by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider

Since when is a former second-round pick, two-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist a bum after averaging 17.5 ppg and 9.6 rpg, while shooting 51 percent from the field? Apparently when he misses 23 regular-season games and his Playoff numbers sink to 12.6 ppg and 43 percent shooting (his boards actually went up slightly, to 9.7 per), after getting a five-year deal for almost $80 million.

That’s the polite way of expressing the general sentiment I heard around Chicago last spring. Even with the Bulls having their most successful campaign since the Jordan era—best record in the League, Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau, League MVP in Derrick Rose and an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals—fans in the Windy City couldn’t stop griping about Booz.

Jazz fans would probably say, “I told you so” (and before “The Decision,” Cavs supporters would have had a lot worse to say, but that’s neither here nor there) and I won’t argue against their reasoning. But the fact of the matter is Utah didn’t make the Playoffs (and even if you don’t think Boozer’s departure was a big reason, it wouldn’t be illogical to say it was a factor in Deron Williams leaving for Jersey), while the Bulls became an upper-echelon NBA team.

True, his D leaves a lot to be desired. At the same time, whether it was despite his presence on that end or not, Chicago was the League’s top defensive team. And yeah, he wasn’t always the dominant low-post force some people expected, but opponents had to least account for his presence, and he was probably the best inside scorer the City of Big Shoulders has seen since the days of recent HOF inductee Artis Gilmore. But none of that mattered.

Chicago is still the Midwest, a region where fans want their players to grind. None other than former Bulls greats like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman called the Alaska native out for his post-season disappearing act, even insinuating he should become an enforcer to counteract teams playing physical with Rose. I can’t truly defend the way he came up short when it counted, but as somebody who spent all season around the team—from his infamous training-camp injury through his failure to come through in the clutch against Indiana, Atlanta or Miami—perhaps I can offer some perspective.

I’m not from Chicago, I wasn’t a Bulls fan coming up (I actually preferred the Bad Boy Pistons and while I acknowledged Mike’s greatness, I was more of a Pip guy), I’m no apologist and unlike GM Gar Forman, Thibs or any of the players, I don’t have a vested interest in team harmony, although the Bulls’ amazing on and off the court chemistry certainly made my job easier, so please don’t call me biased.

‘Los will never be the most athletic cat in the NBA, but it was obvious that his late start affected his bounce, conditioning and rhythm. On top of that, both he and his teammates seemed to overcompensate for his early absence by forcing him the rock—Thibs designed it that way, in an effort to take pressure off Derrick—something that affected their intended transition style of play, being that he’s much more of a half-court guy. Also, he was paired up with Joakim Noah, a unique player who was used to being a facilitaor (as is Booz) and being able to roam from low post to high post, and with both of them being out of the lineup at different times, they never fully jelled, affecting the team’s spacing.

Then, you have the “backup quarterback syndrome,” in which Taj Gibson, coming off an All-Rookie Team debut season, starting (and doing it well) when Booz was out and often sparking the team off the bench, was the talk of the town and in the minds of most observers, should have usurped Booz’s spot. Now, I love Taj to death and I think he’s a hell of a player now and will continue to develop into an even better one (one of the Bulls assistant coaches compares him to a more athletic young PJ Brown, the ultimate role player and the type of dude who should have a long, successful pro career on teams that excel), but Booz brings some things to the table that Gibson doesn’t.

First, understand that Carlos and I both graduated high school in ’99 (as did another much-maligned Bull, Keith Bogans, my fellow DMV native) and being a hoops junkie from an early age, I knew about him early on and saw him play in the McDonald’s All-American Game and at Duke, where he battled my man Lonnie Baxter in the ACC. Booz has always been extremely polished, with comfortable range on his J and nifty post moves to go along with that big body.

Obviously, Jason Williams was the man in Durham and being regarded as “undersized” (something I don’t get; he’s certainly not extremely tall for his position, but it’s not like he’s Barkley’s height out there), he slipped in the Draft, leading to him having a chip on his shoulder. He put in work for Cleveland, bounced for Utah (we all know the blind-man handshake story by now) and continued to put in work, elevating his game to the point where he was considered a top player at his position and even got on with USA Basketball. That jumper has only become more consistent out to 20 feet; he’s effective as both a roll or pop guy as a screener; he’s physical; rebounds well enough (if not above average) for a 4; is a crafty finisher; an underrated passer; and somebody who can operate on the low block or high post.

Basically, talent isn’t the issue.

But there’s something about buddy that makes it rain down “boos” (he claims it’s all “Booz” to him, but he knows the difference) when things go the slightest bit wrong. Maybe it’s the fact that he screams like a maniac after the smallest play, how he feels the need to rub the ball between somebody else’s free throws like he has OCD or even that he’s polite enough, but doesn’t really open up to the media (and therefore, fans), although after some of the stuff that’s leaked out about his personal life, I can’t blame him on that front.

As a beat reporter, would I like him to share a little more, not just answer questions on his terms and take a little more personal responsibility when he’s in the wrong on the floor? Sure, but that’s being picky and honestly, he’s a lot better than most dudes around the League on other teams and since the Bulls as a whole are some of the most easygoing players you’ll come across (including Booz, who, at least on a surface level, got along fine with each and every one of his teammates, going out of his way to do so from the jump), I probably got a little spoiled.

At the same time, Booz was probably smart to be on the defensive after some of what he went through in Utah and likely expected the media in a city the size of Chicago to be just as rough, if not worse. I won’t speak for my peers, but we basically gave him the kid-glove treatment until the last month or so of the season, even as we observed his teammates either seemingly becoming more frustrated or defending him to the point of pleading for us to leave him be.

All that’s well and good, and perhaps with this extended break the NBA is on, he’ll have the chance to get completely healthy, hone his game and redeem himself next season, whenever that may be. Because if he doesn’t, his ranking in next year’s SLAMonline Top 50 is the last thing he’ll need to worry about.

But for now, just going by his numbers (regular season, that is) and track record (when healthy, of course), then assuming another year in Thibs’ system (if he plays D) and building chemistry with Derrick, Jo and the rest of the squad, I’m betting that his pride has him bouncing back strong, silencing the critics and reclaiming his status as one of the better power forwards in the game. I know that’s a lot of variables, but call it an educated guess. At the end of that contract, however…that’s another story, so let’s just stick with the present.

Aggrey Sam covers the Chicago Bulls for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.