Before he did the unthinkable and walked out on Lebron James, before he was reviled and thought of as a man without a soul, before Carlos Boozer became Carlos Boozer the mid range shooter, double-double player, multiple All Star and playoff villain, Carlos Boozer completed his second year in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was 23 years old then, a second round draft pick out of Duke, a polished player devalued by skeptics who never thought much of his game.
His rookie year Carlos Boozer averaged 10 points and 7 rebounds. His next year, 2003, was Lebron James first year. From the very beginning the chemistry was tangible, Lebron on the perimeter and Boozer in the paint. That year Carlos Boozer averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds and was on his way to cementing a promising future as a double-double player. Boozer was part of the Cavs new look, a secondary piece of something special destined to last for years in a city where everything sports related was temporary.
So when Carlos Boozer left the Cavaliers shortly after his second season, he left in the familiar way most players leave- because money elsewhere tips their hand. When Boozer left Cleveland abandoning a city of 400,000 the devoted fans of Carlos Boozer began to hate everything about the young power forward.
They hated his mid range jump shot from both sides of the floor. They hated his aggressive rebounding even as they had come to depend on it. They hated that he went to Duke and that he talked like he went to Duke. Cavs fans hated Carlos the player and Carlos the person whom they had never even met.
For the first time in his short life Carlos Boozer had to endure the negative consequences of a financial decision. But he also had a new $70 million dollar contract, something the Cavs could not offer him.
The very idea that players suffer when they leave one team and go to another is one of those dreams fans hold onto. Carlos Boozer was not a tragedy as a member of the Utah Jazz, he was welcomed and celebrated. The derision would come later.
Deron Williams would join Boozer in Utah and they were as complimentary in Salt Lake as Boozer and Lebron were in Cleveland. But eventually time catches up with false narratives.
Carlos Boozer’s first NBA playoff game was in 2007 against the Houston Rockets. Boozer had 11 points. He missed 13 shots, shooting 23%. Sixteen games later, in game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Boozer shot 30%. He missed 7 shots. The Jazz lost by 25.
The Carlos Boozer hand wringing has nothing to do with Carlos Boozer’s skill. He and Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh have been the best mid-range shooters at the power forward position over the past decade. In 2007, Boozer had playoffs games of 41 points and 12 rebounds, 35 points and 14 rebounds, and 30 points and 12 rebounds. But unlike Garnett and Bosh, Boozer can’t rely on his defense when his shot isn’t falling.
He doesn’t contest shots at the rim, block shots or alter delivery. He isn’t long enough to create indecision and Boozer has never been physical enough to punish those he is guarding. He scores but he doesn’t dunk. He is a jump shot shooter. He gets double-doubles. He is a good teammate but he can never be a team’s best player and he is not a leader.
As a team’s second best player- Utah fans learned this- it was hard to depend on Boozer when the season was on the line.
In 2008, in the playoffs against the Lakers, Carlos Boozer shot 31% in game 6, the closeout game in which the Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs.
In 2009, in the playoffs against the Lakers, Boozer shot 37% in the closeout game-an 11 point loss.
In 2010, in another first round matchup against the Lakers, the Utah Jazz were swept. In game four, Boozer shot 31%, scoring 10 points and was booed by the home fans who by this time had come to know the truth of Carlos Boozer. He was ready to leave Utah the same way he left Cleveland.
2010 arrived and with it the free agent class of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Their talent and egocentrism sucked all the oxygen out of the rest of the class, those hopefuls looking for a financial payday. The trio of James/Wade/Bosh were widely feted and heralded and serenaded and endlessly covered. All three made a grand spectacle of interviewing in Chicago even as they knew Miami was their only destination.
The Bulls, unwilling to wait for the charade to end, signed Carlos Boozer to $16 million dollars a year.
Perhaps that is where it all went wrong for Carlos Boozer, attaching himself to a city that would never be generous towards him nor forgiving of him. Chicago is and has always been a tough, hard nosed sports town who want their heroes to heavy lift and handle the dark places of the NBA and come out a winner. It was a bad place for Boozer to luxuriate in his contract and deliver less than what he promised.
