- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Carlos Boozer lost the benefit of the doubt in Chicago before he even played a minute in a Bulls uniform. The consolation prize in the 2010 free-agency pool, Boozer was hailed by the Bulls as a back-to-the-basket, low-post scorer who could help the organization develop more of a consistent inside game. Expectations were high for Boozer heading into training camp, but everything changed during the first couple days of that first camp. That's because Boozer broke his hand and missed the first two months of the season.
What made the injury even more dubious is that Boozer told the Bulls he tripped over a gym bag in his home. Some fans didn't believe the story; others just rolled their eyes at the incident. Boozer was supposed to be one of the main difference-makers for a championship-caliber team. Now he was a player who wouldn't be able to produce to start his all-important first season. When Boozer finally made his debut in December, the Bulls were playing solid basketball and the hope was that Boozer would augment an up-and-coming lineup led by Derrick Rose. Boozer struggled, though, and his teammates struggled to adjust to him.
When Joakim Noah went down for several months because of torn ligaments in his thumb, Boozer's production increased. But what was clear almost from the outset was that Boozer was no longer the serious low-post threat he had been in Cleveland and Utah.
What was also clear when Noah returned was that the pair struggled to play with one another. They often found themselves on the bench together late in games, a trend that would continue throughout Boozer's time in Chicago. Over time, Noah would move on to become the NBA's defensive player of the year and the anchor of Tom Thibdoeau's defense. Boozer's defense, which was always a weakness in his game, became a more pronounced flaw among a gritty group of young players who enjoyed carrying out Thibodeau's instructions.
What made Boozer's first year even worse were his struggles in the postseason. He had a couple nice games, but for the most part he was a non-factor for a team that ultimately lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat.
Over the next couple seasons, Boozer's numbers maintained a high level -- a fact that the Bulls' front office would cling to in defending their major free-agent acquisition in 2010. His third season, the one in which the Bulls played without Rose, was his best. He enjoyed being one of the focal points of the offense and the shots that came with that mantle. He also started learning to play alongside Noah, which helped both men's numbers.
But most fans saw through the mirage of Boozer's high-level production. His points and rebounds usually came in the first and third quarters, rarely in crunch time when the Bulls needed scoring most. This fact became more pronounced this past season, when Boozer rarely ever saw the floor late in games. The bigger issue for the Bulls always revolved around Boozer's defense. Thibodeau simply didn't trust him on that end of the floor, and neither did most of his teammates. Although nobody ever came out and publicly questioned Boozer, the frustrated looks on their faces when he missed a defensive assignment were always more telling than any words they could have spoken.
The same could be said about Thibodeau's responses toward the veteran power forward. Thibodeau never openly questions players in the media. He prefers to discuss matters with his players privately. But while Thibodeau tends to scream at players after mistakes during games, he rarely chose that direction when it came to Boozer. He would just shake his head and mutter something under his breath. Thibodeau understood that Boozer's fragile psyche couldn't handle the criticism -- which made the final few months even more telling.
During a February trip to Sacramento, Boozer acknowledged that he was disappointed that he didn't get a chance to play late in games. It was the first time in the Thibodeau era that a player publicly questioned the demanding coach.
Thibodeau, along with many in the organization, was disappointed that Boozer decided to air his grievances in the open. Thibodeau said before that game in Sacramento that he hadn't seen the comments, but then rattled off every relevant stat as to why he chose to play Taj Gibson late in games. It was clear at that point that the writing, which had been there for some time in regard to using to the amnesty clause on the final year of Boozer's deal, was on the wall. He wasn't going to be a Bull much longer.
So how should fans remember the Boozer era?
The word that instantly comes to mind is underwhelming. Boozer's numbers were solid throughout much of his time in Chicago -- it's just that they didn't always have as much of an impact as one would imagine.
To Boozer's credit, aside from his moment of truth in Sacramento, he played the role of good teammate on the floor. He didn't complain about his role, he supported those around him and he showed up to work every day.
It's just that when a team pays a player close to $80 million over five years, they expect him to do a little more to impact winning. Boozer always seemed to do just enough on the floor to get by. He was rarely the guy who would dive for a loose ball or a take a charge -- a fact that didn't go unnoticed by many, both inside and out of the locker room. On a try-hard team, Boozer was almost always the player who didn't try as hard as the others. He wanted to get his shots up when he could, fill out the stat sheet and get ready for another day.
Boozer can still be a productive player in the league, but he never fit the mold of a Thibodeau-type player. His over the top, "look at me" screams on the floor became comic fodder for fans.
Most of all, Boozer never proved to be the type of player the Bulls thought they were getting when they signed him. He became a 6-foot-8 jump-shooter who regressed even more as a defender toward the end of his Bulls tenure.
Boozer was by no means a failure during his time in Chicago. He produced something most nights, remained durable after that initial hand injury in 2010 and was part of a squad that racked up a lot of wins over the past four years. But Boozer's biggest flaw is that he almost always left everyone around him wanting a little more. It's that feeling -- and some of the unnecessary antics that came with it -- that will serve as his legacy with the Bulls.
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