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Monday, April 21, 2014
Award caps Noah's development into a star

By Jon Greenberg

The identity of the Chicago Bulls is defense. Joakim Noah is the screaming, clapping, yapping face of that defense.

So Noah, the heart and soul of the most frustrating defense in the league, was an easy choice as the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, which was announced Monday.

Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah has matured from "energy guy" to "franchise guy" this season.
No one represents the Bulls like Noah, who usurped the title of "Face of the Franchise" from the injured Derrick Rose.

Noah abhors that kind of talk and the MVP chants that serenade him at the free throw line. He's Team Pooh 'til the end, but let's not quibble. It's a natural usurping. You can't root for Rose in street clothes, and fans need someone to channel their adoration.

Given his personality, flair and ability, Noah is the right fit. He's a superstar, and it's nice to see him recognized as such.

This award is ceremonial proof of the major leaps Noah has taken as a player in the past few years, maturing from "energy guy" to "franchise guy" in the span of Tom Thibodeau's four-year tenure.

More than anyone, the Bulls play defense -- Thibodeau's strongside overload, hybrid zone defense -- as a team, with five guys on a string, as they say. So this individual honor is really a team award.

But it's Noah who acts as a one-man zone as he patrols the paint. It's Noah who comes out and disrupts the pick-and-roll because he can switch and guard any player. It's Noah who anchors the league's stingiest defense, which suffers when he's off the court.

In a recent Sports Illustrated feature on Noah, Portland guard Earl Watson summarized Noah's value to the Bulls perfectly: "Thibodeau builds machines, and Noah is the engine."

A couple of years ago, Noah had Omer Asik behind him, and Asik was just as stingy defensively. Since then, Noah's value has increased along with his minutes, which are up around 20 percent from the Asik days.

With no true backup -- Taj Gibson replaces him early, and Nazr Mohammed gets a handful of minutes a game -- Noah has had to shoulder the workload. It's paid off. He's a two-time All-Star and will likely be named first-team All-NBA. The Bulls, along with his private physical therapist, have modified his training regimen to keep him healthy, and his change in footwear, from Le Coq Sportif to adidas, this season seems to have helped stave off his frequent foot problems.

Even though he was a two-time NCAA champion, Noah entered the NBA in a zoot suit and suffered through an awkward first year. But his growth since then has been so steadily incremental that he hasn't as much arrived as planted his flag.

Thibodeau gets all the due credit for teaching and coaching championship defense, but he needs championship athletes to play it. He had one in Kevin Garnett in Boston, and it resulted in a championship and another Finals appearance. Noah is his rightful heir.

This award comes at a slightly awkward time, less than a day after Noah and Sixth Man of the Year favorite Gibson were worked by big men Nene and Marcin Gortat (39 points, 21 rebounds) in Washington's 102-93 win in the playoff series opener. The Wizards shot 48.6 percent for the game and made 9 of 11 shots in the paint in the second half.

Noah took the heat for the loss, as he always does, and promised the Bulls would rebound in Game 2. He refused to talk about the death of his mentor, New York youth coach Tyrone Green, who passed away last week.

One thing I've noticed about Noah over the years is that he loathes most of the narratives about himself. He wasn't about to let something as raw and personal as Green's death be used as story fodder.

Noah's growth as a player, and his endearing, engaging nature off the court, should be an example for every young player. He works hard, plays hard and lives life.

Noah represents all that is good about the Bulls and the NBA. Now he has a trophy to prove it.