The Bulls fans are still stuck on Jordan which is like being stuck on your first marriage- you just can’t let the romance go. The Bulls wanted someone to lead them the way Jordan led them and as unattainable as that was, Bulls fans still held onto the mythology of the Jordan years.
But Carlos Boozer is a supporting player, a mid range shooter and nothing else. It was destined to fail before it could even start. Boozer could not fit into the box the Bulls assigned him to. He had never been a defender even as Tom Thibodeau extracted every bit of defensive potential he could out of Boozer. It still didn’t matter much.
His playoff agony continued to haunt him in 2011 when the Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. In game 5, the closeout game, Boozer shot 16%. He had 5 points. Something about that performance didn’t make sense because the game before he had 20 points; he had 26 points in game 3. But in game 5 he was miserable and looked lost and his confidence had eroded. It was hardly reflective of what a $16 million dollar player was expected to deliver in the biggest series of his career.
Chicagoans never forgave Carlos Boozer in what they considered to be a basketball atrocity. Forever would that game 5 be etched upon his Bulls epitaph. Upcoming was a three year hate-affair as Boozer became the center of Bulls fans collective rage. He represented the worst of the NBA, a player with a bloated salary who underperforms his contract and then acts surprised that the fans won’t embrace him.
But where the Chicago fans were wrong, what they neglected to notice about Carlos Boozer was he stayed the same person throughout his four years in Chicago. It was the NBA that changed identities. The NBA changed drastically.
All of a sudden the power forward was more athletic and more versatile. The concept of the stretch four was introduced and all of a sudden 6-10 players were shooting threes and dribbling the ball. It was the Lamar Odom effect: agile on the perimeter, damaging at the rim, a mid-range game. The game changed halfway through Carlos Boozer’s career but Carlos Boozer could not change himself. He did the only thing he knew how to do even as he was being berated for it in the Windy City.
In 2012, with an injured Derrick Rose watching from a distance, the Chicago Bulls played the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. In the first two games Carlos Boozer had 18 points combined. He had 7 rebounds in game one. He had 5 rebounds in game 2. In games 3, 4 and 5 Carlos Boozer averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds. But in the closeout game, a tight, exciting game in Philadelphia with 9 ties and 11 lead changes, Carlos Boozer shot .09%. He had 3 points.
There is an argument to be made that while some of it was Boozer’s fault, a lot of it was not. Boozer has made the All-Star team twice in back to back years when he was at his best. His best was seven years ago and in those All-Star years his Utah Jazz team was eliminated from the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals and the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Although Boozer retains much of the criticism and blame Deron Williams underperformed too.
Boozer is familiar with the trite joke about his name rhyming with loser. It is contemptuous and lost its humor a long time ago. Besides, whoever said Boozer was going to be a champion? Whoever said he was going to lead a team? He won two titles in high school and one at Duke. But he has failed to win the last game of the season for 12 straight years.
Blame Chicago for paying him $16 million dollars instead of $8 million. He is worth a little more than what the Lakers are paying at $3 million dollars. Carlos Boozer is a career 16 point, 8 rebound player who shoots 46% from the field and rarely gets to the rim. He was a second round pick who outperformed his draft status but has been punished by contracts handed out to him.
Somewhere along the way someone told a Carlos Boozer lie when they said he was a player who could lead a team somewhere. His career is evidence that is not true. What Carlos Boozer can do is give a team valuable minutes. He can score mid range buckets and he can get rebounds. He has never been what people wanted him to be and he can never rise to the capacity of someone else’s dreams. All he can do is what he has already done.
And even then there is nothing Carlos Boozer can do to stop the hate that comes his way. It is his particular burden. It started in Cleveland when he took the money and refused to look back. It followed him to Utah and to Chicago. It’s a part of his Los Angeles story, despite the way he ended up here.
If anything is true it is this Carlos Boozer lesson: you can’t outrun your past even when you are desperate to change your future.