NBA Playoffs 2011 Notes: Joakim Noah’s defense may have killed the Bulls title hopes — but don’t tell Charles Barkley

Beginning of the 3rd quarter, Game 5 in Chicago, Bulls with their season on the line down three games to one to the Heat, leading by seven points at halftime. …

On the Heat’s first possession of the second half, as Dwyane Wade stunted toward the lane, Bulls center Joakim Noah, as he has so often this series, sagged deep into the lane to close the gap, this time leaving Chris Bosh all alone at the right elbow.  Wade flipped a pass to Bosh, who was already bending his legs to shoot as Noah planted, lunged

… and went sailing past Bosh as Bosh drove to the hoop for an easy layup.

“There wasn’t anything Boozer (Carlos, the nearest available help defender) could do about that,” Marv Albert noted in his play-by-play.  And there wasn’t.   Three Heat possession later and Bosh had another bucket on a midrange jumper and Noah had committed a foul, and the Heat had cut the lead to five.

Coming into the game, Bosh was averaging 24.5 points per game in the series, including a 30 point Game 1 and a 34 point Game 3.  No, despite Noah’s hyper-activity and the lunging-for-the-ball tip and block efforts, the Bulls center had blocked just six shots through four games (his season average) and had a miserable time guarding Bosh, who found Noah an all-too-willing sucker for the pump fake, and all-too eager to leave him to help out on the driving Heat, even when help wasn’t needed.

It wasn’t anything resembling the play of a 2nd-team All-Defensive forward-center, the honor bestowed upon Noah by the NBA coaches in 2011.  To compound matters, Noah had shot 29 percent from the field entering Game 4.

Yet  few — if any — Heat-Bulls observers (Noah’s biggest fan, Charles Barkley, included) seem to have noticed.  “On the court and off, Noah not your typical NBA player,” gushed the Chicago Tribune headline above a long feature on Noah before Game 5.

Yeah, the Tribune story set out to tell the human interest story behind a basketball player fined for a vulgar, homophobic slur toward a fan in Miami. But this story aims to talk about Noah the basketball player, the guy who is not making plays on the court, not with the regularity that his fans seem to think he is.

What gives?  Were these games against the Heat an aberration, a tough matchup (Bosh, Wade and Lebron) that belied Noah’s All-Defensive status?

Hardly.  Noah’s defense in the Heat series was exemplary of how the Bulls center plays defense, and has played it that way since he entered the league in 2007, the season Scott Skiles was let go by the Bulls.  Noah rushes to help, lunges after  shot attempts, goes for ball fakes, and, as a result of this activity, tends to leave his man wide open or in weak side rebound position.  Generally, he tries to be everywhere at once on the defensive end.

While his style surely reflects Noah’s confidence in his athleticism and relative inexperience, it’s also impossible, often foolish, and is a dangerous way to play Chris Bosh — hey !  It’s not good defense.

We actually have statistical evidence of Noah’s folly. Using a newly developed measure of defensive play, ezPM, when counterpart scoring is taken into account (that seems obvious) Noah’s marginal score for individual defense takes one of the biggest dives in the league.

EZPM is a rather basic yet complex and comprehensive metric extended from box score stats developed by Warriors-centric blogger EvanZ at “The City.”  For a full explanation on the “ezPM” metric, CLICK HERE. For the opponent scoring (Defense) calculations and rankings, CLICK HERE.

For the record, the ezPM results verify what the eye is telling the NBA fan:  Noah is often playing active but poor defense, and the man he’s guarding reaps the benefits.  Despite making about 3.0 defensive plays per game (1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals and taking charges) and playing on the NBA’s top-rated defense, Noah finished well behind the top rated big men in the league (see below), and out of the top 25.  The Bulls may have clamped down on opponents as they so often did this season, but their center was too often losing track of his man.

In 2010-11, Joakim Noah was not 2nd-team All-NBA Defensive material.  In the end, his poor defense on Bosh — and the absence of any offensive game to speak of — may have cost his team a trip to the NBA Finals.

