From lanky French son of a tennis player to NBA All Star and award winner. So is the journey for Joakim Noah. The Chicago Bulls’ center was voted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year on Monday.
To his credit, Noah said that the honor was more the result of the system that Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau runs, the efforts of his teammates, as well as the skills and techniques that he has learned from both Thibodeau and his recently deceased mentor, long-time youth coach Tyrone Green. Green, who started mentoring Noah when he was just a 13-year-old boy in New York City, passed away just last week.
“This award goes to somebody…I’ll never forget,“ Noah said. “…Mr. Green, I love you and I appreciate you…This award goes to you.”
Green saw something in Noah that no one else had. When Noah moved to New York from France, he was fascinated with the game of basketball but, by his own admission, not very good. Green took the center under his wing because Noah was dedicated to learning and to practice. Green said that the newly crowned NBA Defensive Player of the Year wanted to focus on the fundamentals and really learn how to be a good basketball player.
Noah slept on Green’s couch the summers of his high school years so that he could play local tournaments while his family went back to Europe for vacation. Green promised the young man that he would be there for him as long as he needed him and as long as Noah was willing to put the time in to improve.
“I played in every[summer] tournament, worked on my game. The message I got from [Green] was if you want to get better you can’t leave and go on vacation,” Noah said. “It was tough to leave my family behind and… just work on my game. But if it wasn’t for those summers, I don’t think I would be in the NBA. I think it made me the player that I am today. I feel like I got my heart and my toughness playing out in the streets.”
Along with Green, Noah expressed gratitude to numerous teammates by name. He said that even though he won it, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award is not about him, but it is more of a testament to the play of the Bulls team as a whole. It was the first time that a Bulls’ player has won the award since 1988 when someone by the name of Michael Jordan went home with the hardware.
While Noah credits Thibodeau’s hybrid zone defense for his selection, the defensive-minded center is one of the main reasons that the coach’s system works. The Bulls’ are the stingiest team in the NBA, and a big part of that is because Noah is patrolling the paint. Of course Noah gets his fair share of blocks down low, which is well documented. The seventh-year player, however, also routinely disrupts pick-and-rolls with his defensive versatility. He can come out of the paint and force the offense to adjust because he can seamlessly defend all five positions on the court.
Many skeptics say that the center is just a product of a winning system, and Noah acknowledges that concept. The problem with this line of thought is that it does not account for the energy, passion and intangibles that the fiery Noah brings to the court. Earl Watson, guard for the Portland Trailblazers, equated it this way: “[Coach] Thibadeau builds machines, and Noah is the engine.”
The two-time All Star may not be done collecting hardware this season. Noah is a strong candidate to make the All-NBA first team.
The Bulls’ center finished ahead of Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers to win the award. Noah acquired 555 points total out of a possible 1,125. Hibbert earned 166 points and Jordan earned 121. Each first place vote equals five points while every second-place vote is good for three and each third-place vote tallies one. Noah received a staggering 100 first-place votes to Hibbert’s eight.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika