News came out of Chicago on Sunday that newly acquired Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer is expected to miss eight weeks after breaking his hand in a non-basketball related injury. The important part now is trying to figure out just what happens to the Bulls with Boozer out of the lineup. Keeping things simple, let’s look at this from the different angles, then assess the overall implications.
Early-season schedule: If he misses exactly eight weeks from Oct. 3, Boozer would miss the first 15 games of the season. While 15 games might not seem like much, consider this: Nine of those are against teams that won 50 games last season, including a brutal stretch of five straight road games against Western Conference 50-win teams. If you assume he takes six games to get back up to his normal production (more on why in a minute), five of those first six back will be against 50-win teams from last year with the other against a 42-win Houston Rockets team. So in the first 21 games of the season, Chicago plays a schedule that went .561 last season, including 14 games against 50 win teams (only one vs the Cavaliers for those wondering).
Boozer and post-injury comebacks: Things look bleaker when you consider Boozer’s history with comebacks immediately following sustained absences. The last time Boozer missed more than 10 games in a row was in 2008-2009 when he missed 44 games midseason following a knee injury. His first eigh games back, he averaged just 10.4 PPG and 8.9 RPG, while scoring over 13 points just once. His fifth game back, Boozer looked closer to his old double-double self, recording 11 points and 19 rebounds. In 2005-2006, Boozer missed the first 31 games of the season after aggravating a hamstring while recovering from injury. His first four games back, Boozer averaged just 4.5 PPG and 3.5 RPG. Over his first eight games, his averages were 8.4 PPG and 7.3 PPG. His first double-double game came in his seventh game back, with 20 points and 17 boards. If we use his first double-double as a benchmark for his return to normal productivity post-injury, Boozer historically takes six games to return to form. His averages in those six games back were 8.8 PPG and 7.2 RPG. Not bad, but far from his career averages of 17.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG.
Bulls historically start slow: It’s no secret to Bulls fans that the team is historically a slow starter especially the past two seasons. After the first 21 games last season, the Bulls were 8-13 and did not come back to .500 until Jan. 27 after their 44th game of the season. In 2008-2009, they were 10-11 after 21 games but fell all the way to 18-27 before battling back to .500 on the second to last game of the season to back into the playoffs. And the year before that, coming off a 49-win season and an appearance in the Conference Semifinals (they started that season 3-9), the Bulls stumbled to a 2-10 record out of the gates but were not able to recover, eventually leading to the Christmas day dismissal of Scott Skiles.
Some of the early season struggles can without a doubt be attributed to the Bulls annual “Circus Trip” in November, when they are kicked out of the United Center by the Ringling Brothers' Circus and usually play at least five straight road games, mostly against Western Conference teams. Since Michael Jordan’s retirement, the Bulls are just 10-61 in these games, including an amazing 37-game losing streak from 1999-2004.
What it all means: While the Bulls are still probably talented enough to withstand Boozer’s injury preventing them for a playoff berth, it might mean the difference between finishing with the second, thirrd or fourth seed (and home-court in Round 1), and finishing in the bottom half of the playoff teams. Last season, the third and sixth place teams in the Eastern Conference (Atlanta and Milwaukee) were separated by six games. So if Boozer’s absence over 21 games, of roughly a quarter of the season, accounts for 2 or 3 losses (his Win Share value- an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player- was 9.9 last year. So 9.9 divided by 4 is 2.5), that cushion is significantly reduced. Factoring in the offseason improvements made by Milwaukee, sustained success by Atlanta, Boston, and Orlando, not to mention all that talent in South Beach, it’s safe to say the race for home-court will be Heated.
Just how important is home-court for Chicago? In the Bulls' last five trips to the postseason, they are just 4-14 away from the United Center. Discounting 2006-2007 when they went 3-2 on the road, the Bulls are just 1-12. The disparity is just as clear in the regular season. Including 2004-2005 (the first post-Jordan team to reach the playoffs), the Bulls are 151-95 (.614) at home. On the road? They are just 101-145 on the road (.411), more than 200 points worse.
If the goal is to make the playoffs, maybe Boozer’s absence won’t mean much. If the goal is to make some noise in the playoffs, Boozer’s absence might play a role in digging a subtle hole big enough to result in another first Round exit.