Joakim Noah and Centers Who Know How to Pass

Noah pass

From the sidewinder jump shot to the patchy beard, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah plays with an unorthodox style. But one unusual skill has really set him apart from the competition this season: his prolific passing.

Centers aren’t typically tasked with dishing out the ball, but Noah leads the Bulls with 431 assists this year—5.4 assists per game—128 assists more than point guard D.J. Augustin, the team’s second-best distributor. Noah will be the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson doled out 381 for the 1993-94 San Antonio Spurs.

Prior to this season, Noah had never averaged more than 4.0 assists per game. But after former MVP Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, Noah became the offensive centerpiece for the Bulls, setting up teammates with backdoor bounce passes, post lobs, and dribble hand-offs. He ranks seventh in the NBA with 66.8 passes per game, according to SportVU data, more than most starting point guards.

Noah’s commitment to passing is one reason the shorthanded Bulls will play in the postseason, a rare feat considering only six other teams were led in assists by centers in the last 40 years, and five of them missed the playoffs. Robinson’s Spurs lost in the first round in 1994.

How past centers who led their teams in assists fared in the playoffs:
Player, Team, Year Assists Playoff Result
Joakim Noah, CHI, 2013-14 431 N/A
David Robinson, SAS, 1993-94 381 Lost First Round
Dave Cowens, BOS, 1977-78 351 None
Sam Lacey, KC, 1976/77 386 None
Dennis Awtry, PHO, 1974-75 342 None
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, MIL, 1974-75 264 None
Neal Walk, PHO, 1973-74 331 None
Tom Boerwinkle, CHI, 1970-71 397 Lost Western Semifinals
Wilt Chamberlain, PHI, 1967-68 702 Lost Eastern Finals
Wilt Chamberlain, PHI, 1966-67 630 Won NBA Title
Bill Russell, BOS, 1966-67 472 Lost Eastern Finals

Source: Stats LLC

In the NBA’s adolescence, two centers with impressive assist totals had postseason success. George Mikan led the 1948-49 Minneapolis Lakers in assists and won an NBA title, as did Wilt Chamberlain as a member of the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.

Noah still has a ways to go before he can pass Chamberlain, who led his team in assists three times. When Chamberlain did so in 1967-68, he not only led his team, he led the entire league.

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