Why Joakim Noah Is the Key to Porzingis’ Defense
The former Defensive Player of the Year has the intangibles necessary to make the Knicks’ centerpiece a problem in the paint
Joakim Noah was signed to a four-year deal with the expectation that he’d anchor one of the league’s worst defenses. Noah’s career in Chicago is best defined by his tenacious, relentless passion as the heart of former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s top defense. At 6'11", Noah was also one of the better moving centers in the league just a few short years ago. His could even run the open floor.
He secured Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 with 100 first-place votes. He finished the 2013–14 season as a second time Eastern Conference All Star with a career high in minutes and points per game.
While Noah’s start as a Knick is off to a rough one, he has the characteristics of the type of mentor Kristaps Porzingis needs to mature his game on the defensive end.
When you look back at most prolific big men in the NBA, many of them took the rookie who would eventually replace them under their wing. One of the most dominant pair that we herald as two of the best in the paint is David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Like Porzingis, Duncan came into the league offensively sound. He came in starting immediately alongside Robinson. By the time Robinson was ready to retire in 2003, Duncan’s usage was predictably way up as he’d taken over manning the Spurs’ front court. What’s fascinating about the “Twin Towers” era is how the progression was seamless. Robinson was still an essential component to the Spurs’ defensive success as Duncan continued to ascend as Lord of the bank shot.
In the final season of the pair playing together. it’s striking at how similar in certain defensive categories the two were despite being a decade apart in age.
It’s hard to ignore the parallels of a mentor-mentee big man relationship as influential as that and not have hope that Noah can do the same with Porzingis.
There are three strengths of Noah’s defensive knowledge that’ll help KP in order to accelerate his development as an elite center and legitimate future DPOY candidate.
KP is an excellent rim protector. If there’s one thing you can count on in every Knicks game is a disrespectful block by the Unicorn. Though outside of the paint, KP’s footwork as a defender can get pretty lazy. With lazy footwork, he looks utterly lost. Last season, the Knicks had Robin Lopez and KP as an attempt at the Robinson/Duncan duo. It worked well and left us with many highlights.
With Lopez, KP played 70 percent of Knicks’ possessions as a power forward. Lopez is an underrated defender in his own right and was consistently efficient at help defense. That’s the one thing that’s missing the most in this season’s scheme. Noah has slowed down tremendously. And given that it’s being advocated for KP to primarily play as a center, it’s logical that Noah be the one thoroughly teaching KP how to be quicker outside the paint — particularly defending high pick-and-roll, which is a glaring weakness right now.
In his DPOY season, according to the NBA Stats, Noah’s differential percentage beyond 15 feet was -0.3. KP’s is currently sitting at 2.8. We keep hearing how the game is evolving towards seven footers who can shoot from another zip code. KP is going to spend his career guarding the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel “Trust the Process” Embiid. To be successful at curbing the amount of threes the Knicks give up per game, Noah’s actually the perfect type of veteran to give lessons on not being scared to dominate the perimeter the way KP dominates the paint.
Speaking of being scared, am I the only one who hates seeing KP shrink when there’s a smaller guy on him?
Bodying your opponent down on the block. Not backing down from bully ball. These are traits that can be found in the majority of DPOY winners. On a night when KP isn’t hitting his shots or he’s on the bench due to early foul trouble, this type of intensity just doesn’t seem as prominent.
However, when the Knicks go on runs, the defensive plays that are initiated by him— whether it’s a block or a turnover leading to a fast-break — you can see the light turn on. For the Knicks to gel defensively, Noah has to figure out how to show KP how to channel his energy into playing with an unmatched intensity. That’s an intangible trait that won’t show up in a box score but will win a lot of games.
Remember You’re 7'3", Bro!
The fact that KP has Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway down pat this soon is unreal. Teams are never going to be able to minimize or control KP’s scoring ability because he can shoot from the elbow and from 25 feet out. Although, again, a 7'3" center should have some element of a strong post-up game.
KP’s lack of upper body strength can be attributed to his not wholly investing attention into being a post player.
The Knicks’ post-up shooting percentage overall, provided by Synergy, is 55.4 percent — putting them in nearly the 97th percentile for the league. As of now, Porzingis has scored 36 points off his post-ups with an efficiency rating of 57.1 percent.
What does this have to do with defense? Post play is all about a) exploiting a mismatch and b) covering more space than your defender. The same is true on the opposite end of the court. On defense, KP has made a lot of great steals. But he also picks up silly fouls for reaching in. Watch how Noah defends LeBron James.
Playing low and bending his knees, the taller Noah creates a wall that’s difficult to get around; even for James. KP has to get comfortable with not being so stiff as a big man. At 7'3" with a ridiculous wingspan, guarding beyond the paint and even long range shooters will get easier.
It’s been decades since the Knicks have developed a talent into a fortified star. The team’s M.O. is typically to give up on a player too soon or not know when to let go. I also don’t think the Knicks have recently had a team roster that gave the opportunity for younger players to learn from qualified veterans at their specific position.
Drafting KP and then being able to sign a former DPOY who was coached by one of the better defensive-minded coaches is blessings on blessings. Even if Noah is never able to contribute near his career averages while under contract, his experience as a respected, feared defensive big man is invaluable to KP’s growth as the Knicks’ heir apparent.
— James Woodruff, site writer