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Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: April 6, 2:25 AM ET
No trade clause

By Jon Greenberg
ESPN The Magazine

Carlos Boozer
Boozer may have had a quiet game in Miami, but his recet play has been enough to put boobirds to rest.

This story appears in the April 16, 2012 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

CARLOS BOOZER'S CHICAGO BLUES began before he could even unpack his bags. The night of Oct. 2, 2010, he heard his doorbell ring and went to answer it. As he moved through his new home, he tripped over a gym bag, a big one, still loaded with gear from his first training camp with the Bulls. He fell hard on his right hand and heard something pop. Moments later, he saw a knot on the flesh near his pinkie. A trip to the X-ray room confirmed his worst suspicion: He'd broken his finger and would miss the first 15 games of the season.

Carlos Boozer Player Tracker
Carlos Boozer: Player Tracker

His situation didn't exactly improve when he returned to the lineup, as he huffed his way through games, out of shape. As the season wore on, Boozer battled two sprained ankles and the growing ire of unfulfilled expectations. The Bulls' new $75 million man, the guy who was supposed to have 20 and 10 every night, as he'd done in Utah, averaged a measly 15 points and nine boards a game after the All-Star break. Worse still, he did not seem to jell with his teammates, in particular Joakim Noah, the Bulls center. The pair had the 27th-best plus/minus rating on the roster. By the second round of the playoffs, when Boozer blamed his poor play against the Hawks on a case of turf toe, fans at the United Center booed him. In the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau benched him in the fourth quarter of the decisive Game 5.

The grumbling about Boozer's play began as soon as the United Center emptied after the 4-1 series loss to the Heat. But the Bulls were stuck. What team would deal for a guy who averaged only 12.6 points a game in the playoffs and made $14 million a year? Knowing this, Boozer quietly shed 20 pounds last summer in an attempt to shake his soft rep and chase the bitterness of sitting on the bench, along with Noah, when it mattered most. "We felt like if we would have been out there, we might have been able to help our team win the game," Boozer said before this season. "That's something that we took seriously in the summertime, and we worked our butts off."

Boozer quietly shed 20 pounds last summer in an attempt to shake his soft rep.

Still, a redefined Boozer couldn't stop the trade talk from reigniting in December, when Dwight Howard announced that he wanted out of Orlando. The Bulls couldn't do a straight trade, but what about Boozer and Noah?

Chicago's first big game of 2012 didn't do much to dampen the noise around the team's big men. Against the Heat, Boozer scored 10 points, grabbed nine boards and played poor defense. Noah finished with 11 and 11. Both spent time on the bench in the fourth, watching Taj Gibson. It didn't take long in the postgame news conference for someone to ask Thibodeau why his bigs hadn't jelled. He sneered. The coach can be biting -- a shouter, even -- and he seemed particularly aggrieved here. " 'Not jelled'?" He paused a beat, letting the anger build. "What do you mean 'Not jelled'? ... We still have the best record in the league, and we had the best record last year, and Carlos and Jo are a big reason why. All right? We done?"

Carlos Boozer
This season, Boozer and Noah have a combined plus/minus rating that's Chicago's second best.

Not quite, apparently. Four weeks after the Heat loss, the blogosphere blew up that Derrick Rose had encouraged Bulls management to make a trade for Lakers power forward Pau Gasol. Rose vehemently denied the report and spoke privately with Boozer. "I think he already knew they were false," Rose told ESPNChicago.com. "I'm good with the teammates I have. I've always been saying that."

In light of all the trade talk, there is a simple logic behind Thibodeau's vitriol and Rose's defense. The more you consider the end results -- mainly that the Bulls have led the NBA in total wins since last season -- the more it seems that not getting Howard, Gasol or any other big man was the best thing to happen to them this season. Seriously.

Together, Boozer and Noah missed 57 games in 2010-11. But this season, Boozer started in each of the team's first 52 games; Noah started all but two. All that court time has helped them figure out each other's nuances and habits. Through March 28, they had the second-best plus/minus rating for any duo on the Bulls and the 18th-best in the league. Some of the improvement is due to the space they now give each other in the post. Boozer has been taking even more shots away from the basket this season: 4.8 per game from 16 to 23 feet, according to Hoopdata.com, compared with his three shots a game from that range last season. Though that might infuriate Bulls fans, Boozer was also nailing those shots: 45 percent from that area, compared with 37 percent last season.

Carlos Boozer
One group who never Boozer-bashes? Carlos' sons and their buddies.

Opening up the floor is a big reason the Bulls, through March 28, had the 11th-highest scoring average in the NBA, up from 19th last season, even though Rose missed 18 games. That spacing hasn't hurt the Bulls' rebounding; the team led the NBA with 45.9 boards per game, and its offensive rebounding rate -- the estimate of all rebounds that any offensive player obtained -- was best in the league at 32.4 percent.

The big men's penchant to play well together and keep offensive possessions alive is also why the Bulls are 13-5 in the games Rose missed. Boozer, in particular, has performed well in some big contests. In a March 19 game against Howard and the Magic, Boozer had 24 points and 13 rebounds (he averaged 15.6 and 8.2 through March 28), and the Bulls defense set a team record for fewest points allowed in the 85-59 win. "The real story is our defense," Boozer said, deflecting praise after his third straight game with 20 or more points against the Magic. Noah held Howard to 18 points. "They beat us with no problem," Magic forward Glen Davis said. "I wish they would've had Derrick Rose, in some sense."

Boozer doesn't dominate, but he finally seems to be fitting in on this team with no redundancies: Rose is the star, Kyle Korver is the three-point shooter, Luol Deng the perimeter defender, Noah the low-post irritant. The team chemistry lingers after the game too. Rose has said there is a "college" atmosphere to the Bulls because they're young and they hang out together at Chicago nightclubs such as the Underground and Studio Paris. That affability with one another, off the court or at a game -- Boozer and Noah offer the loudest, most enthusiastic support of their teammates -- has the Bulls in position to claim the No. 1 playoff seed for the second straight season. The bigs, especially with Rose's back and groin injuries, deserve most of the credit for that. "The winning reflects how well they are playing," Thibodeau says of Boozer and Noah. "And this year, they've been terrific."

Most of the time. When the Bulls met the Heat again on March 14, with Rose on the bench, Boozer scored just two points on four shots in a 106-102 win. It was the eve of the trade deadline. We'll give him a free pass.

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