Carlos Boozer is the one player in the NBA I root for not to fail. I've had an affinity for him ever since he made leaving Cleveland trendy. (The late Art Modell was really the pioneer of the art of bolting Ohio, but you get the point.)
Publicly standing by -- and often defending -- Boozer since his introduction in Chicago has not been easy.
The way I see it: Boozer should just thank Jay Cutler. He needs to one day find Cutler, walk up to him, extend his hand and say, "Thanks." And walk away.
Chicago historically always has had one player (or coach or GM) that it loved to hate, loved to blame for a team not living up to or not exceeding expectations. So think about it: How much more hatred would Boozer really endure if Cutler weren't here in Chicago to distract and redirect it from him?
This is the genesis of Year 3 of Carlos Boozer walking around Chicago with a target on his back. It's a role he's basically embraced while still working hard to evade it and make it disappear. He famously said last year: "I look forward to quieting the haters." Well, he had the chance last season and the haters (although they didn't get louder) refused to shut up.
But what was missed in that statement was the broad thinking on Boozer's part. He was not talking about himself quieting the haters by what he would personally do, he was speaking in the form of what he and his team were about to do last year: Win the whole damn thing.
"When I said that," Boozer said yesterday when we met inside the Berto Center, "I thought, we thought we were going to win a championship. When you win a championship you quiet everybody. Winning solves everything. We felt that if we were healthy, it was our championship to lose. I'm being honest."
And it's his honesty within himself, along with an almost unflappable ability to always look at the bigger picture of winning (and his contribution to it), that have allowed Boozer to deal with all that has come his way in a Bulls uniform.
Of his mindset: "I don't care about my stats. I know the fans do, (but) I care about wins. If I'm averaging 20 (points) and 15 (rebounds) and we win a championship, great. If I'm averaging 10 and 10 and we win a championship, great. As long as we win championships. We built this thing up here to win a championship."
Of his not being the same player he was in Utah: "I'm playing with way more scorers than I did in Utah. Fourth quarter in Utah, I'm getting 10 shots a quarter because the offense is me and D-Will (Deron Williams). In the fourth quarter here, I'm getting offensive rebounds and double-team kick-outs and maybe one or two shots. The looks here are way different, our offense here is very different." He says it again for good measure. "Very different."
On the role his contract plays in the hate he receives: "It comes with the territory. People don't want to hear any excuses. You gotta have thick skin, they are going to be on you. (The fans) want numbers. But as long as we win, I'll take the heat."
He gets what most don't. Or what too many don't take into consideration.
For Boozer it's not about the stats or what Bulls fans take from his play on the court. His big-picture mentality deals with a truth that -- however anyone wants to shape it -- is an irrefutable fact: Since he's been here this team has won (two NBA regular-season best records) and has been in title contention when healthy.
Boozer knows that it's not because of him that this has happened, but it's not in spite of him either. It's Tom Thibodeau being the best coach in the game, it's Taj Gibson being the unrecognized best sixth man in the game, it's Luol Deng adjusting his game and finally being honored as an All-Star, it's Joakim Noah constructing his game so that this year he gets that overdue All-Star recognition, it's Rip Hamilton coming in and teaching other players on the court what Thibs can't teach them from the sidelines, it's Derrick Rose becoming Derrick Rose.
It's all of the above that he sees. Piece by piece. How one can't work at the level the Bulls have operated at the past two seasons without everyone doing what they've done collectively.
And inside of that Boozer sees his part. Not numbers, not stats. He's allowed himself to see himself as a part of the reason this team has grown from a perpetual .500 team the year(s) before he got here to a team that over the last two regular seasons has only lost 36 games. And if bad luck hadn't hit the Bulls in the playoffs (the same way it did the Bears in their regular season last year), the haters might have had to be quiet because Boozer might have had a Larry O'Brien trophy to point at to speak on his behalf.
It gets interesting when certain selective math is done in respect to Boozer. Try to remove the numbers of his contract (which might be impossible) and how people say/believe that's the reason the Bulls haven't been able to move him, and look at the math of the player who has replaced him in Utah, Paul Millsap.
While Millsap has been lauded league-wide as an up-and-coming/probable star, Boozer is loathed for basically putting up eerily comparable numbers. 2012 is a classic example: Boozer 15.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, .532 FG percentage; Milsap 16.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, .495 field goal percentage. That's only a 1.6 points and 0.3 rebounds difference in Millsap's favor and a 0.37 field goal percentage difference in Boozer's. Not that drastic a difference for two players to be received so differently.
Which begs to ask: Is the hate for Boozer solely rooted in expectations? Or is it so connected to his contract (five years, $75 million) that it is impossible to separate the two?
The other hidden mathematic equation that can be applied to making a case for Boozer is what happens when he plays 70 or more games in a given season.
In the last eight seasons, Boozer has played over 70 games only three times. It can't be a coincidence that those three seasons (2006-07, 2007-08, 2009-10) were the best of his career, highlighted by him grabbing over 200 rebounds and scoring 400 points in 17 games (23.5 ppg/ 12.2rpg) during the 2006-07 Utah playoff run that basically had people calling him "the Karl Malone Remix."
Boozer tells me that after games he doesn't even look at his stats. All he cares about is if his team came out like DJ Khaled. But if he plays more than 70 games -- especially with Rose down for most, if not all, of this season -- and recent history stays true to when he's healthy, Boozer will have justifiable reason to look at his stats after games.
He'd be a fool not to. Because his Jazz-esque numbers will return and be a huge reason for the stack of W's the Bulls will get this season.
And he'll hear the hate slowly grow silent.
"This year I have a lot to prove," he said before heading upstairs to a team meeting. "Our team has a lot to prove. For me I take on that challenge of having to do a lot more this year. But it's not just me. All of us will. But you'll see that.
"We're going into this season without D-Rose and everyone is counting us out like we ain't s--- . And that's our motivation, that's my motivation. 100 percent."
For good measure, he repeats it: "100 percent."