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NBA

Joakim Noah Got Ugly To Make Basketball Pretty

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Joakim Noah’s last major NBA contract earned him $72.6 million for 1,055 minutes of play. It will be paid out until the 2021-22 season. I probably don’t need to tell you which American bluesman is footing the bill. One minor curse of Knicks fandom is that you relate to once-greats as pure albatrosses. Presented with a desiccated husk of a player, the task then is to rehydrate them in your mind and remind yourself how great they used to be, before they came to a greatness-proof place. Nobody deserves to be remembered as Phil Jackson’s dumbest managerial gaffe. Certainly not a player like Joakim Noah, who is “likely headed toward retirement” after getting waived by the Clippers, because he was, for a time, one of the wildest sights in basketball.

So I will not dwell on Noah’s tenure on the Knicks, which spanned a 20-game suspension for PEDs, several surgeries, spats with Jeff Hornacek, estrangement from the team for “personal reasons,” a waive-and-stretch that bloats his payouts for eternity, that one time he smoked a joint with my friend on the beach, the eventual admission that he was “too lit to play in New York City.” And I will look instead at, say, the 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 14 assists he hung on them as a Chicago Bull in March 2014, back when his every outing teetered on triple-double. That Joakim Noah, age 28, had it all figured out. He came out of Florida low on polish, high on a lot, and figured out how to extract every drop of NBA value of from his mobility, timing, and feel. Also not to be undersold: general willingness to be the loudest, stubbornest, grimiest person in the vicinity. The craft was missing, often glaringly, as DeMarcus Cousins couldn’t help but point out to the world. But it didn’t matter. Noah fashioned himself, as our pal David Roth put it, into “the most demonic, advanced version of someone you might play pickup with.”

In that ’13-’14 season, Noah stood at the center of a trade- and injury-gutted Bulls squad and held shit together by surly force of will. We may never be blessed with a stranger fringe MVP candidate. Here was a 6-foot-11 guy lacking basketball’s most overt skill—put ball in hoop—yet handling every other conceivable chore on the court. On offense, his duties extended beyond the usual rim-running and clean-up dunks: He went full-on point-center for a roster that lacked anything close to a threatening ball-handler, with apologies to D.J. Augustin. From his perch in the high post, Noah rewarded his cutters, sending dimes over the defense or right through its holes. He could sling one-handed lobs; he could rumble into rickety drive-and-kicks; he could kickstart and finish plays in transition. The passing was as smooth and intuitive as the shooting wasn’t. He averaged 5.4 assists that season, to pair with his 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals.

Noah’s money was made on the other end of the floor, and that was the year he took home Defensive Player of the Year. It was rarer then to see a big man that comfortable defending in space, hips low and feet sliding, able to hang with and harangue anyone. His defense was as abrasive as the rules of basketball and norms of polite society would allow. He was a big tarantula who could skitter onto guards and mirror them step for step, twitching his limbs unsettlingly even when they weren’t moving at all. He could blow up a play in progress with marauding hands, or halt it at its conclusion with a crushing block. He did everything right up to clapping right in the opposition’s face, and then, when the situation presented itself, did that, too. Tom Thibodeau may never have a greater defensive weapon at his pitiless disposal. He was in everyone’s face, and in their ears, until the end.

Now we have Nikola Jokic, once and future king of passing bigs, whose own work out of the post makes any predecessor’s work look quaint. Now we have Anthony Davis, a blanket who can be draped over any defensive assignment in the entire league, and then swapped onto a teammate without hesitation. Their gifts will start to look more like prerequisites than anomalies. Who wants a big man who can’t guard a few positions, can’t take a few dribbles, can’t make a read in the short roll? In our dystopian future, all bigs will be overgrown guards overflowing with finesse, homework-doers who honed their ball skills for a decade. So maybe this man was last of his ilk: rangy kooks who put sidespin on their jumpers, but cobbled together a skillset that briefly, precariously, placed them among the very best players in the NBA. Back then, we had Joakim Noah.