Something isn’t right, that much is obvious. After a dominant 2013-14 season that ended with NBA Defensive Player of the Year accolades, Joakim Noah’s 2014-15 season has been anything but outstanding. The eighth-year center was one of the most versatile defenders in the league last season, at times switching onto some of the best ball handlers in the NBA in isolation situations, yet this season Noah looks likes a shadow of his old self after offseason knee surgery.
It was never more evident than during Monday night’s loss to the Orlando Magic. Noah isn’t physically the same player he once was. It’s obvious that his knee is still bothering him, and that’s the reason why the Bulls have struggled thus far to figure out their defensive identity.
In Monday’s 121-114 loss, the Magic exploited the Chicago Bulls weaknesses again and again without hesitation. The two phases of the Bulls defense that led to the 28th ranked scoring team in the NBA tallying more than 120 points were the pick-and-roll and transition, both of which can be directly linked back to Noah and his injured knee.
In years past, the Bulls thrived in defending the pick-and-roll because of their ability to switch their big men onto the opposing team’s guards. Noah’s quick lateral movement allowed for the Bulls guards to recover on the screens and other players to rotate and help on the big man. This success hasn’t shown up on the defensive end this season mostly because of Noah’s inability to switch onto the smaller guards and stop them from driving to the basket.
Another phase of Joakim Noah’s game that has been affected by his recovering knee is his transition defense. A high-motor player, Noah has always been known for running the court better than any big man in the game. But during, Monday night’s game, it was Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic who was outrunning the Bulls big men, and that led to easy buckets for the Magic.
While other issues can be linked to the Bulls defensive struggles thus far, including perimeter man-to-man defense and flaws in rotating to the basketball, the biggest worry is Joakim Noah. In years past, many of these preceding issues would be cleaned up by Noah’s quickness, which has obliviously been lacking this season.
It’s unclear if Noah will ever fully recover from his offseason knee surgery. What is clear, though, is without a healthy Noah, the Bulls’ chances of winning an NBA title drastically decrease. Noah is not just the heart of this defense. He is the heart of this team.
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