“Basketball is a team game, it’s not for individual honors,” wrote Bill Russell in response to LeBron James’ recent assertion that he would one day enter the “Mount Rushmore” of basketball superstars, a number capped, like the South Dakota monument, at four. That basketball is first and foremost a team game is a notion too often forgotten in our age of the superstar. Even the NBA continually forgets to mention it, marketing its brightest stars far more fervently than its best teams. (You’ll hear more chatter about LeBron versus Kevin Durant than about the Miami Heat versus the OKC Thunder.) Russell went on to pretty much carve his own monument, mentioning that he won “back-to-back NCAA championships in college” before winning those unequaled 11 NBA championships.
LeBron James can’t say that. Neither can Kevin Durant. But there is one current NBA superstar who can: Chicago’s Joakim Noah, the best team basketball player in the NBA, who won back-to-back NCAA championships at Florida in 2006 and 2007. Or, as Noah would insist, his team won those championships. Noah does all the things on the court that coaches drool over. He hustles on every play like a 12-year-old trying to eke out a double. He sets screens as hard and memorable as that wall in China. He defends as though the offense is trying to steal food from his children. He blocks and steals. He passes brilliantly. He scores just 12 points a game, though he grabs nearly an equal number of rebounds. He averages almost five assists per game. But it’s the sum total of all this, the mesmerizing energy with which he plays that makes Noah the most compelling player in the league right now. And it’s what makes his Chicago Bulls–a team that is supposed to be an also-ran due to key injuries–a competitive force and true contender. No other player in the league is as galvanizing as Noah–the win column is even drawn to him. And no other player in the league is quite so much like Bill Russell on the floor. There is real justification to consider Joakim Noah for MVP. It’s a team game, after all.