The Boozer conundrum


May 5

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I know everyone was worried about Carlos Boozer long before these playoffs. Boozer came to the Bulls with a reputation of not being tough, of not playing through injuries and missing extended periods of time with injuries that didn’t require surgery.

So now let me get this straight: Everyone is mad at Boozer because he is hurt and wants to play?

“Carlos has been in the league a long time,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau reiterated to reporters after Bulls practice Thursday, what he’d been saying for days about Boozer. “He’s been through every situation you could possibly be through. He’ll handle it fine. He’s been a big-time player in the league for a long time, so he knows what he has to do.”

With the Bulls 1-1 against the Hawks heading into Atlanta for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday, the biggest story surrounding the Bulls has been the relative ineffectiveness of Boozer.

He was booed some at home in Game 2, resulting in several teammates, most notably Joakim Noah with an impassioned defense, rallying to his cause. Some fans applauded the replacement of Boozer late in the game for the hustling Taj Gibson.

I’m not writing to say Boozer has been playing at a high level or near that. He is not. He’s uncharacteristically fumbled around on offense and producing nowhere near the 20.3 points and 12.5 rebound average he carried in 44 playoff games with the Jazz before this season.

Boozer is playing more uncertain than I have ever seen him, and as proud and independent person as he is I’ve heard him going to coaches and asking plaintively what else he could be doing to get going. The media questioning grew to a crescendo after Monday’s Game 2 victory, though Boozer has been available and cooperative with media despite his struggles, though, not unexpectedly, particularly revealing.

He says he’s fine as long as the team wins, and the Bulls are 5-2 in the playoffs.

Boozer is averaging 10.3 points and 10 rebounds in the seven games, and 11 points and 9.5 rebounds in this series. They are hardly horrible numbers, and perhaps there is a bit too much expectation given past performance.

Though the larger issue is fans may be expecting Boozer to be a bit of what he never has been, a defensive force who chases loose balls, dives on the floor, gives up his body. Sorry, you never watched the Jazz if you think that’s Boozer. He’s never been that guy, and if the Bulls thought they were getting that guy, well, then they misjudged who he is.

Though it is the reason for many divorces. A couple marries and then one spouse isn’t what the other wants them to be. It’s not their fault, but it does lead to a split. Maybe that eventually happens with the Bulls and Boozer, though I hear of no such interest in that.

Let’s be realistic. Boozer wasn’t exactly the Bulls first free agency choice over the summer. But as for defense, neither were any of the power forwards. You enjoy the defense played by Amar’e Stoudemire? David Lee? Chris Bosh? What exactly are we talking about here? Just because it’s a hard working, defensive minded group doesn’t mean that’s who Boozer has to become.

He was hired to score, and, yes, I know, he hasn’t exactly done that of late. Or at least not to the level the Bulls hoped. So that criticism would be fair. By all accounts, Boozer is playing with a turf toe injury, which is inhibiting. And he has had a couple of sprained ankles that put him out for a while each time.

But in addition to the defensive mindset, this isn’t exactly the kind of team that’s been a perfect fit for Boozer. I give him that he hasn’t complained about that. Has he bought in? Maybe. Maybe not. But he hasn’t been a distraction or problem.

And for much of the season he was averaging 20/10. Basically into mid-February when Noah returned from his thumb surgery. This is not to say he cannot play with Noah. But they had maybe a month to work together with Boozer’s sprained ankle five-game absence. And Noah isn’t exactly the most predictable player to play with.

Noah’s strength of hustle and relentless play also can be a weakness because he’ll wander into spaces where he’ll bring defenders. Yes, he’s trying to attack the offensive board. But you also need space for players like Boozer to play. The Bulls offensive spacing can sometimes look like a phone booth (look it up in a history book) given Noah’s positioning and lack of offensive threat and a shortage of shooters to spread the court.

Remember, Boozer played in a very different system in Utah with the floor spread much wider with a center who shot three pointers in Mehmet Okur. Also, in Deron Williams, Boozer had a point guard who was more adept as a floor general than Derrick Rose, who’s had to be more of a scorer with this Bulls team.

Previously, Boozer played with hardly anyone around him. Not anymore, especially when he’s deep in the paint. Look, Ronnie Brewer averaged double figures in the last 17 playoff games he played in and averaged almost 13 points his two full seasons with the Jazz when he wasn’t hurt. How come he can’t score anymore? Brewer averaged 13.7 one season with the Jazz. He didn’t have a game all season with the Bulls in which he scored more than 12 points.

Yes, Brewer hustles more in the style this Bulls team plays. But that’s never been Boozer. People say, OK, play Gibson. But even when Gibson started for the Bulls and missed two games the last two seasons he averaged eight points. He’s been terrific and provides energy, but you still have to put the ball in the basket. Boozer averages more being booed.

I know, I know, the multimillion dollar contract. If money can’t buy happiness, how can it buy double/doubles?

Boozer really wasn’t a classic postup player for the Jazz even if he was sold as one coming to the Bulls. Maybe because the team and fans hungered for one so badly. I remember when some even among the Bulls were debating taking Michael Beasley in the draft because of the need for inside scoring. Frankly, none of the free agent forwards were classic postup type. Bosh and Stoudemire are face up players, and Lee is, well, something.

Boozer generally played more from the elbow, where he could shoot. He is a decent jump shooter. Also with his quickness, if not explosiveness, he could make a quick move by a defender, which is why that unusual ability to finish so well with his left hand was effective.

But he doesn’t get that positioning as much with the Bulls. Noah sets more screens for Rose, and the defense plays off Noah daring him to shoot. So it’s almost like Boozer is double teamed without the ball. The Bulls have had some success with Boozer rolling off screens for Rose and scoring in this series, but don’t employ those sets as much.

Plus, the Bulls have played more slowly than at least I think they should. They haven’t outletted the ball very quickly, thus allowing the defense to set better, which also hurts Boozer, I believe. Boozer has been better over the years with the defense not setting and then being able to operate off the elbow to take his shot or drive and draw contact.

He’s not an explosive player who is going to power over you like Stoudemire. He doesn’t have the size of Bosh. He is more a clever scorer whose big issue seemed to be whispers of being soft, not wanting to play, which, by the way, were routinely dismissed by Jerry Sloan, if not the Utah fan base and media.

I’m not saying the Boozer we have seen is doing a good job. Yes, he does still draw defensive attention that helps others and, yes, he does move the ball in the offense, averaging as many assists as Noah. He does have to be better for the Bulls to, as they like to say, do something special. But I don’t believe it is quite time to dismiss what he can do. I’m not sure he’s fully had a chance to do it as yet.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: