SACRAMENTO — Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau played coy, claiming he hadn’t read power forward Carlos Boozer’s comments about not playing in the fourth quarters of games following the Bulls’ morning shootaround Monday.
“I didn’t,” Thibodeau insisted before the Bulls played the Kings at Sleep Train Arena. “What did he say?”
“Those, they’re tough decisions. I have two guys that are deserving of being starters. Both guys are critical for our team. So I’m asking Taj to sacrifice not starting. In some cases, Carlos has to sacrifice not finishing. For us to achieve what we want to achieve, both guys have to play very well for us. So right now, the way it’s going, the last 10 games or so, Carlos [is] dealing with a calf injury and Taj has really come on. So, I can only base it on performance, so when we’re going down the stretch in the fourth quarter, it’s always going to be the group that gives us a chance to win. Now, part of that is Carlos’ rest time comes at the start of the fourth,” Thibodeau explained, seemingly prepared for the assembled media’s line of questioning, including the ability to rattle off statistics to back up his reasoning.
“You also have to look at what Taj is doing. Obviously Taj is our best defender at that position — but what you can’t overlook is Taj is also our most efficient scorer in the fourth quarter. You’re looking at a guy that’s shooting 49 percent for the season in the fourth. The last five games, he’s shooting 58 percent. He’s averaging over seven points per game [in the fourth quarter] in the last five [games], so he’s been playing at a very, very high level and when you look at the field-goal percentage, you’re looking at a guy that’s shooting 49 percent in the fourth quarter for the season. Now, only Mike Dunleavy is shooting [better]; he’s shooting 50 [percent] in the fourth. And then, when you look at plus-minus for the season, after the Luol trade, our best plus-minus guy for the season is Taj.
“So both guys are deserving. They’re both starters in my eyes. So I’m always going to base my decisions on what’s best for the team. And I’m asking both those guys to sacrifice. I’m trying to get them both as close to starter’s minutes. Carlos is playing 30 minutes [per game]; Taj is playing 28,” he went on to say. “So that’s the way it goes and I have to do it based on performance. And that’s how I’m making my decisions, and that’s how I’ll always make my decisions. Carlos is very important to our team. So he’s nursing a calf injury. He just missed a workout the other day because of his calf, so that’s all I can go by.”
Thibodeau also stressed that he wasn’t angry that Boozer made his unhappiness about the situation public.
“Well, it’s always been that way, with all our players. When we go down the stretch, I’m looking at what’s going on in the game and I have to base it on: OK, do we need defense? Do we need offense? Who’s playing the best in the fourth quarter? What are our best matchups? What’s going on? Who do they have on the floor? Do we have a lead? Are they playing small at the four with another range shooter? Those things all factor into it,” the coach said. “Carlos has a lot of pride. And he should want to play. But you’ve got to get it done, too. And you can’t play everybody. Joakim has gone to a completely different level. Carlos is going to play some in the fourth. Right now, Taj has got the hot hand, so that’s the way we’re going. That doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way. We need both those guys. For us to get to where we want to go, we need both those guys playing well and both guys are critical to our team, so that’s the way I look at it.
“I don’t know the context in which he said it. I don’t know how you guys asked him, so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Usually, Carlos with me, has always come to me. So that’s why, before I comment any further, I just want you guys to know how I base my decisions,” he continued. “He’s been a very important part of our team since he’s been here. He’ll continue to be an important part of the team. And no one can put themselves in front of the team. And sometimes, you have to sacrifice what might be best for yourself for what’s best for the team. And that’s what I love about Taj. Taj can be upset that he’s not starting. He never complains. Whatever you ask him to do, he just goes out there and does it. And to me, what he does speaks volumes. He’s not talking about it. He’s going out there and doing it.
“It’s a long season, as I said. Hey, look: I don’t want anyone putting themselves before the team. I want to make that clear. Carlos, for the most part, he’s never done that before. And I don’t know the context in which it was said. But as I said, it’s my job to get the best out of everyone, and do what’s best for the team. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll always do it and that’s not going to change.”
While it’s not anything new that Boozer isn’t receiving much playing time down the stretch of games, it’s more pronounced now that Gibson has improved his scoring ability and thusly, has received more offensive touches. Boozer has indeed been productive in limited minutes — excluding his stinker Saturday night in New Orleans — and with the offseason approaching and speculation that the Bulls will exercise the amnesty clause on the final year of his contract, it’s understandable that the veteran wants to clear up any potential misconceptions about his perceived desire.
Furthermore, Thibodeau’s reasoning, while it dovetails nicely with Gibson’s development, didn’t include the fact that the sixth man, at least in the present, is part of the Bulls’ core moving forward, while Boozer, amnesty or not, isn’t regarded as part of the organization’s long-term future. Another example of a player being spoon-fed both minutes and shots, perhaps even to his detriment, is Jimmy Butler, whose shooting struggles didn’t negate his attempts or playing time.
But in the short term, as long as Boozer is in a Bulls’ uniform — something that he privately believes might not be for long, even prior to this month’s trade deadline, according to a person with knowledge of the situation — Thibodeau must find a balance between ensuring that the veteran continues to feel valuable, while not curtailing Gibson’s progress. Thibodeau has allowed Boozer’s defensive shortcomings to not infringe on either the power forward’s playing time or the team’s success for four seasons now and that is unlikely to change, even as Gibson’s breakout season continues.