Last Wednesday night, Joakim Noah had his best overall game as a New York Knick.
The game as a whole was a mess, but his performance was a clear silver lining — after listening to "worst contract in the NBA" talk for five months (and after watching Jo become a mess on the floor), it feels good to say that he's been rounding into form in the past 5 or so games. While his best offensive game of the season was probably in Chicago, his early season defense wasn't quite up to par, especially for a guy who had won Defensive Player of the Year less than 3 years ago. And until the last week and a half, it seemed like we would never get to see a defensive performance of that caliber — even 80% of prime Jo is an asset, but he just hasn't been able to reach that level in quite some time.
On Wednesday night, Joakim Noah put on an absolute defensive clinic. It took him a little while to get settled in (headlined by an extremely visible gaffe early in the game that led to an ally-oop for Dwight Howard) but once he got going, it was a sight for sore eyes. Late in the game, it got to the point where you could nearly write a textbook on how to play defense, using Noah as an example.
So that's exactly what I did. Behold -- the Defense for Big Men major at NBA University. To graduate into the halls of true defensive stalwarts, one must pass the following courses by showing aptitude in the following categories at an above average level for a prolonged period of time:
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 101 - ACTIVE HANDS
Pretty simple. When you're playing defense, keep your hands up to deny potential passing lanes at all times. This is remedial stuff -- anyone who's played competitive basketball, at almost any level, has heard their coach yell "HANDS UP" at them hundreds of times. That doesn't mean it's a given, though; plenty of guys spend too many defensive possessions with their hands at their sides, especially when they get tired.
When you have an entire team focusing on keeping their hands up, it makes life a lot more difficult for the opposing offense. Playmakers have to be subtler with their passes in order to prevent the defense from getting their hands on the ball in transit, and if they aren't careful enough to disguise their intent, you get stuff like this.
This sort of thing requires no defensive intelligence, no extra effort, no attention on opposing scouting reports -- keep your hands up, and you'll eventually generate deflections. Deflections lead to live ball turnovers, and when they don't, they lead to atrophied offensive possessions.
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 102 - EFFORT
Another simple concept that isn't as widespread as it should be. Defending NBA big men is hard work, especially when you're dealing with the oversized mass of temperamental muscle known as Dwight Howard. It's impossible to stop a guy like Dwight from getting position on you throughout the course of a game -- the guy is averaging just under five offensive rebounds per game, which is the highest figure of his career (he collected six in this one, with one coming at the expense of Porzingis, and another off a long rebound; all things considered, Noah held up OK). So when he does get position, putting in the extra effort can turn a surefire offensive putback into a defensive rebound.
Again, this doesn't require a modicum of talent or defensive IQ. This is straight up hustle. Run this exact scenario 100 times, and Noah gets the tip-out maybe five times. But he puts in the extra effort to get back into the play after Dwight claims the restricted area as his own, and this time, it paid off.
Also, please note Noah's attempted flop at the beginning of the play. It's hilarious. Look at him flail backwards like he got hit by a defensive lineman, even though Dwight barely makes any contact. Not a smart decision, as he essentially gifted Howard prime positioning on the glass, but these two were going at it all night. Fortunately, the extra effort that Noah is known for saved him this time around.
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 201 - EXECUTING THE GAME PLAN
Now we're getting into the more heady aspects of defending as a big man.
Game plans vary on a nightly basis, and sometimes, teams don't really try very hard to customize their plan of attack for regular season games. Regardless of preparation, Noah has the defensive smarts to execute custom game plans; in this case, hang back in the pick and roll and let the ball handler take pull-up midrange shots.
The idea behind this strategy is layered -- it keeps the ball handler (in this case, Dennis Schroder) from getting in the paint at will, which ideally keeps him off the free throw line while simultaneously limiting the Hawks' entire offense. Getting in the paint collapses the defense, leaving shooters wide open to knock down 3's, and that's exactly what the Hawks are looking for -- sag back, and help defenders can stay home, leaving the team offense neutered even if Shroeder is able to put up some numbers.
And he did put up some numbers -- by my count, Schroder did not miss on five midrange pull-ups. That's a function of two things; bad luck (this year, Schroder is shooting 40% from 3-10 feet and 45% from 10-16 feet; for his career, Schroder shoots 36% from 3-10 feet and 38% from 10-16 feet, per Basketball Reference) and some questionable defense from Derrick Rose, who wasn't able to consistently bother Schroder's pull-up attempts, even if they were given up willingly.
On top of that, hanging back keeps Noah in position to deny ally-oops to Dwight, and it also keeps him in position to keep Dwight off the offensive glass — take note of Jo positioning himself to box Howard out as the shot goes up. If Noah has to get out on the perimeter and hedge, you run the risk of losing that positioning.
While the initial idea was sound, Schroder's hot shooting forced a change in the Knicks' game plan late in the game, and Jo was able to execute that as well. It seems simple, but it's really not -- it requires a high defensive IQ, and there are too many guys in the league who don't really have the ability to switch up their coverage on a dime. It becomes even more pronounced when you need to execute different coverages depending on which players are running the pick and roll at any given moment.
It's just too easy to play one coverage all game, switch it up in the 4th, and incorrectly slip back into the first coverage late in games (especially when you're exhausted, in a physical and emotional showdown). We saw that a lot from Noah and the Knicks as a whole early in the season, and it cost the Knicks some opportunities. But lately, he's been much more effective, and it shouldn't be taken for granted.
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 301 - HELP ROTATIONS
Now we're getting to the stuff that requires a better feel for the game -- the kind of stuff that separates energy big men like Ed Davis and Thomas Robinson from the true defensive backbones.
Help rotations can be tricky; you've probably heard the phrase "helping without overhelping" dozens of times, but that's essentially what it comes down to. The definition of acceptable help is matchup dependent, which can make things difficult (you do NOT help off Steph Curry, but you can help off Ricky Rubio as often as you want); this matchup was simple, which makes for an easier example.
The Hawks signed Dwight Howard this offseason to get offensive putbacks and finish ally-oops at the rim. So, naturally, helping off Dwight can be a tricky proposition -- help too early, and the dribble penetrator is going to toss it up to Dwight for an easy finish. Even if the ball handler misses the opportunity for an ally-oop, helping early takes a body off Dwight, essentially granting him free reign to plant his ass in the restricted area and collect offensive rebounds. But if you help too late, the opponent gets a layup at the rim. Basically, big man help rotations are all about timing. Now, if the perimeter defense gets beaten badly enough, there's no good answer; overall, though, the difference in "good" and "bad" defensive big men can come down to timing on help rotations.
Here, Kristaps gets beat pretty cleanly by Millsap in the pick and roll. As we know, KP is an absolute freak, so he's able to recover extremely effectively (I can't tell who blocked this, or if it was even blocked at all), but this play still required a help rotation from Noah, who couldn't be sure that KP would recover in time.
Watch closely, and you'll see the impressive timing that is required to be a reliable help defender at the rim. Noah stays within arms length of Howard even as Millsap is powering down the lane -- he knows Millsap will toss it up for an easy finish if he doesn't keep his body between Howard and the rim. This serves to basically force Millsap into a shot -- something we'll touch on again later -- and just as Millsap reaches the same conclusion, Jo finally completes the help rotation. Thanks to the timing, Noah's positioning as he goes airborne puts him between Millsap and Howard at the critical juncture in this play, turning the ally-oop into a very difficult proposition.
Noah is also close enough to Millsap to force him right, where KP is lurking on the recovery. This play is reminscent of what we saw regularly last year, when Porzingis and Lopez combined on the interior to form the best rim protection pairing in the league.
Both Noah and Porzingis combined to stop this play, but the poise from Jo on his rotation is what truly allowed KP to make his ridiculous recovery. Put someone like JaVale McGee into Noah's spot on this play, and he almost certainly overreacts to the initial penetration, leaving Howard wide open for a dunk.
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 302 - MANAGING SPACE
Managing space is just as important as timing on help rotations for defending in the modern NBA. With so many teams running literally hundreds of pick and rolls and dribble handoffs per game, it's become increasingly important for big men to manage two offensive players for a short period of time while the initial defender recovers. Doing so places a premium on mobility, foot speed, and IQ; overcommitting is a death sentence, but undercommitting is also a death sentence. Bigs have to toe the line between helping and overhelping, and it's damn hard to do.
As you can see in this example, the dribble handoff (DHO) from Dwight to Bazemore gets Jennings behind the play (shocking), leaving Jo with the unenviable task of defending both players, even if it's just for half a second.
Notice his positioning here -- Jo has to get to the middle of the paint in order to prevent a driving layup from Bazemore.
But Noah also has to prevent Howard from getting a free runway to the rim for an ally-oop, as usual. Thus, Noah has to manage the painted area by himself until Jennings can recover.
