New York Knicks’ Joakim Noah was the team’s signature free agent signing this summer, but right now he can’t even stay on the court.
The New York Knicks were 3-6 and losing at home to one of the league’s worst teams, the Dallas Mavericks. They’d mustered up just 36 points at halftime to Dallas’ almost equally pathetic 39. But this game was still winnable. Head coach Jeff Hornacek just needed to make an adjustment.
Joakim Noah started the Knicks first nine games and averaged 24.6 minutes, 4.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. He was .487 from the field (an improvement over last season) and a surprising .316 from the free-throw line.
The game against Dallas wasn’t going any better. He’d played 15 of the first 24 minutes without scoring a single point. This came after he posted two goose eggs in the first four games of the season.
Hornacek had a decision to make. He could cater to the pressures of Noah’s $72 million contract and continue with an ineffective player or change the humdrum results of the first half by benching his starting center. Fortunately, he chose the latter.
The Knicks went small to start the second half and started Justin Holiday. Noah didn’t see a minute of action. Hornacek’s adjustment produced instant results. Carmelo Anthony continued his remarkable success from the power forward position with 17 third-quarter points and Holiday added 7 of his own.
The Knicks held Dallas to 5-20 shooting in the third en route to a 31-12 beat down. The Knicks won 93-77. After the second half benching, Hornacek told the New York Post that the team remained committed to Noah for the long haul.
“We don’t mind him taking the little mid-range shot, keeping teams honest if they’re going to stay back,” Hornacek said. “We want him to continue rolling to the basket, get low in the dunk area if guys penetrate and a big helps, he gets the dump and can just dunk it. If he stays outside, that’s what another team wants. We want for him to be more aggressive when he does get the ball around the basket.”
Noah’s performance — or rather lack thereof — in the Dallas game started the predictable attacks against his game and role in the offense. Small ball is the fresh way of thinking in the NBA and the former Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t fit that mold.
He’s a prototypical center. One who blocks the unicorn Kristaps Porzingis from playing the position in his special way. Mix that in with the improving play of rookie Willy Hernangomez, and you get a dilemma. For Noah anyway.
His latest misstep was in the back-to-back set against the Charlotte Hornets. After missing the Knicks’ wins over Atlanta and Portland because of a flu-like illness, Noah undoubtedly wanted to prove he wasn’t holding the team back when he returned.
The Knicks split with Charlotte, but Noah struggled to stay on the court in both games logging just 30 combined minutes. He experienced the humiliation of a second-half benching and went scoreless for the fourth time.
After Sunday’s demoralizing road loss, Noah spoke to the New York Daily News about again sitting during a close game.
“I think everybody (wants to play down the stretch of games). But those are not things I can control. All I can control is my progress,” he said. “I need to play better and I will. I just got to stay working.”
The oft-injured Derrick Rose sympathized with his former teammate’s problem.
“Of course it hurts when you want to be out there and you want to play,” said Derrick Rose, who is Noah’s friend and longtime teammate going back to Chicago. “But it’s not to him. It’s up to coach. And if it was vice versa like if it was someone else like myself, I would be hurt. But at the same time I just want to win the game.”
Even in his prime, Noah wasn’t known for his offense, but the prospect of going scoreless three times in his first ten games with a new team was disturbing. Especially after struggling so mightily on offense last season.
Noah went without a point in 7 of his 29 games in 2015-16. It was that pathetic display that made it such a surprise the Knicks were so eager to sign him.
He was a horrific 38.3% from the field, and his average shot distance was less than three ft. from the rim. Translation: He missed a lot of easy shots.
Per NBA.com, he was 39.3% (35-89) on layups and 42.1% (45-107) in the restricted area. The Knicks paid $72 million with the hope that those numbers would become at least respectable and his defense would return to an elite level.
No dice. Noah’s become such a liability on offense that the Knicks are playing four on five with him on the court. He never looked for his shot before, but now the opposing team has the luxury of knowing he can’t even finish at the rim.
He’s already missed 22 layups (20-42) and converted just 51.0% (25-49) of his attempts from the restricted area. So what about that defense?
Noah’s been his usual aggressive self. He’s in the top 100 in contested shots (via NBA.com), but he’s not producing the usual results.
The 31-year-old is allowing opposing defenders to shoot +3.3% better than the average and he’s getting torched defending the paint. Opponents are shooting 62.7% when Noah’s defending the rim and +7.1% on attempts less than 6 feet from the basket.
Joakim Noah was the Knicks top target in free agency because of his link to Derrick Rose and the desire to play for his hometown team. Noah’s admiration for Phil Jackson made it feel like a perfect fit. It’s been far from it.
And Jeff Hornacek can’t afford to hold out hope that Noah will eventually turn things around because this team is supposed to win now. If that means doing it with Noah on the bench then so be it.