What should the Bulls do with Boozer?

April, 27, 2011
4/27/11
11:14
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau spends his life breaking down tape.

It's an obvious passion of the Chicago Bulls coach and something he takes great pride in. He figures that there is an always an advantage to be gained or a lesson to be learned from watching games of the past.

The problem for Thibodeau is that when it has come to Carlos Boozer over the last week and a half, no amount of extra tape watching has helped get his big power forward out of a slump. Aside from a 17-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 2 (one, it should be noted, in which Boozer went 16 minutes without attempting a field goal) the Bulls' prized free agent acquisition has been bad. He simply hasn't performed the way the Bulls expected.

So what can the Bulls do to get their $76 million man going? Everybody has an opinion.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireCarlos Boozer averaged 10 points and 10.2 rebounds in the Bulls' first round series against the Pacers.
"We have to figure out a way to keep him out of foul trouble," Thibodeau tried to explain after the series clinching victory on Tuesday night. "It is hard to get into a rhythm when you are picking up quick fouls. We are taking a good look at it to see if we can help him out so he can help us out."

Yes, Boozer was in foul trouble most of the series. But that glosses over the fact that he was still having problems finishing at the rim. Any kind of explosion that he had at the beginning of the season is now long gone, and that was before he suffered a toe injury in the second quarter. He was having problems catching the ball in the post and there was no question his confidence appeared to be shaken.

"Sometimes you've just got to see the ball go in the basket," teammate Kyle Korver said. "They obviously had focused on him a lot. He got double-teamed a lot right away. They really crowded him. We got to find some ways to get him some space and get a couple good looks. When you're not in a rhythm, trying to force rhythm isn't the answer. He knows. He's been in lots of playoff games, he's been in lots of big games. He's bounced back lots of times. It's just a matter of finding a little rhythm."

Korver, who played with Boozer in Utah before coming to Chicago last summer, seemed confident Boozer will bounce back. So did a host of other players, coaches and executives who have come out in support of Boozer recently despite his struggles.

But no matter what they say, and how they say it, the doubt is starting to creep in ever so slightly in the Bulls' locker room that Boozer may not be the type of playoff difference maker the team thought he could be.

Boozer's defense has been bad all year, but it didn't become as glaring because he was good for 20 points and 10 rebounds almost every night. Now every move he makes is more magnified and through one series it feels as if he's starting to wilt under the pressure. So what should Thibodeau do?

While considering the coach's next move, the obvious question is: Is Boozer healthy?

The answer is no, but as Boozer himself pointed out, what player is this time of year? The turf toe injury is going to linger no matter how far the Bulls go in the postseason. He was hobbling around after Tuesday night's game, and it was clear he didn't feel good.

"We all got a couple bangs and bruises," Boozer said, when asked why his explosion appears to have left him. "I definitely have my share of them, but onto the next one."

Only time will tell how the turf toe affects him, but the bigger question is, what else is hurting? Indiana's physical nature and length frustrated Boozer, but it's hard to believe they could shut him down the way they did for four out of five games unless there was another injury that hasn't surfaced. Is it the ankle he sprained in March? Something new? Or was he simply that ineffective?

Only Thibodeau knows for sure, but there are really only two choices for him to make at the moment:

Assuming all the tests on Boozer's toe come back OK (he had x-rays after Game 5 which came back negative already), Thibodeau can leave Boozer in the same role and just hope he breaks out of his funk against either Orlando or Atlanta. He has had success against both teams earlier in the season and after some rest and more study time, maybe that will prove to be the difference.

Option No. 2 is trickier, especially for a player with Boozer's psyche. Thibodeau could decide it's simply time to play Taj Gibson more. The second-year forward is a much better defender than Boozer and has developed a solid offensive game over his brief time in the league.

In 30 minutes on Tuesday night, Gibson scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds, picking up the slack for his foul-plagued teammate. Thibodeau has stuck to the same rotations all season, so it's hard to imagine any scenario (aside from injury) in which Gibson replaces Boozer in the starting lineup. But Gibson's minutes may increase even more if Boozer continues to struggle.

The decision is Thibodeau's to make, and for his sake, he's got some time to think it over before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday night. But it could be the single biggest decision he makes all year.

If he keeps Boozer in the same spot and he fails to produce then what happens? Can Gibson adjust to a new role on the fly and contribute the same way? Thibodeau will search for the answers the same way he always has with the tape running by his side. No matter how much tape he watches, though, he already knows the answer to the biggest question of all.

Can the Bulls get to where they want to go this season without Boozer producing the way he was supposed to?

Nope.

Nick Friedell | email

Chicago Bulls beat reporter
Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Derrick Rose
PTS AST STL MIN
15.9 4.3 0.5 31.1
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Noah 11.3
AssistsJ. Noah 5.4
StealsJ. Butler 1.9
BlocksJ. Noah 1.5