New York Knicks: Joakim Noah holds key to the 2016-17 season
Dec 28, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; New York Knicks center Joakim Noah (13) and Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) get tied up fighting for a rebound during the first half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Once considered a massive disappointment, Joakim Noah has emerged as a legitimate factor for the Knicks.

With back to back losses against the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, Knicks fans have to be feeling that their fairytale start to the season is coming to an end.

While New York sits at 16-15, firmly in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, they have lost not only their last two, but five of their last seven.

Although a disparaging streak of losing like that can be mentally draining, one thing should encourage Knicks fans about their recent run of performances: the play of Joakim Noah.

Joakim has been derided as a massive disappointment ever since he signed a massive four-year, $72 million deal this offseason. Noah has averaged just over 22 minutes per game for the Knicks this season, and has been exceptionally underwhelming, especially in his performances across October and November.

Despite his early struggles, Noah has come on of late, especially in the Knicks’ bitter overtime loss to the Hawks. Noah put up 14 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block in 38 minutes of work against Atlanta. This marks Noah’s largest share of minutes this season, far eclipsing the 30 he played against Indiana, exemplifying how effective he can be over long stretches when his team needs him.

Even more impressive is the fact that Noah was the primary defender on Dwight Howard, who remains one of the most dominating physical presences in the NBA. While Dwight dominated on the glass against the Knicks, the fact that Noah can still go toe to toe with such a physical defender reminds fans exactly why New York signed him this offseason.

In fact, he could be the key to the Knicks achieving their lofty goals in 2017.

Including the Atlanta game, Noah now has at least 10 rebounds in three out of his last four games. This is in addition to the 10 rebounds he had in just 15 minutes of action against the Golden State Warriors earlier in December. That’s exactly the job that Phil Jackson wanted him to do when he signed him to the massive contract this offseason. If he can continue to put up these kind of numbers on the boards, the Knicks should be in very good shape.

Furthermore, the advanced statistics back up Noah’s massive improvement, as they take into account his distribution skills on offense, as well as his prowess on the defensive end.

According to Pro Basketball Reference, Noah’s performance against Atlanta was his best of the year by Game Score. Game Score is a statistic created by John Hollinger that measures a player’s overall performance across multiple statistical categories.

Noah posted a 20.2 game score against the Hawks, his highest mark this season. That followed his 11.4 mark against Boston, making these two games the first time this season Noah has posted back to back double digit game scores. Keeping in mind a score of 10 is considered an average performance, the fact that Noah has posted back to back above average marks for the first time this season should come as a pleasant surprise to Knicks fans.

In fact, three of Noah’s top seven performances by game score have come since December 20, which is certainly encouraging for New York moving forward.

While the Knicks certainly look like a playoff team at this point in the season, the play of Noah could turn them into a legitimate conference championship contender. With no real favorite to challenge the Cavaliers emerging out of the Eastern Conference, the mantle seems ripe for the Knicks’ taking. If Noah can continue to produce above average performances, there’s no reason the New York Knicks can’t dream big.

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