Bulls fans had to live through their dynasty being prematurely dismantled. They pulled for elite coaches and stellar groups of players who struggled to create a winning environment in spite of the franchise’s cheap and meddlesome leadership. Then when they finally got the game-changing star capable of leading them back to their 1990s dominance, he was struck down with a devastating knee injury while playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Now, for one of the first times in more than a decade, those fans have gotten some unexpected good news: Carlos Boozer is carrying the Bulls, defying what almost everyone thought possible not only from an individual level but from a team perspective as well.
Boozer has been a — ahem — disappointment since he came to Chicago via a sign-and-trade with Utah in 2010. His five-year, $75 million contract has been one of the great albatrosses in the league, despite decent numbers that at times approached his All-Star production with the Jazz. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau recently pointed out that Boozer’s 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game are not too far off his statistics in three of his six seasons in Utah, which is an accurate observation even if it conveniently overlooks that in those other three seasons, Boozer was a reliable 20-point, 10-rebound threat.
Because of this, Bulls fans have pretty much given up on the forward out of Duke. His per-game stats, they recognized, were the result of wild swings in production. One night he might have 24 points and 12 rebounds, the next night 12 and six. That inconsistency might lead to the respectable averages Thibodeau cited, but it left the team at a loss for what to predict for Boozer from game-to-game.
Shockingly, as Derrick Rose works his way back from major knee surgery, Boozer is now playing better than he ever has as a Bull. He recently earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 23.0 points and 14.8 rebounds, while leading Chicago to three wins in a four-game stretch. He leads the East with 23 double-doubles, and when a prominent Bulls frontcourt player was benched for the fourth quarter of a close game recently, the most surprising part may have been that it was not Boozer but Joakim Noah who rode the pine with the game on the line.
With Rose set to take part in full-contact practices soon, a resurgent Boozer therefore is a source of optimism for the Bulls. Dynamic as Rose may be, he will not be at full strength when he returns and might not reach 100 percent at all this season. Having Boozer, Noah and Luol Deng playing at All-Star levels will be crucial to Chicago’s hopes of blooming into a dark horse contender in the playoffs.
Still, as with all things Boozer-related in Chicago, there are concerns. The Rose-Noah-Boozer combination should be one of the best in the East, but the forward has not paired particularly well with either of his star teammates over the years.
The problem is largely on defense, where Thibodeau’s Bulls set themselves apart yet where Boozer has never been a standout. In more than 1,040 minutes of court time with Rose last season, Boozer made the Bulls nearly four points worse per 100 possessions on defense. When Boozer and Noah were paired together, the Bulls’ elite defense became simply average — from a league-best 95.3 points allowed per 100 possessions to a simply OK 99.4 points per 100 possessions. For all that has been made of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire‘s inability to coexist in New York or Pau Gasol‘s difficulty melding with Dwight Howard in Los Angeles, no star has been more of a drag on his team’s title hopes than Boozer.
This is why Boozer’s play must be watched with caution as Rose progresses. Typically, adding a superstar guard to a lineup containing an All-Star caliber power forward would only make a team better. These are not normal circumstances, though, so the Bulls enjoy Boozer’s inspired play and wonder whether it will come to a screeching halt once Rose returns. Fortunately, uncertain optimism is a familiar trait to Bulls fans.