NBA Sunday: The Importance of Joakim Noah

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Say what you want about Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose or Kristaps Porzingis, but whether the New York Knicks sink or swim this season may ultimately boil down to the productivity of one of their other new faces: Joakim Noah.

Of the four players, Noah has logged the least amount of preseason minutes and that’s disconcerting considering Rose – whose civil rape trial is expected to wrap up in the next few days – hasn’t even been with the team for more than a week.

To his credit, Noah has been there, just not on the court. He hasn’t appeared in a regular season game since January 15, has been limited in practice and missed the Knicks’ first three preseason games. Obviously, New York hopes that Noah’s season ends much more productively than it has begun.

And clearly, the hope is that he ends up being more than $72 million mascot over the next four years.

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Impatience and disappointment have been the hallmarks of the Knicks for as long as a generation of fans can remember. From trading Patrick Ewing away to acquiring Rose this summer, New York has long been a franchise obsessed with making a splash.

To use a baseball analogy, a run can be scored by hitting two singles and one sacrifice, but doing this isn’t nearly as sexy as hitting a solo home run. And the Knicks have long been swinging for the fences.

This has led to a series of disappointments. It began somewhere around the time when the franchise traded Ewing away and has continued all the way to the signing of Amar’e Stoudemire and, yes, the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. It’s been a long 15 years marked mostly by futility that has spanned the tenures of five different general managers.

Under those circumstances, the benefit of the doubt is something that’s not only rare, but also undeserved.

Fair or not, when the Knicks do something – whether it be signing Jason Kidd or drafting Kristaps Porzingis – the assumption is that it’s going to end in a smoky, flaming rubble. It’s easy to understand why fans and pundits would assume the worst.

That’s why, predictably, from the moment Noah signed with the Knicks, much more time was spent focusing on the fact that he only appeared in 29 games last season than the fact that he finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting just two years ago.

In the two seasons since, Noah has struggled to stay healthy and crossed the 30-year-old mark. In combination, those two facts aren’t welcomed. But when you’re the Knicks, the immediate assumption is that failure is imminent. Such assumptions aren’t unfounded, but they also don’t have any credible basis in fact.

This is precisely what makes the 2016-17 Knicks such an enigma.

If Noah can be anything close to the player we remember from the 2013-14 season – when he turned in per-game averages of 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks – the Knicks could win 50 games, punch their ticket to the playoffs and maybe even challenge the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division crown.

However, if Noah proves to be over the hill, has lost his court vision as well as his ability to create and lead fast breaks, the only trip the Knicks will be taking is to the 2017 draft lottery.

The truth is, despite what the Knicks get from Rose, Anthony or Porzingis, without Noah producing at a high level, they are destined to disappoint, especially with head coach Jeff Hornacek remaining at least partially committed to running the Triangle.

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Aside from being all-time great players, what Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal all have in common is that they collectively won zero championships before being coached by Phil Jackson.

Obviously, you could make the case that Jackson would have only succeeded if he had been “gifted” some of the greatest players to ever play the game. Or, of course, you could argue that Jackson was a catalyst for each of the aforementioned players becoming as great as they did.

Without Jordan for the 1993-94 season, Jackson led the Bulls to 55 wins. Without Jackson in the 2004-05 campaign, Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen coached the Lakers to a disappointing 34 wins and a lottery appearance after 11 consecutive years in the playoffs. Jackson led a team consisting of many of the same parts to 45 and 42 wins in the incredibly competitive Western Conference. And notably, from the moment he left their sides, the work habits, dedication and focus of Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all began to regress – the latter two in dramatic fashion.

The point is this: there is just as much evidence of Jackson truly being an amazing head coach as there is evidence that he’s an opportunist who made the most of what he was given. But even if his greatest gift is maximizing the talent at his disposal, that would still make him an all-time great. In fact, that is precisely a coach’s primary responsibility.

For the duration of his coaching career, Jackson has been married to the Triangle. In a league marked by big men encouraged to expand their three-point range and free-flowing offenses, the meticulous thinking and game-reading required of the Triangle Offense is something that fans have been mostly sold a farce.

Winning in the NBA requires three things: an effective system, players who can run it and a coach who can tie the two together. Those who believe that teams playing within the Triangle are running a system that is “outdated” or otherwise incapable of winning in today’s NBA are simply wrong.

It always has been and always will be about how the personnel interacts with the coach and system.

If DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Klay Thompson ever found themselves on the same team and running the Triangle, they would have an easy time being an elite squad. Of course, one could argue that with players that talented, wins would come no matter what system was employed. Still, the Triangle is a system that is based on mathematics and sound principles that coaches at every level teach. What makes it most unique is that, at any given moment, a ball handler must be able to pass to any of his four teammates. That’s where game-reading and off-ball player movement becomes vital.

Knowing this, Jackson went out on the open market and signed Noah—a rare players whose position and skill sets makes him an oddly unique fit. His health now becomes the primary question.

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At his best, Noah, more than any other center in the league, has demonstrated the qualities of the prototypical triangle center – with Pau Gasol coming in a close second. What separates the two, aside from championship rings, is that Noah sees the floor better and is a more gifted passer. He has also demonstrated the ability to penetrate and handle the ball quite well for a man his size. At his best, en route to winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014, he also showed an ability to guard all five positions on the floor. Gasol doesn’t have the requisite foot speed and, in fact, is often the target of pick-and-roll switch schemes designed to take advantage of his defensive limitations, especially as he has declined later in his career.

Looking at the 2016-17 Knicks, one could make the case that the team could patch the hole and be alright should any of the other four starters around Noah go down. The veteran center would be the most difficult to replace should he get hurt. There is no other center in the entire league who has the collection of talent that he has demonstrated, and there certainly isn’t another on the team’s roster.

For that reason, in the end, it may be up to Noah to determine just how far the New York Knicks go.

Or, in this case, whether they go anywhere at all.