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Bulls Thu Jul 17 2014

The Underappreciated Life of Carlos Boozer

Thumbnail image for GB bulls icon.pngCarlos Boozer never got a fair shake in Chicago. He signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Bulls back in 2010 shortly after the team missed out on its top four targets: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson. That's a lot of money for a guy the fan base considered a laughable consolation prize after Gar Forman and John Paxson couldn't land any of the elites at the top of the free agent bonanza. The relationship between Boozer and Bulls fans started out on the wrong foot, and it only got worse from there.

The infamous hand breaking incident in early October didn't help matters, prompting many fans to attend their Halloween parties that year in a suit jacket, dress jeans, an Ace bandage-wrapped their hand/arm, and a duffel bag. Or maybe that was just me. Anyhow, Boozer's first season in Chicago hadn't even started yet, and he was considered clumsy, overpaid, and generally unwanted by the fan base.

Then there was the defense. He was never considered a good defender at any point in his career, and the spotlight shined brightly on him in this regard because he was the only negative defender on the team during his first season not named Derrick Rose. For an organization and a coach that prided itself on a maniacal form of defense, this was unacceptable to the fans that sat in the United Center seats and watched on television.

carlos boozer

Boozer was already on the plank because he wasn't James, Bosh or Wade while making salaries similar to theirs. He reached the edge of the plank by tripping over his gym bag. He fell into the water with his olé style of defending. But that wasn't why he was brought to Chicago.

The front office wanted someone -- anyone -- to take some of the scoring load off of Rose. Sure, a guy who could play great defense along with the points would've been perfect, but there are maybe three guys in the league who excel on both ends. What Boozer brought to the table in 2010 was efficient scoring, elite individual rebounding, deft interior passing, and the best off-handed finisher in the league. Tom Thibodeau's job was to cover up his defensive sins. It all worked.

In the only season where Rose was healthy and Thibodeau was coaching, the Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and had a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat. They went on to lose four straight after that, but immediately after the Summer of LeBron, the Bulls had cemented themselves as title contenders. In that fateful series, Boozer had two fantastic games, a solid game, and two poor games. He didn't lose the series.

After missing the first 15 games with the broken hand, he only missed eight more the rest of the season. In the three years after, he missed nine games total. He was a guy you could rely on every single night. You couldn't say the same about Rose, Joakim Noah or Luol Deng. Reliability became a calling card during his tenure. In a league with a grinding schedule, being available on a nightly basis is often overlooked.

He averaged 17.5 points on 51 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in the only season he didn't carry the scoring load of an entire city on his back. In the last four years, just six players in the NBA averaged 15 points, nine rebounds and two assists per game while shooting better than 49 percent from the field. Only Blake Griffin and Al Jefferson played in more games while doing it. A pretty small fraternity for a guy who had the amnesty tag hung on him the day the new collective bargaining agreement was signed.

Boozer did nothing but try his best. He was skilled on offense, and not so on defense. It's not his fault that the Bulls offered him as much money as they did, but people hated him for it. The funny thing is, he was worth every penny, and might've been underpaid when considering how few players could perform the way he did.

Last year was the breaking point for everyone. Another Rose injury, and another season of everyone looking at the aging power forward to take on a larger scoring role. This time, he couldn't answer with the staggeringly good numbers he did in previous years. His court time dipped with his play (along with the rise of Taj Gibson), logging 40 minutes in just one game all year -- unusual for a coach who likes to ride his starters.

Then came the shocking quote for a guy who oozed professionalism when talking to the media. "[But] honestly, he's been doing that a lot since I've been here, not putting me in in the fourth quarter," Boozer said. "Sometimes we win; more times than not, we don't. But that's his choice."

The Bulls handled the aftermath of it well, as Thibodeau has never thrown any of his players under the bus individually to the media, but the quote itself was simply false. Thibodeau has a career regular season record of 205-107. More times than not you don't win games when you sit in the fourth quarter, Mr. Boozer? The numbers don't back you up. The statement came from a frustrated guy on a team that uncharacteristically lost four out of its previous six games to teams they normally pummel. Accepting losses would've been understandable with the trade of Deng three weeks prior, but not for a coach who always "has enough to win with."

The relationship between Boozer and Thibodeau was irreparably fractured. The power forward missed three games almost immediately after his comment, and cracked 30 minutes just four times the rest of the season. In 24 of his final 36 games for the Bulls, including playoffs, he played exactly 24 minutes -- the full first and third quarters of those games.

The ending was sad and trying, but the previous three years were great in the box scores. Not so great if you listen to any sports talk radio or read the thousands of articles about how his defense was killing the Bulls. Yes, he was a bad defender, but if any team can cover up the sins of a bad defensive player, it was this one.

Boozer is the basketball version of Alfonso Soriano; the scapegoat for fans who expected more. The bar was set high after that first season of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, never to be reached again. Boozer's statistics validate every dollar he earned the last four years, but that doesn't cover the scars from playoff series lost. The box scores are meaningless to the ticket buyers. People want the hardware.

The Bulls are an improved team with the amnestying of Boozer, but it's because of simple economics. With his salary deleted from the books, Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic were shoehorned into the leftover cap space, hoping to bring different skill sets to the table. The frustrations, however, will remain mostly the same. This Bulls team will be the worst defensive lineup fielded by Thibodeau during his time in Chicago. The spotlight will remain off the new guys with the return of the prodigal son, but if he goes down again, beware of the wrath. Carlos Boozer knew it all too well and it eventually broke a player that was doing the job that he was brought in to do -- and he did it well.

 

Vishal Upadhyay / July 20, 2014 12:23 AM

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