It’s pretty unusual for a team to lose a key player and improve markedly during his absence, especially if that key player’s replacement was a 38 year old most thought to be an assistant coach in uniform. However, that’s what’s happened in the two months since the Chicago Bulls lost starting center Joakim Noah to wrist surgery and Kurt Thomas took his place in the lineup.
Since Noah’s absence began on December 16th, the Bulls have posted the best point differential in the league, 7.6 and improved their defensive rating from 102.5 points per 100 possessions to 100.6. Both numbers are remarkable since Noah is arguably their second best player. He’s a rangy defender who can switch the pick and roll on the perimeter and not be at a disadvantage. So it’s possible that the Bulls that the Bulls might get even better on defense with his return.
What’s entirely counterintuitive yet supported by the metrics is that the Bulls will almost certainly get better offensively. With a gawky shot, and limited range, Noah doesn’t strike folks as an offensive force, but according to www.basketballvalue.com, the Bulls score more efficiently with Noah on the floor than without. Right now the differential is a point and change per 100 possessions, but at the time of his injury, it was nearly five points. The narrowing in the margin reflects the continued improvement in the play of point guard Derrick Rose and the integration of power forward Carlos Boozer into the offense. The key is that Noah is an excellent passer. His Assist Ratio, the percentage of possessions that result in his getting an assist is 16.5, among centers who average 28 minutes a game, only Al Horford, Marc Gasol, and Tim Duncan rank higher.
Noah’s return is expected to bolster an already stout defense, but having him on the court again should also boost an offense that has improved from bad (bottom 10) to middling (15th) in points scored per 100 possessions.
To parse the vernacular, the Bulls are already in the conversation when it comes to championship contenders, but they aren’t a focal point. If they continue to improve over the final third of the season, the road out of the Eastern Conference may go through the United Center.