He stopped short of acknowledging it outright, but in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, Carlos Boozer almost seemed to accept the inevitable, that Tuesday night’s 75-69 Game 5 loss to the Wizards at the United Center, was not only the Bulls' season finale, but could be his last game in a Bulls uniform.
“We had a good talk. I got a chance to talk to all my teammates and talk to Thibs very briefly, just briefly. I talked to Gar [Forman, the Bulls’ general manager] and ‘Pax’ [Bulls executive vice president John Paxson], [Bulls assistant general manager] Randy Brown for a little while. They were great, man, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens this summer. You never know what happens down the road, but I’ve really enjoyed my time in Chicago,” Boozer told CSNChicago.com. “I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Bulls and this organization, and again, I would like to be here in the future. I think our future is very bright, especially with Derrick coming back and my guys getting healthy, and having a chance. Maybe we can do something special. I’ve always felt that way and this isn’t the first time you’ve heard me say that. I feel like we have a team that’s capable of winning a championship. Hopefully I’ll be part of that in the future.”
When asked if Bulls management specifically addressed his future, Boozer said it was still a bit premature.
“Nah, not at all. The last game of the season was last night,” he explained. “Emotions are still high. There’s so much to come between now and next season. There’s a lot to deal with. So no, we didn’t talk about specifics.”
But there’s been widespread speculation that the Bulls could use the amnesty provision on Boozer, wiping his $16.8-million salary for next season off the organization’s books. Earlier in the day at the Berto Center, Forman talked about that possibility.
“We know there’s been a lot written about that. We have valued Carlos and I think Carlos has had a big part of our success the last four years,” Forman said. “Obviously we still have amnesty as an option that we haven’t used that a lot of teams have. That’s something as we go into July, we’ll have to evaluate. If it’s something that makes sense as far as getting our team stronger, we may go that way. But we also may not go that way. And you guys know us: We’re not going to make decisions until we have had a chance to really go through the process, study what the plusses are, what the minuses could be and then make whatever we think is the best decision for our team.”
Acquired as a free agent in the summer of 2010, the two-time Western Conference All-Star signed a five-year, $75-million deal with the Bulls. While he wasn’t the high-profile addition many had hoped for—the likes of Miami’s “Big Three” of reigning league MVP LeBron James, Chicago native Dwyane Wade and fellow power forward Chris Bosh were also in that ballyhooed free-agent class—Boozer was certainly a better alternative to the oft-injured Amar’e Stoudemire and perhaps David Lee, other power forwards who were available and signed with the Knicks and Warriors, respectively.
But Boozer has endured criticism almost immediately since arriving in Chicago, getting off to a rough start with an infamous training-camp injury in which he tripped over a bag in his home and never subsided, even a year ago, when he gained some All-Star buzz with a January stretch that saw him carry an undermanned Bulls squad. Since then, despite being a key member of two Bulls teams that were that had the most wins in the NBA in his first two seasons with the club, critics have focused more on his defensive shortcomings than what he brings to the table as a consistent scorer and rebounder, one of the injury-riddled squad’s most durable players and by all accounts, a good teammate.
That last trait is even more underrated when it’s taken into consideration that in the second half of this regular season, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau stuck with a rigid substitution pattern that saw Boozer play in only the first and third quarters of games. The change in his role has strained what was once a much closer relationship between Boozer and Thibodeau, as the much-maligned power forward’s minutes have dwindled.
“Obviously Thibs has his job to do and he’s trying to win games the best way he sees fit. As a player, I’m trying to do everything I can to help my team win. Everybody’s making sacrifices for our team and obviously my role is different. I had to make sacrifices for playing time and my role obviously changed when Thibs decided—obviously we didn’t speak about it,” Boozer explained. “But as my role changed, I just tried to accept it and do what I could for my team, which is what any team player would do. I was the same way. It was hard to accept because I wanted to be out there and help my team win in every instance. But I just cheered my team on when I wasn’t out there and when I was out there, I just gave it everything I had. That’s all you can do as a teammate. You can support the guys that are out there, have a pure heart. We all make sacrifices for each other, which is what teammates do for each other for the betterment of the team and that’s what I did. My relationship with Thibs, we have a coach-player relationship.”
