Joakim Noah hasn’t looked much like Joakim Noah this season.
Last season, Jo looked like he was on his way to the All-Star Game. During 13 games in November, he averaged 15.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field. Noah had even unveiled a couple new weapons: an admittedly awkward but reasonably accurate 15-footer and a little hook he could hit either lefty or righty.
Then, in December, he suffered a thumb injury and he was never quite the same. He finished the 2010-11 campaign with averages of 11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals. His Player Efficiency Rating was 18.8.
It was assumed that, as long as he was healthy, Noah would be one of the best centers in the league this season.
He hasn’t been.
Joakim is currently averaging only 8.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. He’s shooting a career-low 47.7 percent. His PER is a reasonably healthy 17.5, but clearly something has been wrong, which has led to a lot of head scratching by NBA experts and Bulls fans alike.
I’ve heard people say he’s out of shape.
I’ve heard people ask whether he’s secretly injured.
I myself have wondered if some kind of super villain used a time machine to replace the 2011-12 Noah with the 2007-08 Joakim. And, yeah, I wasn’t totally serious about that. But still.
Turns out none of those theories were correct. The problems were in Jo’s head.
The slow start Noah endured to this season bothered him deeply. Uncharacteristically clumsy and spiritless, the affable Noah wasn’t, to steal one of his favorite phrases, affecting winning.
In an interview with the Tribune, Noah for the first time revealed the five-year, $60 million extension he signed in October 2010 and which began this season contributed to his struggles.
And there you have it.
Said Noah: “Yeah, no question, I thought about that. Sometimes you feel like because you’re given so much money you’re expected to do things. That’s not the right mentality to have as a player.
“I have to play my game. I have to have fun out there. If I don’t, I’m not the same player.
“I’ve always been a player who reacts well to criticism and doubters. I feel my teammates were always behind me. But I knew as well as anyone how poorly I was playing. And not only wasn’t I playing well, but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I wasn’t playing loose out there. I was playing tight.
“In the beginning of the year, I was overthinking a lot. I was going through a lot of things personally. I feel a lot more comfortable now. I have to stop overthinking and just play.”
As for the questions about his conditioning?
Noah continued: “That’s what was so tough about (the slow start); I know I worked so hard in the offseason. It wasn’t a question of being out of shape. I might be in a little better game shape now. But I came to camp in great shape.”
Fortunately, his game log provides some evidence that the slow start is over. Noah has notched a double-double in Chicago’s last five games: 16 points and 10 rebounds versus the Nets, 10 and 13 versus the Pacers, 15 and 16 versus the Bucks, 11 and 11 at Miami, and 14 and 13 at Washington.
What’s more, Jo’s shooting 62.5 percent (35-for-56) over his last seven games. And during that seven-game stretch, his offensive rating hasn’t dropped below 117…and it’s been 144 or better three times.
I think the real Noah may be back.
And, as he told the Tribune, he plans to continue playing with an edge.
Said Noah: “You have to be that way because this basketball thing is such an emotional roller coaster. One day you’re feeling amazing because you played well and your team won. The next night, you lose and you play like crap. It’s definitely a man’s league. And you always have to put yourself in question. But I’m feeling a lot more confident now.”
That’s great news for the Bulls. Bad news for opposing teams.