By Dan Bernstein--
After sitting out the entire fourth quarter last night and watching his teammates lose in New Jersey, Carlos Boozer told reporters "It was a coaching decision."
Tom Thibodeau tried to explain the benching as a result of the Nets' zone defense and the success of the lineup against it that used Luol Deng as a big, but that rings hollow to anyone who watched the game.
Boozer got torched in half-court sets by weakside baseline cuts and duck-ins by both Kris Humphries and rookie Derrick Favors. He was slow to show hard in screen-roll, and slow to recover to his man. He was outraced down the floor for a week's worth of alley-oop finishes.
Thibodeau has unwavering expectations for effort on defense, and this is going to be an issue.
"If Boozer is going to get to be a better player in this league, he's got to step up to those challenges, and accept them, to be able to hold his own. That's how he's got to grow. I think he's better than he was maybe a month-and-a-half ago in those situations, but he's got to accept those challenges and say 'Hey, you're not going to score on me,' because he's got the body and quickness. He shows quickness with his offense – and it has to be there defensively."
That was Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, in the Salt Lake City Deseret News. From an article on January 10, 2005.
"Boozer's got to work more on his defense. He can't step out on the floor and expect to get 19, 20 points a game, and his man's getting 22 or 23. I told him he's got to do a better job defensively. And he can do a better job. That's the great thing about it. He can do a better job. But he's got to make a commitment to defending. Otherwise, I don't think we can win with that."
That was Sloan in the same newspaper, on October 15, 2006.
Boozer is 29, now, and is probably exactly the player he is going to be. Whether or not the occasional benching reminds him to try harder at this stage of his career is unknown, as is the degree to which his current coach will tolerate the weak aspect of his game to reap the benefits of his scoring and rebounding.
Thibodeau has arrived at his first major challenge as an NBA head coach, and is handling it curiously at the outset by choosing not to be fully honest about why he sat Boozer down. Why hide behind the smaller-lineup reasoning when the opportunity is there to be clear about your standards for defense?
Try your best to stay with your man and adhere to our defensive principles or you don't play, regardless of how much we paid for you. That's the message to a developing team with title aspirations. Thibodeau may not feel comfortable escalating the conflict with words echoing those of the flinty, plain-spoken Sloan, but you can bet he's thinking it.
Joakim Noah' s eventual return will help. So perhaps that's part of the calculation, since another defender at the rim can backstop softness elsewhere on the floor. Boozer's lapses may be both less obvious and less detrimental then, and we have not seen the two of them as the starting 5-4 combo enough to be fully aware of how it's going to work.
A disgruntled, expensive veteran, a rookie head coach, and an MVP-candidate point guard on a first-place team.
The Bulls' season just started.
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