Conventional wisdom says that having a chip on your shoulder is a good thing, but when that kind of personal intensity manifests itself in frequent outbursts, ritualized screaming, crazed gestures, and free-flowing obscenities, it should be a big negative. Strangely, this is not the case with Bulls' center Joakim Noah, whose game has evolved in direct proportion to his rancor.
The son of 1983 French Open champ Yannick, who was never quiet himself, Noah is the most raw-nerved player in the league. He plays as though someone just shot his dog and sustains that level of fury for 35 minutes every night. For the opposition, it's discomforting to see this rope-veined misanthrope bounding up the court with his scraggly I-don't-give-a-shit hair bun bobbing in the air, his eyes narrowed and cindery as he prepares to set a pick, dunk on someone's head, and toss a slur at a fan on the way back down the floor. But if Noah's emotions are highly charged, his seven-foot, mantis-like body is composed, graceful even.
With Derrick Rose lost to season-ending knee surgery in November, the trade of Luol Deng in January, and the always inadequate Carlos Boozer playing inadequately, the Bulls seemed destined to fall apart early this season. Then Noah happened. He was always a great defender and rebounder, and a dexterous scorer underneath. The biggest improvement in his game is his passing (which he credits to the advice of former NBA big man and friend Brad Miller). He averaged 7.5 assists a game in March, the second best assist month for a center behind Wilt Chamberlain. The difference is, Chamberlain wasn't bringing the ball up the court or running a set from the perimeter. The offense not only goes through Noah, it usually begins with him.
Noah's March 2 stat-line against the train-wreck Knicks says it all: 13 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists, two steals, and two blocks. The last center to come close to that assist number was Euro pioneer and serial chair puller Vlade Divac, who racked up 13 against the then-Vancouver Grizzlies in 1996. (And let's be honest: Divac's passing was more of a stylistic veneer added to his crafty but workman-like game than a bona fide weapon.) In using his size to create space, Noah may set up teammates as well as anyone in the league, point guards included. Inevitably, commentators will reflexively wheel out the tired trope, "willing his team to victory." But in Noah's case, it might actually be true.