back from the netherworld

After two catastrophic seasons with the New York Knicks, Joakim Noah is experiencing an unexpected resurgence with the Memphis Grizzlies.

There is a stench that emanates from the New York Knicks. It’s the decay of former lottery picks on their last legs in the league. It’s the has-been stars failing even to post empty numbers. It’s hope being bruised and battered and shipped out for more hope. It is, unmistakably, the stench of basketball death.

For two years, Joakim Noah contributed to that foul odor. After inking a widely-ridiculed four-year, $72 million pact with the Knicks and Phil Jackson in the summer of 2016, Noah went on to appear in 53 games over two seasons. He was hilariously bad, markedly declining in virtually every statistical measure — hell, he shot 43.9 percent from the free-throw line with New York after compiling a 71.1 percent average through nine years with the Chicago Bulls. He was terrible, one of the worst players in the league, and utterly unplayable.

When you bury the dead, you generally expect them to stay there. They don’t typically…just come back. Noah’s done exactly that.

In 2013-14, Joakim Noah was a 28-year-old All-NBA First Team center and Defensive Player of the Year for the Bulls. What followed was two years of precipitous decline in Chicago, then two years of cliff-diving in New York. Tracing that decline statistically, Noah saw his 2013-14 per 100 possession averages of 19 points, 17 rebounds, and 8.1 assists on 53.1 percent true shooting reduced to 11.6, 19.8, and 5.1 on 49.2 percent true shooting with the Knicks. His Player Impact Plus-Minus measured in at +3.6 during that All-NBA season but plummeted all the way into the negatives in each of his years in New York (a level of ineffectiveness he never reached once in Chicago).

After signing with the Memphis Grizzlies in December, Noah has appeared in 41 games, posting per-100 averages of 21.3 points, 17 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 57.4 percent true shooting. He has a positive PIPM (+0.99) for the first time since 2015-16. Noah’s not as close to his All-NBA form as those numbers would indicate, but Grizzlies Noah treats us to a hell of a lot more flashes of that guy than Knicks Noah.

Defensively, Noah’s no longer the historic force he was, but he’s aggressively solid:

The man understands the art of pick-and-roll defense, dancing between the ball-handler and the big just long enough for his teammate to rejoin the play. He’s not a second too early or late in his recovery and even throws in a subtle feint to ensure DJ Augustin doesn’t let fly a little pull-up jumper before Mike Conley is fully back. Pick-and-roll defense is a consistent strength for Noah:

Yet, when Noah’s forced to deal with popping big men — a much more regular occurrence now than when he was at peak form — he has some issues. He simply can’t cover ground all that quickly anymore (an issue when he’s helping and recovering to shooting big men in the weakside corner as well). Nonetheless, Noah’s still a very capable defensive big:

His body might be going, but Noah still has his brain. He’ll sink just enough to shut down a cutter, flail his arms like all mid-2000s Florida big men must’ve been indoctrinated to do, communicate relentlessly, and create formidable team defense.

Offense, however, has always been the bigger concern with Noah. He’s a complete non-shooter and a putrid finisher, which doesn’t exactly make for a successful offensive big. Yet, Noah has tools and tricks, and he’s mashed it all together to form a somewhat viable offensive game:

When he doesn’t have the ball, Noah’s a tireless screen-setter. He has a super wide base on his screens and consistently seems to generate above-average separation for his teammates. When he does find himself with the ball, Noah is…still setting screens:

Invariably, when Noah collects the ball in the halfcourt, you’ll see his defender take two, maybe three steps back. Almost invariably, what you’ll see next is a dribble-hand-off. With his man sagging off and unable to provide any assistance in deterring a shot, Noah will take a couple dribbles toward CJ Miles, and it’ll be a bucket. Say there’s a switch on the stagger screens designed to free Miles or a defender overplays Mike Conley and takes away the DHO, Noah has a counter:

Noah still has a plus handle for his role. It doesn’t always look pretty, but given a sliver of space, he’s more than capable of working his way to the rim. This has utility in the open court, as well, where Noah can grab and go and make plays:

The playmaking extends to the halfcourt, too:

Noah possesses soft touch, admirable creativity, and astute decision-making. Creation is a major strength for him once again, after being neglected in New York. Noah’s 20 percent assist percentage (95th percentile among bigs) dwarfs the 13.8 and 7.7 percent marks he posted in New York and is back in line with his Chicago production. He’s back to being optimized offensively.

Two important points of clarification seem necessary at this point: 1) Joakim Noah is not back to peak, All-NBA First Team, Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah 2) this whole saga is not entirely the Knicks’ fault.

I like to think of the Joakim Noah we’re getting now as what you would’ve expected if you applied a normal aging curve to 28-year-old superstar Joakim Noah. He’s good but very obviously flawed, and that’s okay because he’s a 34-year-old-man in year-12 of his professional sports career after playing half a decade of Thibodeau minutes.

Next: Signature games and the MVP race

As for the Knicks, Noah’s contract was insane the instant it was agreed upon, and trust me, I would love to take this opportunity to point and laugh at the Kazoos for their deathly version of the Midas touch. But Noah was partially to blame for the disastrousness of that unholy matrimony. He’s acknowledged, as only Joakim Noah can, that he was “too lit to play in New York City.” There was free-throw shooting weirdness and horrid finishing even by Noah’s standards and other madness that can only be rationalized by a genuine curse, but it was also just an unhealthy relationship. It was a bad spot for Noah competitively, socially, and schematically.

Now, Memphis, far from contention and largely uncompelling with Jaren Jackson Jr. on ice, is barely the land of the living, but when we committed Joakim Noah to the soil of Manhattan we didn’t think we’d be granted this reprieve. Joakim Noah is not back, but he’s back. He’s earning consistent minutes, playing solid basketball, and doing funky Joakim Noah things. It might not be his former glory, but Noah’s in a good spot and this is found time, and you don’t usually get that in this business, so let’s enjoy it.

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