Thibodeau Player Development: Joakim Noah
Knicks fans may have the worst memories of Joakim Noah, but Tom Thibodeau undoubtedly had the best, spearheading his development into one of the best defensive bigs in the league and a point-center when Derrick Rose was out.
Joakim Noah was drafted to the Chicago Bulls in 2007 with the 9th pick and entered the league as a bit of head case. His teammates unanimously voted for his suspension following a confrontation with assistant coach Ron Adams in his rookie season.
However, Joakim Noah fixed his attitude and looked like a critical young piece for the Bulls in his 2nd and 3rd seasons in the league, averaging 8.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. He still had maturity issues, and some even considered Noah a borderline bust before his emergence into the national limelight during the 2009 NBA playoffs.
Yet, NBA executives considered Noah an “energetic role player,” not a player with the potential to be one of the best bigs in the league.
Those concerns went away when Tom Thibodeau took over the Bulls and singled Noah out as a vital cog in his coaching philosophy. The two built a healthy relationship, and Thibodeau certainly got the most out of Noah on defense and offense.
During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 NBA seasons, where the Bulls finished with the best record in the league, Joakim Noah solidified his role as the starting center and defensive anchor. He made significant jumps in his PER, and Thibodeau utilized his passing abilities within the offense.
Thibodeau’s coaching genius, concerning Noah’s development, was illuminated during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Noah was selected to the All-Star team both seasons and won the Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. In fact, Noah’s 2013-14 year was so spectacular that he finished 4th in MVP voting.
Noah flourished as a defender under Thibodeau’s defensive system, where the big is forced to step out to the perimeter, cut off passing lanes, and stop penetration. He had a whopping 6.6 defensive win shares during the 2013-14 season and a career-high 3.6 defensive box plus-minus. Thibodeau had turned an “energetic role player” into the best defensive big in the league.
The two were simply a perfect match. Noah was the perfect big for Thibodeau’s defense, and he was just as fiery and committed to winning as Thibodeau. Their matching personalities only improved Thibodeau’s confidence in his big man and created a competitive and winning atmosphere in Chicago despite not having Derrick Rose.
Hall of Fame writer Sam Smith and Derrick Rose explain Thibodeau and Noah’s relationship in the book “I’ll Show You”:
"Thibs would be mad at Jo for breaking a play or forgetting the play. Jo actually did that a lot. Jo would break the play and then do something better. It would be a plus. But Thibs, he’s controlling. So he would be on Jo even though things worked out better, like, “What the f*ck are you doing!” And Jo would be like,”F*ck you!” And Thibs would be like, “No, f*ck you.” No joke, they used to argue like that. But nobody overreacted. We knew they just needed to vent, get it out of their system. They were professional enough to do that and then keep going over the game plan."
Derrick Rose only played ten games between 2012-2014, and the Bulls’ offensive outlook looked dreadful without him. The Bulls traded Luol Deng and were committed to tank without their superstar. However, somebody forgot to tell Noah and Thibodeau. Thibodeau was not worried about the Bulls’ direction and had found a way to adjust the offense without his number one man.
Insert Joakim Noah as point center, a genius move that had the Bulls atop the top half of the Eastern Conference despite the decimated offense. Noah’s assist numbers jumped from 2.5 to 4.7 during the 2012-13 season and 5.4 during the 2013-14 season. Noah’s usage percentage jumped from 15.8% to 17.2% and 18.7%, and Thibodeau had the Bulls’ offense revolve around Noah, facilitating the offense on the elbow.
His remarkable passing ability was underscored in the new offense, and the Bulls managed to be four and fifth seeds without Derrick Rose. Noah commanded the offense and defense and was the leader of a pesky Bulls squad that epitomized everything Thibodeau stood for.
Joakim Noah entered the league as a raw prospect, with significant limits on his offensive skill set. His handle was choppy, he was not strong enough to post up more prominent defenders, and was mostly looked at as an offensive liability. His defense was not projected to be as good as it was, and nobody thought Noah would be more than a starting-caliber center. His growth into one of the best all-around bigs was shocking, albeit being two years in length.
Thibodeau is reportedly “anxious” to get to work with Mitchell Robinson and turn him into a polished defender. Thibs’ track record with Joakim Noah gives optimism on what he can do for Robinson, who averaged two blocks per game in 23 minutes a night.