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Joakim Noah Versus the Inevitable

For years, Joakim Noah has anchored the Chicago Bulls by doing everything, as hard as he could. Now, all those years of maximum everything are catching up with him.
March 13, 2015, 1:29pm
Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Joakim Noah rested on Wednesday night. He did this because he needed to. The Bulls were at the tail end of a five-games-in-seven-nights stretch and there is only so much basketball any human can play on a sore, recently surgically repaired left knee. The decision to rest is an unremarkable and sensible act by itself, but Noah isn't often given to sensibleness. This is the larger part of what has made him Joakim Noah, and made him great.


Noah's game and his approach to it are steeped in a boundless-seeming intensity, and defined by it. There is, in all of it, the sense of an athlete purposefully putting himself in the headspace he knows he needs to inhabit in order to put on the sort of Amphetamine Mozart act he performs every night. For all the things that he has learned to do on the court, energy remains Noah's greatest skill, and one both earned and learned. Noah decided at some point in his life that he would rarely, if ever, chill. This has served him well, for the most part.

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"Activity level" is a silly term, mostly, even by the standards of circa-now stat talk. It sounds like a way to measure the skill with which a third-grader fills in a coloring book, but if any player in the NBA gives it meaning, it's Noah. His activity level is a volcano going through a messy divorce; his activity level is a Louisville Slugger striking a beehive. (It's also perfectly captured in these delightful animated gifs from Chris Edser.) For someone so tall, lanky, and conspicuously coiffed, Noah pops up in a lot of unexpected places. To lose track of his movement on defense is to be surprised a few seconds later when—of course!—there he is, tipping a pass, getting a paw in a driving point guard's face, madly clapping his hands after causing a turnover. A keen understanding of the game helps Noah to do this, but his relentlessness is what makes it possible, and what makes it happen.

But of course it is impossible to live in the red forever, or even for long. The downside to Noah's sharp edge is that he appears to have run himself into the ground. His numbers and percentages are down across the board this season, which can be partially chalked up to being moved to a more power forward-like position alongside the lumbering, block-occupying Pau Gasol, but the eye test speaks volumes here, too. Noah isn't as lithe and light as he used to be. On certain nights, you can see him struggling to drag his body to the spots his mind has told him he can reach. No one ages gracefully, really.

Sir, we're going to have to ask you to keep it down. People are trying to enjoy their Mirotic. Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

But it's more than mileage. This is what happens when a player overextends himself time and again. Noah has never been particularly healthy—his frenetic leads to a lot of bumps and bruises—but in 2012-13, he played through excruciating-sounding bouts of plantar fasciitis, and in 2013-14, he was carrying a knee problem that Tom Thibodeau said bothered Noah "probably the whole second half of the year." In both those seasons, Noah carried the Bulls while holding out slight hope that an on-the-shelf Derrick Rose would return for a playoff run. (If Noah is Sisyphean, Rose is the boulder.)

It's difficult to overstate the job Noah did in his more famous teammate's absence. He was the Bulls' best defensive player—and maybe the best defender in the league full stop—while also often functioning as the team's hub on offense. For extended stretches, Chicago would play Noah in a point-center role in which he caught the ball near the foul line and either dumped it off to a cutter, recycled it back to the perimeter, or faced up and tried to drive into the paint. Every possession was work for those Rose-less Bulls squads, and Noah bore the brunt of that labor.

Noah, as he would, did so happily, if also with minor-to-moderate discomfort. No one ever told him to ease up, or considered making that decision for him. Thibodeau is an excellent coach, but his most egregious flaw is that he indulges his players' eagerness to utterly spend themselves in service of winning. Noah should have been held out of the lineup more frequently; instead he was allowed to wring himself out like a bodybuilder going to town on a grapefruit. This sort of thing only looks heroic for so long.

What's left is the current, diminished version of Joakim Noah. He's not an altogether sad sight, but what's sad about him is what's sad about all athletes with abbreviated primes: almost as soon as we begin to fully appreciate them, they are at a new and slightly more rickety stage of their careers. What was supposed to slowly peter out instead declines and then disappears all at once. This happens imperceptibly, until it's all, all at once, very perceptible.

Noah has been deteriorating in plain sight for a while, all while anchoring one of the most stubbornly competitive teams in the Eastern Conference. Anyone paying attention had to see his diminishment coming, and yet it's still jarring to see him looking pained, moving noticeably slower, and apparently feeling his ailments with a bit more acuity than he did during previous seasons. All that on-court hard living has finally, lamentably caught up with him. He's a lesser player these days, both due to and in spite of his unyielding effort. This was always how it would end up for him, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept that the end has begun.