By now you have likely heard of the report of Joakim Noah being deeply involved in talks with the Memphis Grizzlies to take the team’s open 15th roster spot, vacated by the waived Andrew Harrison. The Daily Memphian’s Chris Herrington mentioned this possibility a couple weeks ago, and the New York Times’ Marc Stein reported yesterday that it was likely close to becoming a reality.
The Grizzlies are in talks with free agent big man Joakim Noah to sign the former Knick, league sources say— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) November 19, 2018
I reported a few weeks ago that Grizzlies and Noah had had contact but nothing was imminent. I would find it odd if this became more likely after the Dillon Brooks injury, but we’ll see. https://t.co/5b3njkkZoi— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) November 19, 2018
Of course, Twitter exploded with arguments for and against this move. Much like the nonsensical Bradley Beal talk (no, the Grizzlies can’t and won’t trade for Beal), these conversations quickly got heated and/or illogical, based around bias and/or lack of understanding of what Noah is at this stage of his career, for better or worse. Myself included.
That’s not to say I have suddenly become a Joakim Noah expert overnight - but to so definitively say one way or the other that the man would be a disaster, or would thrive, with this Grizzlies team is a mistake. There are reasons it will be fine once if/when it becomes official, and there are reasons to argue that things will not go so swimmingly.
Just remember, however, that this is for the 15th roster spot on a Grizzlies team that is currently 11-5 and near the top of the Western Conference standings, a place that even the biggest believers in Memphis likely didn’t think they’d be at this stage. Whether it is Noah or some other player, it’s unlikely they make that large of an impact.
So why is Noah a potentially sound choice, and why is he possibly a massive mistake?
On the rebound
Yes, the Grizzlies are having success. Their clear weakness, however, is in the area of rebounding, where they are currently dead last in the NBA at 38.9 boards per game. This is...unfortunate. Teams like the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards are cleaning the glass more effectively than Memphis, and while there are teams having success while not being dominant rebounders - the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, and Houston Rockets all have winning records but are in the bottom third of the Association along with the Grizzlies - rebounding is something directly connected to winning in the long run. Of the top fourteen rebounding squads in the NBA, thirteen of them have winning records and nine of them have double-digit wins.
Enter Joakim Noah?
The last time Noah played meaningful minutes, the 2016-2017 season, he boasted a 21.1% total rebounding percentage. That, on this year’s Grizzlies team, would be good for 2nd on the roster behind JaMychal Green (more on him in a moment). Noah, when healthy and focused, is a player who uses his size well in the paint and understands body positioning when clearing the boards. While he almost certainly won’t be able to be elite at this particular skill anymore, he should be able to maintain that roughly 20% total rebound number.
That would, in theory, help. Especially if Noah is motivated to show he can still play in the NBA. But how much of the rebounding woes of the Grizzlies connect to the injury to JaMychal Green, who just returned to the lineup this past weekend?
Speaking of JaM...
What to do with JaMychal?
Say, for the sake of argument and the way the Grizzlies are acting, they feel that Ivan Rabb is not ready yet to contribute consistently. Also, let’s say Joakim Noah becomes a Grizzly. Your depth in the front court among true “bigs” goes something like this...
Marc Gasol/Jaren Jackson Jr./JaMychal Green/Joakim Noah/Ivan Rabb
There are 96 minutes to be had between the center and power forward positions, and Marc Gasol should probably eat 32 minutes of them per game at center (he is at 34.4 currently). Jaren Jackson Jr. is currently playing 25.3 minutes per game, and that number should go no lower than that - let’s put him at 30 per game moving forward. If Noah takes minutes from JJJ, it will be a huge mistake.
I will give J.B Bickerstaff credit and say that won’t happen.
62 minutes gone, 30 remain. Then, let’s remember that players like Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi spend 50/75% of their time at the power forward position...and are arguably better in that spot than they are on the wing. For the sake of argument, let’s assume JaM’s return pushes Casspi out of the rotation. Anderson averages about 29 minutes per game, with 53% of them coming at power forward, so that’s another 15 minutes to a player whose defensive contributions are a major reason why Memphis is off to this strong start.
