In the absence of Derrick Rose, many wondered who would step up and replace him and specifically his leadership in the offense. Different players have stepped up in different ways, but of late, Carlos Boozer is becoming the leader on offense the Chicago Bulls so desperately need.
Boozer is far from perfect—even further from loved—but in many ways he's having his most impactful season with the Chicago Bulls yet.
That assessment is well backed up by the facts.
Boozer has had a shaky history in Chicago. He came here as the player who was "finally" going to be the low-post scorer the Bulls always needed. He was going to be a 20-point, 10-rebound player they'd long wanted to have, often drafted to get and consistently failed to find.
Almost immediately, Boozer disappointed Bulls fans. Engaged in the difficult task of walking without tripping, he dreadfully failed, lost a battle with a gym bag and tripped and broke his hand. As a result, he missed training camp and the first part of the season.
Once he did return, the Bulls started winning though. In games Boozer played, the Bulls were 47-12. In games he didn't play, they were only 15-10. Yet he received little in the way of accolades or appreciation from the fans.
That's not to say that there weren't valid reasons for Bulls fans to be perturbed. Boozer's defensive failures frequently led coach Tom Thibodeau to bench him in favor of the more defensively minded Taj Gibson. His opponent's Player Efficiency Rating (oPER) while he played the power forward position was 16.7 according to 82games.com.
When the postseason came, he was hampered by a turf toe, an injury many fans don't appreciate the impact of. The result was what mattered—a largely disappointing playoff run from the big man. He scored just 12.6 points per game on .433 shooting.
That offseason, one extended by the lockout, had many fans wondering about what to do with Boozer. As soon as it was revealed there would be an amnesty rule, he became the immediate fan favorite for the exercise of that clause.
The Bulls failed to buy him out though, pointing out that his per-minute numbers weren't all that different, that the Bulls had made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and that this season he'd be better.
The next season, with Rose frequently hurt, Boozer actually made it through the full season for the first time in his career. The opportunity was once again there for Boozer to step up and claim a leadership role. Once again, Boozer failed.
He actually got worse on defense. His oPER from the power forward spot fell to 17.3. As a result, Thibodeau grew even more impatient with his lack of defense and Gibson started to finish games. The Bulls still won, but it was regarded as being in spite of him more than because of him.
When the postseason came and Rose went down with an ACL tear, the assessment was that the Bulls could beat Philadelphia, but it would require a big contribution form Boozer. Instead Boozer averaged just 14 points on .434 shooting for the duration of the series. In the decisive game, Boozer made only one shot on 11 tries and scored only three points.
Fans were calling for his head, and his name became almost synonymous with amnesty.
Bulls management had other ideas. First, the Bulls could amnesty Boozer, but they would still have to pay him $46.3 million, minus whatever some team picked him up. That's a lot of money to pay someone to essentially play for someone else.
Furthermore, there was no way that it would have really enabled the Bulls to find a player that could replace his production, even if it wasn't what they wanted. He might have been a $15 million player playing like $10 million player, but they weren't going to find a $5 million player to replace him.
Beyond that, there was the complication of needing to find a point guard to temporarily fill in for Rose. In essence, management's hands were tied. So they kept him. They got rid of a lot of other players, most of the "Bench Mob," a group of bench players who had been heavy contributors to the Bulls' success, but they kept Boozer.
Many thought the Bulls could still compete for the postseason, but it would require a big contribution from Boozer. Through the Bulls first 27 games, that was not the case. In fact, Boozer was off to his worst season yet as a Bull. He averaged 13.7 points per game on .469 shooting.
Then, Boozer scored just three points and grabbed only three rebounds in a Christmas Day game against the Rockets. It was arguably his worst game as a Bull. Boozer had reached a Bulls low.
Behind that lack of offense, there was a bit of a beacon of hope, though. For the first time, his defense was not lousy. Granted, it wasn't great; in fact, it wasn't even good. It had elevated to the standard of average, though. His oPER from the power forward position has fallen to 14.1.
His Synergy numbers are shocking respectable at only .76 points per play, ranked 42nd in the NBA. Yes, that's in large part because of the system and help from potential Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah, but it establishes that defense can work with Boozer there.
During the next game against the Wizards, there came a point where he dunked, something which had become an unusual site for a player who used to dunk frequently.
Noah stepped to him, shook him and yelled something. It was as though Noah was saying, "That's what we need form you! Give us more of that!"
Suddenly, Boozer ignited after two-and-a-half years of mediocrity, he suddenly exploded. He went on to score 15 points and grab 12 rebounds, starting the first of a six-game streak, his longest as a Bull.
Starting from that game, Boozer has been on a roll. He has had a double-double in seven of eight games, and he's averaged 21.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. He's been shooting .508 over that span. He's also made some key defensive plays, such as the steal in the final minute against Miami which helped to secure the game.
For the first time in his Bulls career, Boozer has started to become a reliable offensive player. He's become what we'll conservatively call a "non-destructive" presence on defense. More than anything, he's becoming the leader on offense that the Bulls need him to be.
It's not just the fact that he's producing. It's the manner in which he's producing. Boozer has often attempted to lead with his voice, but the production and the body language haven't been there to reinforce what he's saying. So he has just sounded like someone who is trying to sound like a leader.
During this run, he's been aggressive. He's been looking to shoot the ball, to take it to the rim and to embrace contact. During the first 27 games, he averaged 2.6 free-throw attempts. During the last eight, he's averaged 6.5.
His physicality has been a welcome sight. He's leading by example, not by words. It's as though whatever Noah yelled at him caused some tumbler to click into place and unlock the inner beast from Boozer. That's made him a genuine leader, not a "wannabe."
There are still times, such as in the first half of the Phoenix game on Jan. 12, where he disappears and doesn't demand the ball. He falls back into those old habits for spells, but overall, he's beginning to look like that player the Bulls were hoping he'd be. Passive Boozer is becoming the exception, not the rule.
When Rose returns—and he will return this year—Boozer can be a reliable second option and help take some of the pressure off of Rose. Moreover the attitude bodes well for a the postseason.
For once, even if Boozer is ebbing against the weaker opponents, he's rising against the best. If Boozer can unleash his inner beast during the postseason, the Bulls will be a threat to the Heat in the postseason.