The Chicago Bulls led the Eastern Conference with 11 wins in the month of January, a significant run for a team that played the stretch without Derrick Rose, without the traded Luol Deng for a good chunk of the term, and without Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Kirk Hinrich at times due to injury. Save for three two-to-three minute cameos, and a healthy chunk of minutes in a Noah-less loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boozer hasn’t played in any of the fourth quarters during that run. He couldn’t even get off the bench during Chicago’s triple-overtime win over the Orlando Magic, sitting for the final 27 minutes of game action even while his teammates dragged their way around the court.
This is nothing new for Boozer and the Bulls, as they’ve watched the defensive-minded Taj Gibson take over as the fourth quarter power forward of record in just about every contest since 2010-11. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, the only coach in Chicago that Boozer has ever known, prefers to use Gibson’s defensive length and sneaky offensive skills down the stretch, whether that stretch includes former MVP Rose taking over games offensively when he’s healthy, or Noah initiating the offense from the high post.
Up until now, Boozer has remained quiet about the arrangement. On the heels of yet another fourth quarter shutout in a losing effort against the New Orleans Pelicans, Boozer finally opened up about his frustrations. From K.C. Johnson at the Chicago Tribune:
"I think I should be out there, but it's (Thibodeau's) choice," Boozer said at Monday's morning shootaround at Sleep Train Arena. "I play. I don't coach. So he decides that. But honestly, he's been doing that a lot since I've been here, not putting me in the fourth quarter. Sometimes we win, more times than not we don't. But that's his choice."
"It's very frustrating, especially when I've got a great game going or what have you," Boozer said. "Obviously as a competitor, you want to help your team win and especially when the game is close, you can do things that can help your team win. And not being out there, all you could do is really cheer them on. But that's his choice."
Boozer said Thibodeau is aware of his desire to close games.
"He knows that," Boozer said. "He's aware of that. I feel great, body feels great. I think I'm very productive in the limited minutes that I am getting so I can do even more if I was out there more. But as long as we're winning, that's the main thing. But yeah, I do want to be out there in the fourth quarter. Let's make that clear."
In Boozer’s defense, no pun intended, he’s not requesting a trade. He’s not making too many waves here, and he’s making a clear distinction between a coach and players’ role. He was asked a direct, honest question, and he respectfully responded to it accurately.
Bulls fans can rake Boozer over the coals all they want, but it’s hard to take issue with a competitor wanting to be on the court during the game’s most crucial moments. The snarky reply to that would be to chide Boozer for his inability to take that competitiveness and play better down the stretch of games, or make Tom Thibodeau more content with his movement defensively, but we shouldn’t be taking points away for honesty. No basketball player should ever be criticized for saying “I want to play as much basketball as I can” while on record.
Playing time and overuse is the go-to criticism for Thibodeau, who played Jimmy Butler 60 minutes as he worked through two significant leg ailments in that triple-overtime win referenced above. Thibodeau has been rightfully criticized for overplaying several Bulls stars and role players throughout his run, though it’s hard to find specific 2013-14 instances (save for that Orlando game) where Boozer’s lack of a fourth quarter run could be blamed on Thibs’ unrelenting nature.
Thibodeau just doesn’t like playing him late. It’s been that way since the 2010-11 season, one that saw Boozer join the team a month into the regular season after breaking his right wrist just before training camp. Thibodeau has never been comfortable with his defense and late game aptitude, and it’s doubtful that Boozer’s comments from Monday will change any of this. Especially with Gibson acting competently on offense.
Boozer has played well this year, averaging nearly 15 points and 8.5 rebounds in just under 30 minutes a game. His shot chart is fair, his defense is more or less a lost cause at this point, though Thibodeau is correct to point out (as he’s done for years) that Boozer’s defensive rebounding is a huge reason why the Bulls (ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency) finish off possessions so well. The team’s defensive rebounding percentage ranking has declined again this year, for the third consecutive year, but Boozer helps in this area.
So look for things to continue apace in Chicago, for however long. The real question isn’t to whether or not the Bulls will start giving Boozer more than token minutes in fourth quarters. No, as it has been for a while now, the reason question is to whether or not the team decides to waive the last year (and $16.8 million) of Carlos’ contract using the amnesty provision this summer.
This would force owner Jerry Reinsdorf to pay Boozer money to not play for Chicago, while adding on other payroll on top of that to replace Carlos’ production, something that isn’t Reinsdorf’s style. Such a move could be a winner for basketball reasons, as the team could use the savings to add new players, but the team’s ownership might slough that off as the free agent market thins.
You can almost hear the press conference this summer or in the fall – “we just felt, as an organization, that we couldn’t replace what Carlos gives us even with the cap space amnestying him would have allowed.”
That’s the question, not the fourth quarter quibbles. Those things were decided upon long, long ago.
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