Cutting Carlos Boozer A Break

Here’s something I bet you don’t know, can’t remember, or ever cared to learn about Carlos Boozer. He’s a second round draft pick. That’s right. The two-time All-Star was selected by Cleveland with the 34th overall pick in 2002, entering the league from Duke without a guaranteed roster spot.

He was an underdog.

Why is this worth mentioning? Well, as you’re probably more than aware, Boozer has spent the majority of his career as a slowly-balding, lowly-respected punch line, first tagged with the "overrated" label while running a poorer man’s pick-and-role with a then boundless Deron Williams in Utah.

His splintered public portrayal dates back to a shady contract-related dilly dally that can basically be summed up like this: After his second professional season, Boozer agreed to sign a six-year, $39 million deal with Cleveland once they released him from the final year of his rookie deal. After he was granted his release, Boozer then negotiated a six-year, $70 million deal with Utah behind Cleveland's back. Cleveland chose not to match, Boozer went to the Jazz, and his image was devastatingly altered. (It turns out being greedy isn't so cool after all.)

He boasts what has to be, without a doubt, the most embarrassing method of celebration in NBA history, a primal scream most often heard during big leads and meaningless possessions.

Defending pick-and-rolls he’s too slow-footed to corral ball-handlers (you could drive a Volvo in between the space Boozer leaves opponents coming off a screen), and once the ball is moved, he’s regularly too disoriented to focus on his man, and consistently recover back to the correct position. It’s just who he is: a crappy defender.

Here’s a glaring example.

Boozer is 31 years old, owed $15.3 million next year, and $16.8 million the year after. The money screams "franchise star!" but those expectations have long ago been tempered. Too emphatically, perhaps. Every player has flaws, but Boozer’s have more or less become his identity.

However, for those who’ve been paying attention to his play this season, the whole celebratory shtick/exorbitant contract has quietly, and officially, become a secondary story. Carlos Boozer is producing at a borderline All-Star level.

On January 4 in Miami, Boozer scored 27 points (on a season-best 70% shooting!) and grabbed 12 rebounds (six offensive!) in a season-high 42 minutes. Two days prior, in Orlando, he scored 31 points on 22 shots in 40 minutes to go along with 11 rebounds. Both were wins.

On December 11 against the Clippers, Boozer outplayed Blake Griffin in a narrow Bulls loss, scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. (Boozer shot 55% from the floor in this game, and in the nine other games where he’s bested that accuracy, Chicago has won.)

He’s had 17 double-doubles in 32 games (compared to Griffin’s 13 in 35), and, for the most part, he’s stepped into a primary scoring role and looked surprisingly comfortable.

Boozer is averaging 18 points and 11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s shooting 48% from the floor, which is a career low—but with a usage percentage of 25.2% and no Derrick Rose to draw the focus of opposing defenses, that number actually isn’t so bad.

He knocked down 45% of all shots from 16-23 feet last year, on just under five attempts per game, which isn’t bad. (That number’s on par with Richard Hamilton’s output this season, and better than Luol Deng). And this year he’s finishing at the rim with his highest efficiency since 2007.

If his name wasn’t "Carlos Boozer," teams would probably line up around the block to have him, which they’d certainly end up doing if the Bulls ever choose to amnesty his contract. His on/off numbers aren’t great, but most of that can be attributed to his backup, Taj Gibson, coming in and slaughtering opposing second units. He plays hard, as you can see.

He’s a great (seriously, pretty great) passer for his position, and he understands how to move off the ball in the paint. Boozer's ability to finish in the pick-and-roll is proving to be a major piece in keeping Chicago’s pedestrian offense afloat, and lately, he’s playing with an aggressiveness that frankly was lacking since he joined the Bulls.

As was already mentioned, Boozer's performance against Miami last week was monstrous. Sure, they have a weak front line, but look how fearless he is with the ball against their pressure defense. Instead of settling for a mid-range jumper, the 6’9" Boozer knifes his way to the rim (and through LeBron James) and converts the and-one opportunity.

Is he overrated? Right now that’s an awfully harsh statement to make. Over the past two months he’s played better (offensively) than Paul Millsap, David West, and Pau Gasol—all guys who off the top of your head you’d think were superior. This season, as the Bulls stay relevant through a massive roster renovation that includes the absence of their franchise's most important player since Michael Jordan, Boozer has been a reliable constant. And his play right now is exceeding expectations.

Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN's TrueHoop Network and Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelVPina.

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