Boozer still holds out hope that he could play for the Bulls next season, despite the fact that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that sixth man Taj Gibson is slated to inherit his starting job—it’s worth noting that Boozer and Gibson maintained their friendship, with Boozer often the first off the bench to encourage Gibson and behind the scenes, helping the younger player improve his offensive game—but if he ends up elsewhere next season, the veteran wants to make it clear that he believes that he can still be a major contributor, functioning as a more than capable scoring threat, solid rebounder and overlooked passer.
“My body feels great. I know that I’m a productive player and can still help a team win. Again, I’m saying I’d love to be here in Chicago and help this team win, and that would be ideal for me,” he said. “But absolutely, I know that I’m capable of playing 30 to 35 minutes a night, putting up great numbers and averaging a double-double or close to a double-double, and helping a team win a championship. I’m very confident in my abilities and what I’m capable of doing, and that’s something I definitely want.”
As far as his tenure in Chicago overall, Boozer tellingly alternated between the past and present tenses. Regardless of whether his trademark vocal exhortations are no longer heard in the United Center as a member of the home team, he’ll look back fondly on the past four seasons.
“I describe everything as team success, man. I thought we had some good years, man. I thought we’ve had some tough circumstances with guys being hurt. We’ve had Derrick out for a couple years. That really hurt our team because he’s such a big part of our team, made our team so much more dynamic obviously. Trading Luol was difficult for our group of guys, too. But we faced adversity, looked it right in the eye and we fought. We didn’t give up because our best player was hurt. We didn’t give up because we traded one of our best players. We kept fighting and that’s the mark of entire group, and I was proud of my guys for what we were able to accomplish this year and previous years,” Boozer said. It’s always sad when it’s over because no matter if you lose in the first round or the conference finals or the Finals, if you lose, period, you lost. We feel like it was before our time. We feel like we should still be playing. It never feels like the season was supposed to end when it ends because you always want to win the whole thing. But that being said, that’s how I feel about my group of guys. I feel like we’ve fought hard, despite what we’ve been faced with. We just took the cards we were dealt and we played them, and we played it all out and gave it everything we had until the last moment.
“You can’t really put aside Derrick’s injuries or trades or what have you. We haven’t been healthy, to be quite frank. The four years that I’ve been here, we’ve had a major player hurt or a couple major players injured. We just haven’t won the title. Our team was put together to win a title and that would be the one regret, that we haven’t won the whole thing so far. But you never know what may happen next season. Hopefully next year will be our year,” he went on to explain. “Honestly, just being with my teammates, grinding it out with them. Getting a chance to meet some of these great guys. I’m playing with great teammates, obviously great players. You wouldn’t be in the NBA if you weren’t a great player, but I’ve been able to have great teammates here. It’s awesome to have a chance to come here from Utah and meet some of these guys that I’ve competed against, form relationships and now we’re all brothers. So that’s been the biggest reward of being here in Chicago, playing for great fans and a great organization. All those things are heartfelt for me because this has been a team where we’ve all embraced each other. We’ve fought, we’ve been through a lot and we kept fighting. So we’ve all become brothers and it’s been an honor.
“I love the city, man. It’s a hard-working city and everybody out here is hard-working. They go hard for our team and show a lot of love. We go out to eat in restaurants and they come out, and tell us how appreciative they are for how hard we play, despite not having Derrick and not having our best player. They appreciate our hard work. They see us grinding. They see us fighting against all odds and they appreciate that. So for me, it’s just awesome to be in a city where they know so much about basketball and they can appreciate our hard work that they put into it.”
Coming off his lowest scoring and rebounding campaign since his rookie year and Cleveland and shooting the lowest percentage of his career—13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, however, are nothing to sneeze at, and his numbers per 36 minutes are not far off his career statistics—Boozer claims that he isn’t aware of the perception observers have of his game, but insists that his dedication to winning is something that hasn’t and won’t ever waver.
“I don’t know,” he said of what others think of him. “But this is what I do know: I know I give it 100 percent out there. I play hard for my teammates. I play hard to do whatever I can on the court to help us win and that will always be the makeup of me, no matter if I’m out there for 20 minutes or out there the while game. I’m going to play as hard as I can.”