by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman

Joakim Noah’s teams have always exceeded expectations. The 2006 and 2007 champion Florida Gators. The 2009 Bulls that took the defending champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of the Playoffs. Last year’s Bulls team that shocked everyone by winning 62 games, and making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Even international teams have reaped the benefits of having basketball’s Fabio on their side, with France, after having Noah join its national team this offseason, winning enough games to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2000. Over this time period a pattern has developed.

The question is how and why?

Why do Noah’s teams constantly get overlooked? Why are Noah’s teams always getting to points that no one thought they could?

The obvious answers here would include every basketball cliché. Noah is a hustler and a great role player. He brings intangibles to his teams that don’t get counted in box scores, and therefore, don’t get factored into projections. He’s a great defender, and defense wins Championships.

Each of these statements is true, and they all represent examples of what Noah is able to contribute to his teams. But they also just tap into the surface of Noah as a basketball player, and stopping at them would ignore the many unique and elite abilities that the Bulls center has.

Noah is not a great scorer. With a scoring average of 11.7 ppg, the second lowest ppg average of anyone this list—trailing only Rajon Rondo—you could say that he’s not even a good scorer. (Although I will remind you that in the 24 games he played last season before undergoing surgery to repair a ligament in his right thumb, Noah was averaging 14 ppg.) But the list of things on a court that Noah doesn’t do well ends at scoring, and his deficiency in this area does not prevent him from making the Bulls a better offensive team.

How?

For starters, Noah is one of the best passing big men in the League, and does an excellent job of catching and distributing the ball from the high post and paint. This is an extremely dangerous weapon that can open up all sorts of possibilities for an offense, and is a skill that most big men don’t posses. Duncan, the Gasols, Dirk; I’m sure I’m forgetting a few names, but this list, which includes Noah, is certainly not a long one.

The other way Noah helps his team on offense is by rebounding. A lot. Not only does this give his team additional possessions, but it also forces opponents to alter their defensive schemes. And what Noah has, which almost every other great offensive rebounder doesn’t have, is the athleticism and speed to get back on defense after crashing the offensive glass. Teams are almost never good at both offense and defensive rebounding. Noah allows the Bulls to excel in both, and is one of the only players in the NBA who could have this effect.

The same thing can be said for what Noah’s does on the defensive end, where he plays the Kevin Garnett role in Tom Thibodeau defense. Like a younger Garnett, the 6-11 center has the quickness to switch on to guards, the athleticism to hedge and recover on picks, and the height and shot blocking ability to alter shots in the paint.

Proficiency in these areas is usually explained through words like “hustle” and “determination,” and with phrases like “Noah just wanted it more.” But just because a player is not a scorer, doesn’t mean everything he does can be chalked up to “hustle.” Just because a player helps a team in areas other than scoring doesn’t make that player a “role player.” Noah is not a “role player.” The things that he does—elite defense, rebounding, passing, the ability to help an offense without the ball—are influential skills that should be lauded.

The sooner we start recognizing these skills, the sooner we’ll stop being shocked by what Noah’s teams do on the court.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.