Throw Noah Off the Boat?

Rick Morrisey – a sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune – has the following advice for John Paxson (general manager of the Chicago Bulls): Bulls should throw Joakim Noah overboard.

In this article Morrisey makes two arguments:

1. Noah has a problem fitting in with his teammates and coaches.

2. Noah is not a productive NBA player and is therefore not worth the hassle.

Abbott Responds

In response to this column, Henry Abbott – of TrueHoop – noted the following:

There’s a column in Chicago today, by Rick Morrissey of the Tribune, ripping Joakim Noah for various things. One of the criticisms is that he is not productive: “Noah’s supporters say he’s a monument to hustle. No. He’s the king of looking like he’s hustling. When you’re 6 feet 11 inches, wave your arms with exaggerated gestures and have a ponytail that bobs as you run up and down the court, you tend to look busy. He’s averaging 4.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 18.2 minutes per game. The numbers say he’s not worth the hassle.” I think that’s a case of old-school stats deceiving. Because more sophisticated numbers show Noah’s one of the best rebounders in the NBA per minute. Noah is third in the whole NBA getting offensive boards, and his overall rebound rate is ahead of that of Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, Kendrick Perkins, David Lee, Ben Wallace, Yao Ming and many other big names among big men. Noah looks like a bit of a spaz out there — agreed — but he is not unproductive.

The Value of Noah

So here we have two journalists commenting on the relative value of Noah.  Both are looking at the same numbers.  But both are coming to different conclusions. 

As we often do here, let’s look a bit more closely at the numbers.  We will start with a comparison of Noah, Aaron Gray, and Spencer Hawes.  Each of these players was selected in the 2007 draft.  Noah was selected with the 9th overall pick, Hawes went one pick later, and the Bulls took Gray in the second round.  In sum, Hawes and Gray are Chicago’s alternatives to Noah.  In 2007 Chicago could have selected Hawes.  And today, Gray is often being chosen over Noah.  Across the last 16 games, it’s Gray who has been the primary starter at center for the Bulls.

When we look at the numbers – reported in Table One – we see that Noah is actually offering more per-minute than either alternative. You wouldn’t see this, though, if you focus solely on point production.  Noah certainly leaves much to be desired as a scorer.  With respect to all of the scoring stats, Noah is below average.  When we move past scoring, though, we see that Noah excels in everything except personal fouls.  In sum, there is much to like about Noah.  At least, as long as you look at more than scoring.

Table One: Evaluating Joakim Noah in January of 2009

To put Noah’s production in perspective, let’s look at the 10th player chosen in 2007. Spencer Hawes – who plays about 10 minutes more per game than Noah — is below average with respect to everything except taking shots from the field, shooting efficiency from the free throw line, blocked shots, and assists.  But because Hawes takes an above average quantity of shots, some people have argued that he is a better player than Greg Oden.  And I suspect many would take Hawes over Noah.  The numbers, though, suggest Chicago made the right decision in the summer of 2007.

Despite the story the numbers are saying, Chicago is acting like they made the wrong choice.  Noah is only averaging 18 minutes per game this season and as noted, recently Gray is starting at center for Chicago.  

If we go back to Noah’s college numbers we see that he was not much of a scorer at Florida.   Although Noah clearly demonstrated that he was not going to be a major producer of points in the NBA, Chicago still spent a lottery pick to acquire his services.  And now, after demonstrating that his game is really not about scoring, Chicago behaves as if Noah’s not really a very productive player. Yes, as the Morrisey article indicates, Noah does have a problem getting along with coaches.  But as Morrisey notes, this is not generally an issue for players who are considered productive.  It looks like Noah is doing what his college performance promised, yet now Chicago seems unhappy to get what they asked for.

Finding Problems in Chicago

And when we look at Wins Produced, we see that Chicago is actually getting quite a bit from Noah.  In fact – as Table Two indicates — Noah currently leads this team in both WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and Wins Production.

Table Two: Chicago Bulls in 2008-09 after 35 games

Unfortunately for the Bulls (of the players who have played 500 minutes this year) only Aaron Gray is more productive than even an average player.  And Gray plays the same position as Noah (and he’s not offering as much as Noah). At every other position, the players getting minutes are below average.  In other words, every other player getting significant minutes is “not good” (at least, not so far this season).

To be fair, Ben Gordon, Derrick Rose, Drew Gooden, and Larry Hughes are not far below average (in fact, if you wanted to think of these players as essentially average, you would be fine).  Still, none of these players have actually been “good” this year.  And Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, and Andres Nocioni have clearly been below average.  It’s the play of these players – players who are getting more minutes than Noah – that are primarily responsible for Chicago being a below average team in 2008-09.

And yet Morrisey want the Bulls to get rid of Noah.  When we look at all the data, it’s clear that Abbott’s assessment is correct.  Morrisey is deceived by “old-school stats.”  By focusing only on per-game statistics, Morrisey can’t see the value of Noah.  Hopefully, for the sake of Chicago fans, Paxson is not listening to Morrisey.  If he is, though, another NBA team might be in position to add a player who might have trouble following the rules (like the important rule prohibiting eating in the locker room) but who certainly can help a team win more games.

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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