Joakim Noah has had quite the wild ride.
The goofy kid from Florida that caught America's imagination with his off-beat court antics and colorful interviews has gone from a perceived glue player all the way to one of the top three centers in the NBA today.
Okay, this is where the debate must begin. Upon initial viewing, nearly everyone outside of the greater Chicago area will look at that last sentence with skepticism or downright mockery.
But Noah has become one of the league's top centers, and here is my definitive case for the affirmative.
State of the center
The NBA, even more so than most professional sports leagues, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years.
Perhaps the biggest change during that time has been the de-evolution of the center position.
In every decade going back to the 1960s, there have been dominant centers. From Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell through Moses Malone and Bill Walton through Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal, there have been specific centers that defined their generation.
But today, there is genuinely only one elite center, Dwight Howard, and he flat-out pales in comparison with those great names.
In no decade over the past 50 years would Howard be considered one of the top five centers in the league, let alone the best.
He lacks the elite offensive game of O'Neal, Chamberlain or Olajuwon, and while his defense is good, it is showing signs of slippage.
Howard is without question the top center of this generation, and it isn't even close. The schism between Howard and the next two centers is a greater gulf than the distance between the sun and the moon.
The sad truth is that the center position isn't what it once was.
Center is currently in a state of transition.
As such, there has never been a time during the last 30 years in which the center position has been as lowly ranked across the board in talent than now.
Today's centers are generally only good on one side of the ball.
They are in a sense incomplete players.
Noah is unique
Alright, enough doom and gloom about why the center is heading towards the same fate as the dinosaur. Sure this is a sad state of affairs, but not all is bad.
Noah in a lot of ways is a throwback type of player. He may not be your prototypical center per se, but he is a lot of fun to watch.
Like Dennis Rodman before him, Noah has become effective by being an agitator. He gets under the skin of his opponents through tough, uncompromising play and a motor that just doesn't quit.
To the naked eye, he looks like all elbows and knees with some floppy hair. But the brilliance of Noah's game is that he really does play with a purpose.
Noah's at his best when he is near the hoop. This isn't to say that he can't knock down the occasional mid-range jumper, but he really thrives getting hoops near the basket.
He knows how to play within a team structure and is the type of player that every other team in the league would love to have.
The offense doesn't need to flow through Noah, but it tends to get there anyway. He plays smart basketball, setting efficient screens and always recognizing how to create angles for the pass. He also has become a good passer and is even developing a solid post game.
And this is just his play on offense, which is without question the weakest part of his game.
Where Noah makes his money is on defense and on the boards. Noah is the type of defender that you hate going up against. He plays physical, he is long and he is athletic. He doesn't mind giving up his body for the charge but he loves to give up the hard foul as well.
He also uses his length and motor to get blocks, averaging a career-high 2.1 last season.
Noah is exceptional on the glass, averaging at least 9.8 rebounds per game in each of the last four years. He really excels at offensive boards, grabbing well over three in each of the past five seasons.
There simply is no other player in the league right now that mixes Noah's court savvy, grit and overall determination.
Weighing the competition
Given that this article began by breaking down just how far the center position has fallen, it is easy to get caught up in the negative.
But there are still some talented big men out there.
Without ranking them explicitly, the top centers in the league not named Noah or Howard are the following:
Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, Omer Asik, Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bogut, Nikola Vucevic, Anderson Varejao, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Let's break down why Noah should transcend these guys.
First, let's look at the youngsters. The last three centers mentioned: Cousins, Monroe and Drummond.
Cousins is his own worst enemy at this point but has the talent to be great. Monroe has developed into a solid offensive player and good rebounder but is a pathetic interior defender and lacks elite athleticism. Drummond could eventually be a great player but offensively is rudimentary at best right now.
As far as the veterans go, most centers are good on one side of the ball and not the other.
Gasol is a good defender but not a great rebounder.
Lopez is excellent on offense, but a poor rebounder and defender.
Jefferson has a lot of wear on his body and at this point is a plodder that is generally only effective as a post offensive player.
Asik is similar in style to Noah, but not as good of a defender or shot blocker.
Bynum and Bogut are injury plagued.
Vucevic showed flashes but isn't at that level yet.
Varejao is the closest thing to Noah on this list but is both injury plagued and a limited shot-blocker.
DeAndre Jordan is skilled but is offensively limited, and at this point is very overrated and just a highlight reel type of player.
In all honesty, the only player on this list that deserves a place alongside Noah and Howard in the top three is Horford.
The next step
The good news for Bulls fans is that Noah seems to just be getting better with age.
Sure, he has battled his own injury issues over the years, but he generally can be counted on.
He is also improving all aspects of his game.
This past season, Noah set career-highs in (per game) points, rebounds, blocks, steals and assists. He is becoming a more complete player each season, and his development of a mid-range jumper and interior distributor has to make the Chicago faithful excited.
But in order for Noah to take that next step and become even better, he must continue to improve his post game. A great center must be able to score with his back to the basket. He needs to be a high percentage option on offense.
After a few solid seasons from a field goal percentage standpoint, Noah's shooting numbers dropped last year to 48 percent. For a center, that number is just unacceptable. Noah needs to get that number up around 53-55 percent in order to be truly effective as a center.
There is no question that Noah has become one of the top big men in the league. How far he develops and whether or not he can challenge Howard for the top spot will come down to how much he can improve on offense.
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