Does Taj Gibson's Breakout Make Carlos Boozer Expendable for Chicago Bulls?

D.J. Foster@@fosterdjContributor IMarch 19, 2014

MIAMI, FL - MAY 22:  (L-R) Taj Gibson #22 and Carlos Boozer #5 of the Chicago Bulls look on against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 22, 2011 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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The time for appeasing Carlos Boozer has finally come to pass. For years in Chicago, Boozer's massive contract kept him at a certain status. He would get every opportunity, both with playing time and touches, because the Bulls couldn't afford to have it not work out. They had to give it their best effort.

But now that Boozer is heading into the last year of his contract, he's no longer as protected. The risk of angering Boozer is no longer as great as it once was.

Boozer's backup, Taj Gibson, has a lot to do with that, of course. Gibson has always been a better defensive player and more consistent, and now that merit and production matter most again, it's fitting that Gibson is taking the chunk of critical minutes.

In fact, it's Gibson who leads all Bulls players in fourth-quarter minutes played per game this season. Boozer, meanwhile, rarely sees the floor with the game on the line.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau can play the better player now, and the Bulls have reaped the rewards of that lately. Gibson and Joakim Noah have teamed to keep the Bulls defense formidable, even with the loss of Luol Deng.

Although Boozer is still a productive player, which is why the Bulls haven't paid him to come off the books entirely yet, there's virtually nothing he can do that Gibson can't. Gibson is more athletic, more efficient, he's a better individual and team defender, he draws more fouls, he blocks more shots and he scores at a better rate. He's four years younger, half the cost and has the better PER this season.

Plain and simple, he's a better player.

Still, it's not Gibson alone that makes Boozer expendable. It's Boozer's contract, and the possibilities that the cap hold occupies. Here's Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times with more on that front:

According to several sources, Boozer’s recent moodiness, at least with the media, is a result of feeling underappreciated by the organization. He feels like he’s being 'pushed out’ after this season.

Boozer’s exit this summer might or might not happen, but either way, the organization hasn’t come to a conclusion and won’t until several key situations are resolved.

First, there’s a free-agent class that could include Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chris Bosh if they opt out of their deals. Then there’s the drama with Nikola Mirotic and whether the team can pry him away from Real Madrid this summer.

The Bulls aren’t going to invoke the amnesty clause with Boozer — he’s owed $16.8 million for the 2014-15 season — just to do it. Not when he’s still a productive player. And besides that, carrying an expiring contract into a season with trade possibilities is never a bad idea.

The Bulls are smart not to pay Boozer the $16.8 million he's owed just to go away and come off the books. There has to be a plan in place first before the amnesty clause is used.

Of course, you could see why that whole situation would make Boozer a little uneasy. If the Bulls have already signaled that Gibson is a better option internally, you would think finding a superior option externally with all that cap space wouldn't be too difficult.

Boozer has been given a few assurances, though. Before the trade deadline, here's what he told TNT's Craig Sager, as transcribed by Blog a Bull’s BullsBlogger, with the help of reader Kyle McMahon:

(...)And after Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland earlier this year, Boozer began to wonder about his own future with the team.  He told me tonight that he has been assured that he will not be traded by next week's deadline, nor will the team buy out the final year of his contract this summer unless they can land a superstar which is too good to pass up.

The Bulls carried out their word by not dealing Boozer, but a "superstar too good to pass up" is relatively vague. Is Mirotic that superstar? Is Carmelo Anthony? Is a superstar anyone better than Boozer?

Again though, Chicago won't act before it has to. Without an assurance from said superstar, it would be silly not to. Here's what Bulls general manager Gar Forman told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times about Boozer and the amnesty provision:

"People can say or think what they want, but that decision absolutely hasn’t been made,’" Forman said in a phone interview from a scouting trip.

"We make decisions when we have to make decisions.’"

For Boozer, the chance to justify the size of his contract is all but over. Gibson is the more dependable, trustworthy player at this point, and he'll continue to get the large majority of opportunities to prove that. According to Basketball-Reference, this season the Bulls are 5.6 points better per 100 possessions when Boozer is on the bench.

When your team is better off without you for long stretches of time, there's a good chance you're expendable.

Boozer's contract could still end up protecting him and keeping him in Chicago, but it should no longer grant him a seat at the starting table. He's a good player who can still provide some scoring punch on the block, but he's worth half of what he makes and his career is on the decline. 

The Bulls have already upgraded successfully once from Boozer in Gibson. Here's guessing they won't have a hard time doing it again this offseason.