NBA Position Battles: Is Joakim Noah the Best Starting Center Option for the New York Knicks?
Joakim Noah is a two-time NBA All-Star, one-time All-NBA honoree, three time All-Defensive, and recipient of the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year award.
When your résumé looks like that, sometimes your name alone is enough to win you a starting position. To wit, Noah has started at center for the Knicks in all 24 games that he's played this season, despite playing a fairly mediocre campaign.
Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek recently hinted that he was "keeping an eye on" the possibility of removing Noah from the starting five, although he's isn't ready to make the move just yet.
Still, it's clear that Noah's role with the team is diminishing. This past Saturday, he played a season-low 11.5 minutes against the Denver Nuggets, after playing a mere 14.5 the game before against the Golden State Warriors. He has random 25 to 30 minute performances sprinkled into his game log, but he's generally settling in at fewer than 20 minutes on most nights and is doing little to earn more playing time.
So, if the Knicks were to remove Noah from the starting lineup, who is the best option to start at center in his place?
The most obvious is answer is perhaps moving second-year phenom Kristaps Porzingis and his skinny 7'3" frame over from power forward, but coach Hornacek has expressed that he doesn't think that's best for the team defensively. That leaves us with Kyle O'Quinn and Willy Hernangomez as the other two players currently splitting center minutes with Noah who have a chance to replace him in the starting unit.
Noah (21.5), O'Quinn (15.2), and Hernangomez (13.9) aren't playing equal minutes, so their raw averages don't give us a clear picture of who's playing better than whom. Let's look at their per-36-minute numbers instead:
Noah's strengths as a center lie in his rebounding, rim protection, and out-of-position abilities as a playmaker, while his scoring is a relative weakness. Both O'Quinn and Hernangomez get rebounds and blocks at an equal or better rate than Noah, and even their assist rates are not that far off. All this, while also scoring almost double the points per 36 minutes with far more efficient shooting.
At this point, it's hard to tell which center is a better option between O'Quinn and Hernangomez, but it's clear that Noah is the third option from a raw numbers perspective. Let's dig a little deeper.
According to just about any advanced metric you pull, Noah is once again not the most preferable option of the three:
|Category||Joakim Noah||Kyle O'Quinn||Willy Hernangomez|
|Player Efficiency Rating||14.4||20.5||17.8|
|Win Shares per 48 Minutes||.092||.159||.108|
|Value Over Replacement Player||0.5||0.6||0.1|
O'Quinn is the leader in every single one of the above categories, for his combination of efficient offensive output and solid defense. Noah and Hernangomez have similar lines, but Hernangomez still has the edge over Noah in a few places.
Perhaps the most telling number here is our proprietary metric, nERD, which is a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency. Comparable to win shares, nERD gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with the player in question as one of its starters. In other words, it's essentially a stat that determines the best starter for a team, which is precisely the question we're trying to answer.
By our metric, O'Quinn is the most obvious choice because his 1.0 nERD is the second-best mark on the entire team, trailing only Porzingis' 1.4. Even Hernangomez is fourth on the team in this metric at 0.1, joining Porzingis (1.4), O'Quinn (1.0), and Carmelo Anthony (0.7) as the only Knicks with a nERD over 0.0.
Noah, meanwhile, is seventh on the team in nERD at -0.3. It's only a slight difference, but the negative rating suggests that he would cost a team wins as a starter.
Since Hornacek is concerned with the defensive pairing with Porzingis, rim protection numbers are worth looking at as well. Once again, the Knicks don't have their best option with Noah:
Hernangomez gets the edge here, holding opponents to 50.0% shooting at the rim in the 4.6 shots he faces in that range per game. O'Quinn, meanwhile, isn't all that far behind, allowing 51.2% on 4.6 attempts as well. Noah is the clear weak link of the three, allowing a whopping 56.3% on 5.9 attempts.
For what it's worth, Porzingis is currently one of the best rim protectors in the league, allowing a stingy 40.6% on his 7.6 shots faced per contest.
Whoever the Knicks choose to start at center, it is pretty well set in stone that that big man will form a frontcourt trio with entrenched starters Anthony at the three and Porzingis at the four.
If we look at how each three-man combo has fared this season, Noah is once again the least preferable option.
|3-Man Lineup||MIN||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg||REB%||eFG%|
|Anthony, Porzingis, Noah||389||103.4||108.0||-4.6||50.4%||50.0%|
|Anthony, Porzingis, O'Quinn||111||106.1||108.7||-2.5||51.7%||48.2%|
|Anthony, Porzingis, Hernangomez||44||125.0||114.3||10.7||47.7%||60.1%|
The trio with Hernangomez has the best offensive rating, net rating, and effective field goal percentage, but the rebounding and defensive numbers are atrocious (and the 44-minute sample size is admittedly a little too small to draw definitive conclusions from).
The Noah and O'Quinn variations are fairly even across the board, with the main difference being that Knicks score the ball 3.4 points per 100 possessions better (per offensive rating) when O'Quinn forms a trio with the two Knicks stars instead of Noah.
Any way you choose to analyze the situation, one trend is abundantly clear: Noah is not New York's best option at the center position.
Hernangomez is still young and unpolished in his rookie season and might eventually end up an even better option, but for now all signs point to O'Quinn as the Knicks' top center to this point in the season. That much was certainly clear In the four games that Noah has missed this season, in which the Knicks went 4-0 with O'Quinn as their starting center, as compared to the 11-13 record they've posted with Noah in.
Hornacek might not think it's time yet to yank Noah from the starting five just yet, but the numbers insist that O'Quinn is the better man for the job.