Joakim Noah is here to destroy your narrative — and he brought a tornado with him.
One of the overarching narratives in this era of the NBA is the death of the center position. Fans and pundits alike pine for the days of the dominant big man as if they were forlorn country singers wondering whither went all the cowboys. While the product as a whole is fantastic, there’s a clear chasm in the middle of the floor, particularly on the offensive end. There is no Patrick Ewing, no David Robinson, no Hakeem Olajuwon capable of being the focal point of an offense, backing down lesser opposition for half a shot clock before going over the left shoulder for an unstoppable hook. No one in today’s crop of centers could even fake Olden Polynice out of his jersey with an up-and-under, let alone get a shot off against Dikembe Mutombo. There’s not even a Rik Smits among this group of flop-haired scoundrels. Hell, even the All-Star Game is complicit in the crime at this point, eliminating the center designation from the fan ballot this year in a much ballyhooed move. If the NBA says the center position is dead, then it must be dead.
Well, that’s bull s—. The center position is alive and well, and it’s being practiced in its highest form by players like Joakim Noah. To bemoan the death of the center position is to willfully ignore the ways in which this beautiful game of ours has changed — titanic, tectonic changes that have drastically altered the most basic approach.
Basketball is, of course, a game, and a game is only as good as its rules. The rules define the game. More than that, they point the way to optimal strategy. Were the 3-point line 40 feet from the basket, for example, the modern emphasis on the long ball would be revolting. The death of the hand check, allowance of zone defense and institution of the 5-second backdown rule completely changed the way the game is played. The backdown, ball-dominating backdown center died because the climate changed. The mid-90s centers are mastodons in a rain forest.*
*Obligatory disclaimer: Those mastodons would still have destroyed everything in their path. They simply would have done so differently.
Noah is the perfect beast for his environment. Now that the pick and roll is king in a nation where the secondary pass is the difference between prosperity and anarchy, a world class center must be a master of its every facet. What makes Noah so fantastic is his pick and roll duality. He, within one of the game’s greatest defensive schemes, completely disrupts a team’s fundamental offensive principles, scurrying to the precise place he needs to be on almost every play. And on the offensive end, he’s a wonder at catching the ball in the mid- to high-post and understanding the next place the ball needs to go for the easy bucket. He’s not quite on Marc Gasol’s level here, but his ability to function as a playmaker in the middle of an offensive set is one of the reasons Chicago isn’t completely awful on offense without Derrick Rose.
That’s why Noah is an All-Star in my heart and mind, but it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without placating the eyes, as well. Here, too, Noah is the perfect player. Sunday is an exhibition game where no one plays defense for at least 46 minutes and tries to take the goofiest shot they possibly can. And Joakim Noah takes the goofiest shot he can on every single field goal attempt! His tornado jumper is like an M-80 birthday candle — awesome to watch, potentially destructive to everyone in its vicinity and the whole reason we’re watching.