15 minutes left.
Now the arrival of Joakim Noah surely isn’t a death knell for JaMychal, nor should it be right away. But if Noah arrives and can play that more traditional center position, and the Grizzlies trust Anderson, Jackson, Casspi when necessary and Chandler Parsons if he ever comes back (he may well not) to eat minutes at the four...what purpose does JaM serve?
The Noah signing potentially makes JaMychal more expendable, which could lead to a trade where Green’s expiring deal and a future 2nd round pick nets you a wing to sure up your reserves. Kyle Korver, for example, could fit and would also free up a few million bucks from the Cavs 2019-2020 cap ledger in such an exchange.
The offensive fit
There was a time not too long ago where Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah were the two best passing bigs in the entire NBA. Both centers were lauded for their facilitating of offense and their ability to help create for others, alleviating the pressure on their point guards to initiate offense and allow for them to score off the ball. Gasol, of course, is still showing he is elite at this skill. Joakim Noah, however, dropped off considerably once he arrived with the Knicks as a passer. His assist percentage fell over eleven points, and while part of that is scheme and personnel around him, part of it is his inability to move the ball as he once did.
If he does indeed come to Memphis, though, he will be in a system where ball movement is prioritized and he doesn’t need to be a scorer very often. He can fit right in to sets where Marc Gasol would get the ball at the elbow and look for off-ball screeners and cutters to the lane and also serve as a pick and roll option himself at the top of the key. Now he is nowhere near the offensive threat Marc is as a scorer, but the fact remains Noah has at least shown in the past an ability to be a willing and able offensive initiator.
Noah is limited in terms of who he could play with in this role. A Mike Conley/Shelvin Mack/Garrett Temple/Jaren Jackson Jr./Noah lineup could be a theoretical one where there is enough spot scoring to negate the issues Joakim has as a shooter, and if/when Dillon Brooks comes back he can help that reserve scoring issue as well. But Noah is potentially unplayable next to Kyle Anderson, unless it is with Kyle at the four, and a Twin Towers look alongside Gasol, while intriguing in theory with Marc’s ability to shoot on the perimeter, would be incapable of consistent defensive rotation and switching.
There’s possible hidden offensive value in Noah, if used properly. The margin for error is slim, though.
So, yes or no to Jo?
It’s a calculated risk. You’re assuming his arrival makes it possible for Jaren Jackson Jr. to almost exclusively play the 4, a position that fits him better in the short-term, and you’re playing a long-term game regarding a possible trade down the road with JaMychal Green. Even if you don’t trade JaM, it’s a doubling down on the concept of zigging where the rest of the NBA zags. Positionless basketball be damned, to an extent - Memphis would be committing to having almost at all times some big who can both facilitate offense and defend the paint.
You’re also betting that the dysfunction and health issues that plagued Noah in New York would wash away upon his arrival, and the former is perhaps more likely than the latter. Memphis has a much more stable locker room and leadership structure than the Knicks, and Noah would not have the burden of some obscene contract hovering over him. He’d be a veteran’s minimum player, the end man in a rotation, expected to defend and facilitate in spot minutes at worst, on a nightly basis for 10-12 minutes a game at best. That could very well fit what Joakim is capable of doing well.
For the final spot on the roster, after being against this at first count me in as cautiously optimistic. If Gasol goes down, the team is likely doomed anyway. After all, Gasol is literally the best player in the NBA right now according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. If you view this signing as Marc insurance, it’s a mistake.
If you look at it as strengthening a considerable weakness and betting on a second chance resurgence toward being a functional NBA player again for Noah, then there’s value in taking this low-risk chance without giving up any future assets via trade. Nick Young, Arron Afflalo, and other current free agent wings come with their own baggage. Where the Grizzlies are really struggling is on the glass, and Noah can help there immediately.
Noah looked quite bad in New York. In Memphis, where multiple veterans have taken advantage of opportunity, he may well be a key contributor in an area of need that makes the Grizzlies that much more dangerous.