Carlos Boozer quaked under the burden of being the Bulls’ first scoring option after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 against the 76ers. This isn’t shocking: Boozer is not an NBA first option, even if he made $13.5 million this season and will make only about $500,000 less than what Chicago’s real first option will receive next season when Rose’s five-year contract extension kicks in. That tiny 2012-13 salary gap between Boozer ($15 million) and Rose ($15.5 million) speaks more to the difficulty of building an NBA team and signing the right kind of second option, at the right price and at the right time, than it does about Chicago’s management or Boozer’s place in the league.
Boozer just couldn’t do enough on offense to carry Chicago past a scoring-challenged Philadelphia team that is about to start a seven-game race to 80 points against the Celtics. The 30-year-old power forward wasn’t really bad until Game 6 on Thursday, when he shot just 1-of-11 and sat the last 16 minutes as coach Tom Thibodeau rode the same lineup into the ground. He was a combined 2o-of-44 in Games 4 and 5, with 10 assists, and had Chicago in position to win Game 4 in Philadelphia before getting swatted out of a pick-and-roll in crunch time and then fumbling the ball out of another one less than a minute later.
The Bulls ran those plays for Boozer for a reason, though: He is skilled enough and threatening enough to shift defenses a bit his way, creating space for others. Some of those open jumpers that power forward Taj Gibson got flashing to the foul line or hanging around the baseline, for instance, came in part because defenses converged on Boozer during pick-and-rolls or as Boozer slithered around picks near the rim. Point guard C.J. Watson got open looks down the stretch of Game 4 because Philadelphia was more worried about containing Boozer on the roll. Sixers forward Thaddeus Young was late helping on Luol Deng’s “and-one” play late in the third quarter Thursday in part because he had to think twice about leaving Boozer near the basket.
These things happen, if you care to look, and they have real value to an offense that isn’t exactly teeming with dangerous players beyond Rose. Despite missing Rose for nearly half the season, Chicago built a top-10 offense largely on the back of two versatile big men, Boozer and Joakim Noah, who screen, pass and move around the floor in smart ways. Then Rose got hurt, and Noah joined him on the sideline, and it all fell apart, with Boozer as the fall guy.
That “fall guy” status is not totally undeserved. Boozer took seven foul shots in six games, and his chronically soft finishing ability came back to haunt Chicago at the worst times. He piled up a playoff-high 23 turnovers, dropping passes, losing the ball near the basket or just throwing it into the stands. He missed so, so many mid-range jumpers.
His defense was as plodding and flat-footed as ever. The Sixers went after him in pick-and-rolls, knowing even their so-so ball-handlers could tap-dance around Boozer’s stationary “help” defense. Boozer has never been a good defender, aside from his rebounding, and he’s never going to be.
Now the calls will come for the Bulls to use the amnesty provision on Boozer, who is owed $47.1 million over the next three seasons. Clearing that money from the books would, in theory, free up cap space to use on something else — perhaps, finally, a player who packages the skills that the Bulls got in combination from a small army of shooting guards. It’s an easy decision for the armchair general managers: Boozer is overpaid, incapable of propping up Chicago’s offense in a crisis, and the team can move on just fine without him.
Amnesty, however, is a complicated thing, even leaving out the reality that Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a fierce negotiator with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, would be paying Boozer a huge portion of that $47.1 million to play for another team. For one, amnestying Boozer doesn’t do all that much to change the team’s cap picture over the next two seasons because the Bulls already have so much money committed to Deng, Noah and Rose. Adding in various cap charges, the Bulls have almost $69 million in guaranteed money for next season. Wiping away Boozer’s $15 million salary would get them down to about $54 million, with an estimated $4 million in cap space, and the $2.5 million room exception for teams that spend up to the cap.
That kind of money is not going to bring more talent than whichever version of the mid-level exception Chicago will have access to this summer, depending on its precise cap figure. Cutting Boozer obviously would give Reinsdorf some breathing space in terms of the luxury-tax threshold, which is set to be 70.5 million or so next season, but it won’t allow the Bulls to add game-changing talent. The same basic thing will be true next summer, and until Deng’s contract comes off the books after the 2013-14 season.
There’s also the fact that Boozer, warts and all, has proved he can exist within a Bulls team that functions extremely well on both ends of the floor. The Bulls have been the best defensive team in the league for two seasons running while starting Carlos Boozer. They were much better defensively with Boozer on the bench in each of those seasons, and while that stat does tell us something about Boozer, it probably tells us more about the quality of the Gibson/Omer Asik combination and the damage those two can do against opposing backups. The Bulls allowed 89.8 points per 100 possessions without Boozer this season, a number that would have led the league by miles. With Boozer? They yielded 98.9 points per 100 possessions, a number that would have ranked about fifth.
It’s possible the Bulls would be better off without Boozer. It’s also possible their offense would suffer in an unpredictable way unless they could find scoring from an unexpected source. Gibson did well in an extended run against the Sixers, but he wasn’t able to lift the offense to an acceptable level, and the Bulls were probably stretching him a bit far at times. Real Madrid forward Nikola Mirotic, a 21-year-old Serbian star and 2011 first-round pick, isn’t expected to come to the NBA for another year or two, at the earliest.
And are we really ready to declare that this Bulls team, as constituted and with Boozer as a second or third option, can’t win a title? This season’s playoff flameout has some obvious causes, and Chicago was right there with Miami for almost every second of its five-game loss in the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Dumping Boozer might work in conjunction with other moves to improve. But it’s no sure thing, and it’s hard to see what those other moves might be.