As the Bulls-Heat series played to its conclusion in the 4th quarter of Game 5, backup center Kurt Thomas was the big man on the floor for the Bulls, helping to build a 12-point lead that Dwyane Wade and Lebron James extinguished down the stretch.  Noah remained on the bench the entire 4th quarter.

I wonder if anybody in Chicago (or Charles Barkley) noticed.

More later on ezPM, which was fully implemented for the first time this season.  Suffice it to say that there were no surprises about the NBA’s top-ranked big men.  Noah posted a 1.702 defensive mark — above the margins but behind the Bucks backups, Larry Sanders (2.792) and Jon Brockman (1.767, and even his own backup, Omer Asik (2.214).  For now here’s a snapshot of the ezPM defensive scores Top 5:

1. Dwight Howard 5.08
2. Ronnie Brewer 4.98
3 Andrew Bogut 3.403
4 LeBron James 3.326
5 Tim Duncan 3.212

One thought on “NBA Playoffs 2011 Notes: Joakim Noah’s defense may have killed the Bulls title hopes — but don’t tell Charles Barkley

  1. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Here are some other EZPM scores, as I’m working on the next post, waiting for the Bulls-Heat series numbers to come in, and going through the Bucks 2010-11 totals. No surprises there, unless a measure of how hapless Drew Gooden’s first season with the Bucks was is a surprise to anyone.

    Emeka Okafor, NOH – +2.4 DEF/100 – quite solid and consistent with Okafor’s reputation, though it’s apparent watching the Hornets that a bigger player (Jim Gray, Okafor’s backup) often has more impact on the game. Okafor has struggled mightily against Bogut in his career, and in Charlotte was a target for criticism by his coach, Larry Brown (“wish my center could set a pick.”)

    Kendrick Perkins, combined OKC/BOS – +1.52 (above margin but, like Noah’s similar number, well below reputation). It also suggests that the points allowed per 100 possessions rating has been very kind to Perkins over the years with the Celtics, though it would be a mistake to ignore that the tandem of Perkins and Kevin Garnett — not each player’s individual defense — anchored the Celtics league-leading defense 2007-2010.

    Tyson Chandler
    DAL – +0.64, surpisingly low, considering the impact he’s reputedly had on Dallas’ defense. Yet Chandler’s never been a consistently great defender and this season was no different.
    His true impact in Dallas, lo and behold, was not individual defense, but in defensive rebounding (a very high rate) and in helping the Mavs tighten up their offense. Chandler doesn’t take bad shots, makes 65% of what he does take, makes his free throws (73%) while rebounding the offensive glass at a decent but not spectacular center’s rate.
    The Mavs scored an obscene 131.0 pts per 100 possessions while Chandler was on the court this season. Yet Dan Gadzuric, in 878 possession for Golden State and New Jersey, actually played better individual defense (+1.1/100 possess).

    Surprised that Dan Gadzuric played 878 possessions? Another somewhat surprising revelation was how few centers played more than our Andrew Bogut. So far, there’s Dwight, of course, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert. Duncan and Chandler did not.

    The Lakers’ Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Trailblazers, and the Hawks Al Horford, three All-Stars who shuffled between center and power forward, logged more PT than Bogut and missed only a few games between them, more evidence to suggest that playing against the entire league is a key to earning honors, especially the All-Star and All-Defensive teams that the coaches vote on.

    As meaningless as the NBA’s divisions are in terms of the post-season, it starts there. Had Bogut not missed six games against Detroit (3), Cleveland (2) and Indiana (1), the Bucks probably would made the playoffs. Understanding that Bogut’s missed games had as much to do with how the Bucks paced him as it did how hurt he was (he played hurt all season), one can a certain arrogance in the Bucks approach to the 2010-11 season. A 7-5 record against the Pacers and the dregs of the Division isn’t going to cut it, and 14 losses overall against the Pacers and non-playoff East teams don’t lie.
    The Bucks really did take “lesser” opponents lightly, as Brandon Jennings suggested after the late season loss at home to the Kings.

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