Commentary

Are Bulls better off without Booz?

With an injury hindering Carlos Boozer, the question must be asked

Updated: May 5, 2011, 9:31 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

There are those who would say it is unfairly picking on Carlos Boozer or focusing too much on his contract to suggest that he has not been the player the Bulls hoped for when they signed him to a five-year, approximately $80 million deal last July.

Horace Grant doesn't care about any of that. Glued to his TV and the NBA playoffs while rocking his newborn daughter, he just knows what he sees. And what he sees from the guy playing his old position and wearing John Paxson's old number ... well, let's just say it's a good thing there's a baby around to keep him calm.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCarlos Boozer has been ineffective for most of the playoffs.
"This is a time when stars shine and they're paid all that money to step up," Grant said. "I watched the Lakers last night, and just from a fan standpoint and someone who played the game for many nights, Pau Gasol has to step up also."

For Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, it's very simple.

"This is the time of the year you go," he said. "If you're injured, you don't. If you're hurting, you go."

Boozer is no doubt hurting. Turf toe is a swelling of the tendons and, say those who have had it, is indeed painful.

"It's one of those things, when you just say a toe, it doesn't sound like much," Bulls teammate Luol Deng said. "But it's an annoying injury."

An injury.

The question is whether the Bulls are better off with an injured Boozer on the floor or not. This season, the Bulls went 15-8 (.652) without him in the lineup.

Maybe the question should be what kind of a team have the Bulls been with Boozer in the lineup this postseason?

Technically speaking, they have been a 5-2 team, which isn't bad. But for all of those blessed with the gift of sight, it hasn't always been good, either. Boozer has shot 38.2 percent and is averaging 10.3 points per game. But that's not what has fans such as Grant dissatisfied.

Boozer has been slow or nonexistent on defensive rotations and arguably soft inside despite getting called twice for defensive 3-second violations. Offensively, he has been unable to finish strong at the basket and he has not been solid in setting picks for Derrick Rose.

"Maybe it's old school, but you set a pick so that your guard or small forward can get to the hole or shoot a jump shot. You should be secondary," Grant said. "It's team first, and the first option is setting a good, strong pick. With a body like [Boozer's], you should be able to do some things, and he has shown in the past he can do this."

Thibodeau said Thursday that the Bulls need Boozer in the lineup.

"His rebounding is critical for us," he said. "His post presence. People collapse on him so it opens up a lot of things for everybody. So he has to keep doing what he's doing. Each day will get better and better."

In his living room, Grant is like many of you, calling for Taj Gibson. Of course, realistically this isn't going to happen. Teams just don't change up their starting lineup and bench their $80 million free agent in the middle of the playoffs.

For all Thibodeau knows -- and he probably does know -- this could render Boozer even less effective than he already is. Besides that, it is more important who finishes games than who starts. And in the Bulls' Game 2 victory Wednesday night, Gibson played a minute longer than Boozer in the fourth quarter, relieving him at the 4:02 mark with the Bulls up by six and staying in the remainder of the game.

In Utah, the late Jazz owner Larry Miller once publicly criticized Boozer's defensive effort, after which Boozer developed what the media called a "mysterious" foot injury in 2005. In his second season with the Jazz, he missed 49 games with a hamstring injury.

And in his final season in Utah, Boozer drew the fans' ire when he sat out the final regular-season game with a strained oblique muscle as Phoenix defeated Utah, costing the Jazz the No. 2 seed.

So now he's apparently trying to tough it out, and it's no wonder why. And if there was any hesitation, it sounds like Thibodeau's message is clear.

"He'll get better in time but all these guys have something, whether it's an ankle, a toe, a wrist, a shoulder," Thibodeau said. "That's the way it is this time of year, and you have to get through all that stuff. But every team has the same issues. So we just have to be mentally tough, physically tough and whatever the challenge is in front of us, handle it."

In other words, just get out and do what you're being paid to do, which is more than pick up 10 rebounds a game (two offensive).

"He knows what he has to do," Thibodeau said almost hopefully. "This guy has scored his whole career. He'll score for us."

With a young team such as the Bulls, however, it's not likely that anyone is pressuring Boozer.

"Back in the day, Boozer wouldn't have lasted. Seriously," Grant said. "If you missed your defensive assignment, OK, you missed it. But if you continued to miss it, you would hear not just from Phil [Jackson] but from MJ, Scottie or myself.

"We got in Scottie's face a couple times -- 'You need to get over there, man, what's wrong?' Derrick Rose is a leader but you can't put that on him yet. In a couple years, but right now I'd look at the coaching staff or a guy like Kurt Thomas, who has a lot of experience in this league."

Grant recalled one conversation he had with Jordan and Pippen before a playoff series against the Knicks in which he was ailing.

"They came to me and said, 'Look, man, don't worry about scoring tonight; you just keep [Charles] Oakley off the backboards,'" Grant said. "So if Boozer is hurting as he says, it's going to be up to a guy like [Joakim] Noah or Thomas to go up to him and say, 'Give us what you've got, play hard,' and if it's not enough, then the coaching staff has to sit him down because you have other guys capable of doing what Boozer is giving them."

Publicly anyway, these Bulls are standing behind Boozer.

"Win or lose , you can't really point fingers," Deng said. "Everyone is out there playing hard; everyone is doing what they can. Guys are in here getting extra work in. We're taking this thing really seriously, and when we lose, we all lose. And when we don't play well, we all don't play well."

Even Gibson, whose stock has been rising as Boozer's falls, and not necessarily because of how he's performing, is resolutely in Boozer's corner.

"It's not awkward for me," Gibson said. "I have his back 110 percent. Like Coach Thibs said, our whole team is going to walk through the fire together during these playoffs. It's all about staying together."

Who knows? Maybe Boozer's role as punching bag gives the Bulls back the toughness they have been lacking lately.

"All this talk from the outside, we have to tune it out," Deng said. "We're trying to do something within these walls. We have to just keep on concentrating on that. All that stuff is just a distraction. Carlos is a proven great player in this league, and we have no doubt that he will get his rhythm back. As a team, as long as we win and Carlos gets his rhythm back, we'll even be better."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.