It's essentially become basketball triage in these situations, and this is where the analytics comes into play. You don't want a layup or dunk, of course, so inducing any other shot (except an open 3) can be considered a success in this situation. With that in mind, Noah is basically trying to bait Bazemore into a midrange floater. Here's the critical point; Noah has already forced Bazemore to slow down thanks to a couple of well-timed stunts, which gave Jennings the time he needed to (almost) get back into position. But, most importantly, Jo doesn't overcommit throughout the process of keeping containment; throughout the entire meta-game between himself and Bazemore, he's still close enough to Dwight to disrupt an ally-oop, at any point. This still is taken right before Bazemore takes his shot -- look at Jo has positioned himself between both guys about as well as he can, leaving no free lane to the rim. That's not as easy as it looks.
That's how you manage space well as a defender.
Sidenote: this stop was also a result of Bazemore being a below-average ball handler. This is a situation ripe for putting Jennings "in jail", which basically means using your body to keep Jennings on your back. Putting a defender in jail in this hypothetical situation prolongs the period in which Noah has to defend both Bazemore and Howard. Guys like Chris Paul, George Hill, and D'Angelo Russell use it to great effect on a regular basis. Bazemore is not that kind of player. Basically, this is still good defense, but it's also bad offense.
DEFENSE FOR BIG MEN 401 - DEFENDING THE PICK AND ROLL
Defending the pick and roll is probably the most difficult defensive task in the modern NBA thanks to the rise of stretch 4's, the golden generation of point guards, and the lack of hand checking. There are multiple coverages, and each coverage fits a different situation; everyone involved has to know where to go, and when, while trying to stop the best basketball players in the world. It's basically impossible to consistently stop a pick and roll.
The ideal pick and roll defender, as a big, combines everything we discussed above. Managing space. Executing a game plan. Making timely help rotations. Putting in effort. Having active hands. But bigs also need certain physical traits -- you won't see Roy Hibbert switching onto a point guard during a huge late game defensive possession.
This is where Noah's potential as a defender is truly special, and this is how Noah won defensive player of the year not so long ago. Fortunately, we saw shades of that Joakim Noah on Wednesday, and man, was it impressive.
When defending pick and rolls, the primary defender is going to get picked off by a screen very often. It's just the nature of the game. In those situations, the big man has to step up to contain the ball handler until his defender can recover; oftentimes, that can get ugly.
On Wednesday night, Joakim Noah made it look beautiful.
Look at how he steps up into Schroder, getting low to the ground and maintaining constant contact with his arms in order to neuter some of his quickness. He knows he only has to hold up until Rose can recover, and he does exactly that. Once that primary action was defended, the Hawks don't have a good secondary ball handler, and the possession falls flat on its face after the ball gets back to Schroder.
And that wasn't the only one -- the Hawks really tried to take advantage of Noah by using Howard as a screener as their point of attack in the 4th quarter and OT, but Jo was having none of it.
The most impressive play, though, came when the Hawks decided to pull Noah out to the top of the arc, which is harder to defend than the corner due to the extra space (and only one sideline to help contain the ball handler). Didn't matter.
There really aren't very many centers who can (easily) hedge a point guard 24 feet from the rim. That is a very, very valuable skillset on defense.
Finally, we have what was probably the most impressive play of the night. Sometimes, you just have to switch a pick and roll to deny all the easy options that it can generate. To help with this, every team would love to have a big who can both switch out on a guard and do a respectable job staying with him.
This time, Jo switches out, one on one, against one of the quickest point guards in the league, and manages to hold his own. Two things to note -- one, right before Millsap went to screen for Schroder, Noah smartly switched with Porzingis, as Noah is much more fit to switch out and make something happen (it also left KP in primary help position -- basketball IQ, everyone!). Two, look at how low Jo gets out at the top of the key. That's like, the singular trademark of prime Joakim Noah in his defensive prime right there. He's not the same physically anymore, but this is still a very impressive play from a legitimate center. This is why he was brought in.
There appeared to be some space there for Schroder to attack, but he’s eager to dump the ball off. In a vacuum, that’s just a mental error rather than a good defensive play. But basketball isn’t played in a vacuum, and earlier in the game, Jo had blocked Schroder pretty easily when Dennis tried to attack him in the pick and roll.
Wouldn’t surprise me if Schroder was having Vietnam-esque flashbacks as he drove into the paint, leading to the early kickout to Millsap. Plus, KP was lurking for the usual clutch block.
Now, it’s important to note that this is just one game. Schroder and Howard are known for being inconsistent players, and the Hawks have the 24th ranked offense in the league for a reason. But this is an important step, and it’s also another data point in what has been a steady climb in Joakim Noah’s performance over the past two weeks.
If Jo can provide this sort of defensive presence on a game-to-game basis, he’ll be worth the contract he got this offseason — for now.