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Bulls Tue Apr 22 2014
So many questions arise during awards season when it comes to the NBA. Should the MVP go to the best player (LeBron James), or to the guy who had the best season (Kevin Durant)? Should the Most Improved Player award go to a star becoming the superstar, or any random player that made a huge leap statistically from the year before? Should we just name the Coach of the Year trophy after Greg Popovich to make up for the fact that he's only won the dang thing three times (he's getting it this year)?
One award that didn't have a question attached to it this year was Defensive Player of the Year. Joakim Noah locked down 100 of the 125 first place votes to become the first Bulls player to win the DPOY since Michael Jordan won it in the 1987-88 season. Scottie Pippen never winning the award is an absolute crime, but that's an entirely different column.
The stat that has perpetually held Noah back from being a top candidate for the award in previous years was his games played. His two games missed this season tied for the fewest in his career, matched only during the lockout shortened season, along with his sophomore year when he was only playing 25 minutes a night. You can't be the defensive anchor of your franchise if you're not on the floor consistently, and he was finally able to put his foot problems behind him this season (possibly due to a change in shoes).
Roy Hibbert (second) and DeAndre Jordan (third) were each in the conversation with Noah, but Hibbert's total collapse after the All-Star break (rebounding is a part of defense), and the Clippers barely finishing in the top half of the league in points allowed turned the voting into a rout. Noah didn't hurt his case by leading the league in defensive win shares and tied for first in defensive rating.
Noah took a team that lost Derrick Rose in the opening weeks of the season, along with their second best player and defender in Luol Deng via a January trade, and still churned out 48 wins. His intensity, demeanor, and complete understanding of Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes served as the base of his incredible season, but his athleticism and ability to defend players both larger and smaller than he in the post and on pick-and-rolls is what kept the Bulls in contention all season long. He has the rare ability to finish a defensive sequence with a block, steal, or rebound, and lead the fast break himself with his speed and ball-handling skills.
Similar to defensive awards in baseball, offensive output does sway voters to a small extent, and that's where Noah shined far above his closest competitors. While Hibbert had the worst offensive season of his career, and Jordan's only offensive exploits are finishing alley oops and putting back rebounds, Noah set a career high in points and assists. After Deng was dealt, the offense had to run through somebody, and Noah responded with 31 games of 6-plus assists after recording just five pre-trade.
Noah couldn't win the award without his teammates, and he mentioned Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson during his acceptance speech. Each of them are in the upper-echelon of individual defending, but the system that Thibs preaches along with everyone's complete embrace of it is what makes it all click. Sorry Carlos Boozer -- no love for you when it comes to this side of the ball.
Can Noah's career year lead the Bulls to a lengthy stay in the playoffs? That remains to be seen, and the team had trouble defending and rebounding in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's defeat against Washington. Marcin Gortat and Nene are very skilled big men, and will be a tough test for Noah and Gibson for the remainder of the series.
Regardless of the outcome, Noah winning the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award is something he richly deserved.