For a player who relies on energy and emotion, it’s easy to see Joakim Noah has had a hard time adjusting to a lesser role this season.
Coming off the bench, playing for a new coach and having his unorthodox skills marginalized to a degree seems to have taken a toll on his soul. But on those rare nights where he puts it together, he holds this Bulls’ team emotionally like few others can.
And the full Noah experience was on display in the Bulls’ 92-89 win over the San Antonio Spurs Monday at the United Center. He crossed over David West on the perimeter on the way for a layup, then a couple possessions later took Tim Duncan to the basket for another score.
Of course, his eight points don’t register as much as his 11 rebounds and seven assists or even his emotion that permeates through the team, but having him “at least look at the basket” makes things easier, according to Derrick Rose.
“I’m not gonna lie and say there hasn’t been a lot going on this year,” Noah said. “There’s been a lot of adversity for me. I have to be better to be a good leader for this team.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Being a leader is tough if the production isn’t there to match, especially if the production isn’t up to usual standards and the nights where it all comes together feels more like an anomaly than regular occurrence.
“He got his swag back,” Jimmy Butler said. “You could see by the way he’s walking around here. His spirits are high. That’s what we need every day. Everybody knows Jo is a high spirited, very emotional guy.”
His minutes, scoring and shooting are career-lows, so it’s likely hard for him to project confidence and energy when he doesn’t know how his game fits into this new incarnation of the only team he’s ever known.
Not to mention, the man is playing for a contract next season, all the more reason it appears he’s stuck inside his own head. When asked if the frustration stemmed from coming off the bench, a mini-controversy in itself from the preseason, he finally opened up after relenting with the media for awhile.
“It’s not that. I wanna play the whole game, you know? I never want to come out,” he said. “I understand this is my role now and I just have to accept it and be the best I can with what I can. Overall we just beat a very good team tonight. There’s been games where I haven’t played well, (where) I played like (bleep). I have to keep building on this, hopefully, play confident basketball and it’ll definitely be a plus for this team.”
There’s a lot of pride in those words, a lot of emotion coming from a player who’s spent his entire career feeding off it no matter the circumstances. So it’s why his teammates stand behind him, encouraging him because they can see the frustration — while also recognizing he can lift this team to a different level when he’s right.
“Jo’s like a brother to me, man,” Derrick Rose said. “He works hard. He’s one of the hardest workers in the league. You always got to tell him to get off the court after shootaround. Usually players go home after shootaround, he’ll stay there until like 2 o’clock just working on his game. But it just shows his dedication, it shows the younger players how hard you have to work, the work ethic you need to stay in this league this long. And he played great tonight. If anything, it can help his confidence.”
Coming off the bench, playing fewer minutes has been a task Rose empathizes with.
"I would think that would be hard for anyone to, you’ve got to get used to it," Rose said. "His attitude didn’t change, he’s been a great teammate and that’s what you need. He’s been very professional about it, so I can’t say anything about it."
There’s only been one game where Noah has had that type of effect and it came in a loss, which was the lethargic overtime showing against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a contest in which the Bulls failed to show up.
But in the others where his energy has been palpable, the Bulls have emerged on the winning side. Unfortunately those nights have come few and far between, and one can never tell which Noah will show up on a nightly basis.
“Of course it’s hard for him but he’s doing what it takes to win,” Butler said. “He’s showing what it takes for the whole team to be successful.”
Said Noah: “It’s been very frustrating at times but I’m blessed for this opportunity to play for the Chicago Bulls, I’m a passionate player, I get frustrated sometimes.”
And it would behoove all involved to find ways for nights like this to become more of the norm than exception.