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Chicago Bulls: the Backup Center Dynamic

July 24th, 2014 at 10:40 AM
By Christopher Terzic

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah played and started 80 games last season for the Chicago Bulls playing 35.3 minutes a game at a relentless pace. For seven seasons Joakim Noah has poured his heart and soul on to the hardwood; as fierce a competitor the NBA has to offer. To his credit, the seven-foot Noah has rarely let a myriad of ailments, including: foot, knee, wrist, and groin injuries curtail his performance and output for the duration of his career. But, Noah is turning 30 this season, and his ferocious motor with which he plays could very well start turning nagging injuries into prolonged sideline stints.

Noah’s backup the past two seasons has been respected veteran Nazr Mohammed. While by all accounts, Mohammed is an appreciated mature locker room presence and a consummate professional – he’ll be 37 in September and isn’t a sufficient enough to mitigate the production lost while Noah gets a breather (or rather, catches his breath). Unless Tom Thibodeau is devising lineups using Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic at the four and five together more frequently while giving Noah longer rests, the Bulls backup center position still stands to be an area to improve.

Joakim Noah from Flickr via Wylio? 2011 Keith Allison, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

If Thibs is contemplating tinkering with Gibson guarding taller players, consider that in 2013-14 (per, NBA.com) opponents shot 45.7% at the rim against Gibson (anything under 50% is really good) whose steadily averaged 1.3 blocks over his five NBA seasons. In comparison, Noah defended shots at the rim last season at 46.8%, but Noah also faced about a shot and a half more (5.2 to 7.8) than Gibson did a game. Yet somewhat surprisingly, Noah only blocked a total of nine more shots than Gibson last season (121 to 112). To put that into perspective, the third highest total in blocks for the Bulls last season after Noah and Gibson was Mike Dunleavy at 46.

Gibson’s athleticism and phenomenal defensive footwork may allow him to guard bigger and taller players for slightly longer stretches next season, but Taj is still 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds.

New addition Pau Gasol has a good three inches on Gibson, and guarded mostly centers last season (he faced nearly ten shots a game at the rim last season, for context. Also due in large part to the Lakers being atrocious guarding the perimeter last season). Gasol, like Tim Duncan in San Antonio has transformed into a center in the latter stages of their careers once their athletic ability vanished and sound proficiency in the post took over. Opponents shot almost 55% at the rim against Gasol last season, but that number is probable to drop this season with Noah or Gibson looming on the weakside for help.

Nikola Mirotic shouldn’t see any time at the five unless Chicago faces a team that goes into small-ball frequently. Mirotic isn’t afraid to get physical from what the tape shows of him in Europe, but a different breed of beasts and bullies in the NBA will test him.

So that leaves the door open to find an alternate true center to spell Noah. Of course, since the Bulls are pinched at the cap, they’ll only be able to sign a free agent at the veteran minimum. A name that draws some intrigue is former second overall pick Emeka Okafor. Due to a neck surgery, Okafor was forced to miss all of last season and could possibly miss part of next season, too. But in his last full season of competition in 2012-13 Okafor posted arguably his best defensive season. He blocked less shots, but rebounded on the defensive glass at the highest rate in his career (26.8%).

We could go down the road of Andrew Byn—WOAH, nope. Not again. Not ever. However, Greg Oden might be a name worth exploring. Again, the Bulls aren’t looking for offense here. He only played in 23 games last season, so injury is clearly of concern, as always, with Oden.

The last big body Chicago might want to take a look at is Josh Harrellson formerly of the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, and New York Knicks. Harrellson’s a burly fellow, hasn’t accomplished much in his three-year career, but his per 36 minutes blocks average is 1.7. Plus, he’s only 25.

Going into the season with Mohammed brought back wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world with the creativity Thibs now allowed with a surplus of frontcourt flexibility. Precautionary measures and a reduction of Joakim’s minutes however must be prioritized near the top of the list for Thibs. Chicago can’t afford another postseason run with its Derrick Rose on the defense running on fumes.  

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Tags: Chicago, Chicago Bulls, Emeka Okafor, Greg Oden, Joakim Noah, Josh Harrellson, Nazr Mohammed, NBA, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Tim Duncan, Tom Thibodeau

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