The following is a guest post submitted by Josh Planos, a writer at Fansided, SportsWunderkin, and the Pick and Roll. You can follow Josh at @JPlanos
Among the most prevalent names circling the league before the annual award allocation are Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The linchpins of the Chicago Bulls’ defense have, in many ways, held the house that Jordan built just behind the levee that’s been tested periodically throughout the season. The league’s scariest front-line has played together less as of late, the exception being late-game closeout situations, but when they do, you notice.
There’s a good chance that when the devil of defense licked the league, his cloven tongue was one side Noah and one side Gibson. One could make the argument that Noah is in the running for two awards: Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year. One could make the argument that Gibson is up for two as well: Most Improved Player of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. Regardless of how the league’s delegation resolves the accolades, the two have been special in 2014.
Joakim Noah is this season’s determined archetype – he’s fit for a Where Magic Happens playoff commercial already. There’s a good chance that if either of Noah’s forearms were to somehow disappear during a game, he’d cauterize the stump and run back to the court. Noah has acceded to the pinnacle of his position and has four triple-doubles (tied for league-best with Indiana’s Lance Stephenson) this season to prove it.
Taj Gibson has the length of a school bus and has extrapolated a notorious offensive game into the defensive guardian the Bulls have yearned for since drafting him in 2008. He’s never played more minutes per game than he is (28.6) and his 74% from the free-throw line is a career-high. His basketball IQ has made leaps and bounds, evident in his refined offensive post-moves and his defensive ability to switch onto wings and guards, a result of Thibodeau’s confidence in his switching abilities and maturation.
Furnished with parking meters for fists, the Noah-Gibson duo has been ransacking glass and discarding floaters all season. They’re buccaneers of the paint, and aren’t afraid of bashing in the post for rebounds or even just to send a message. For forwards and centers that have played in more than 70 games and average more than 20 minutes per night, the tandem holds two of the top eight spots in the league regarding opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim. No other team has more than one in the top ten. Neither allows more than 3.6 opponent-made field goals at the rim per night. For comparison: Roy Hibbert (Noah’s strongest competition for DPOY) gives up 4.1 per game.
In this sequence, Gibson is matched up on Drew Gooden and immediately recognizes the lane-crasher, steps up, and rejects the shot.
Although Serge Ibaka leads the league in blocked shots with a stunning 213, the Noah-Gibson pairing has put away 231. Both are rarely caught in the wrong position off pick-and-rolls, and while Noah has a far superior defensive acumen and inhuman timing is, Gibson complements his skillset with length, mobility, and precision. They’re the arms oaring Thibodeau’s defensive stronghold and have altered a season riddled with maladies into a no. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Despite Joakim Noah taking an ill-advised shot, Gibson somehow manages to muscle his way in for the rebound and dunk.
More numbers: When Gibson and Noah are on-court, the two-man combination yields a +.032 field goal percentage (Chicago field goal percentage less the opposition field goal percentage), a team high. The two generate the most turnovers of any on the roster and their paint protection permeates to their teammates.
Using ESPN’s newly unveiled real plus/minus metric, Gibson holds the no. 8 spot on the power forward chart with a 4.50. Noah holds the top spot for centers with a 4.19. Only Chicago and Miami (Andersen, Bosh) can claim two players in the top ten that have played in more than 70 games. For players averaging at least 28 minutes per game, Gibson has the third-best defensive rpm (3.65). The only center that averages more minutes than Noah is the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, who sits fourteen spots beneath him on the defensive rpm chart.
In this sequence, Noah jumps the passing route of Paul George and in less than three seconds, tosses the ball down-court for a Jimmy Butler dunk on the other end.
As Grantland’s Zach Lowe points out, Noah’s defensive numbers this season have been staggering:
Noah on floor: 103.4 points per 100 possessions; 95.2 points allowed.
Noah on bench: 95.7 points per 100 possessions; 103.4 points allowed.
The league average for player efficiency is 15: Gibson has a 16.4 and Noah sits at 20.1. Per 36 minutes, their numbers are even more impressive. Noah is averaging a double-double with 11.4 points and 10.1 rebounds; Gibson is averaging a career-high 16.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Blame it on numbers and how the minutes the two accumulate nightly are the causation of the vagarious data, but since jettisoning Luol Deng to Cleveland for nothing of present value, the Bulls have gone 34-15. The Bulls give up just 91.8 points per game, the best in the league. When you’re defense is that strong, you can afford to play primitive offense, as the Bulls have done since losing Deng and Rose.
The pulse of the Chicago Bulls pounds from the paint, from those who were unwilling to accept 2014 as just another “wait till next year” season. Chalk it up to pride, but you’d be remiss to not consider Noah and Gibson as the primary reasons why the heart still beats.