Wednesday March 24th, 2010

Carlos Boozer chooses to hold some grudges, and others he lets go. He still remembers being stranded until the second round of the draft eight years ago.

"It was the first year that we had a lot of European guys," said Boozer, who at 6-foot-8 was deemed too short to excel at power forward. "It was like a popular girl in high school and everybody wanted to date her -- everybody wanted to get a European player. My [draft class had] 16 guys picked from Europe who aren't even in the NBA anymore."

Boozer has inflated his outrage over the years: By my count, 14 players from outside the U.S. scholastic system were taken in 2002, including nine who are no longer in the league. On the night of his draft, Boozer watched eight foreigners go ahead of him before Cleveland took him with the 34th pick. First-rounders like Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar and Jiri Welsch have since returned to play in Europe.

The important thing is that Boozer was keeping track. "I did for a while, I'll tell you that," he said. "I was an already highly motivated guy, and it made me have to prove myself to the NBA -- whether it be other teams, my own team, to my own GM at the time. It still fuels me today; I have a chip on my shoulder about it. I play like I have something to prove.

"I don't look at it as a negative thing. At the time it was tough, but I look at it as something that motivates me. So if you take that kind of criticism in the right way, you can overcome stuff."

On Monday, the referees offered a different kind of criticism, responding to Boozer's first-half play against the visiting Celtics by whistling him for three fouls that limited him to a single point in less than nine minutes. "I couldn't wait to get back on the court," said Boozer, who finished Utah's 110-97 win with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds and two blocks. He made the clinching defensive play midway through the fourth quarter when he switched out to block Ray Allen's three-pointer and dunked at the other end.

Boozer has made a lucrative career of recovering, with an Olympic gold medal and an All-Star appearance to show for it. Even when he signed a six-year, $70 million contract with the Jazz in 2004, he was ripped badly -- with me helping lead the way -- for leaving Cleveland after the Cavaliers had set him free a year early in order to sign him to a long-term deal. The Cavs were restricted from matching Utah's offer, and so it appeared to many -- including those with first-hand insight -- that Boozer had won his freedom by falsely indicating he would return to Cleveland.

The interesting thing here is that Boozer has never responded harshly to the criticism. "I let it go because I knew I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "I know what happened. I knew what they tried to do at that point in time -- they tried to paint me as a guy who shook somebody's hand and did the other thing. And that wasn't what I did.

"It's one thing when you do something wrong, you feel guilty about it. I have no guilt because I didn't do anything wrong. So I just go on about my business, go on to my new franchise and try to make a name for myself while helping make my team a playoff contender. And that's what I try to do."

Yet, the Jazz, too, have been intermittently frustrated with Boozer, who has missed 137 games over six years.

"When you make a lot of money, people expect you to play when you're hurt," said Utah coach Jerry Sloan. "I've never asked a player to play when he's hurt. He's always worked hard. He just got into a situation where he's gotten hurt. But I can't listen to what other people think and that sort of thing. I have to coach these guys and hope they're happy so they can play well."

Last season, when he missed 45 games because of knee problems, Boozer told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan that he planned to opt out last summer. He decided otherwise, and Boozer acknowledges that doubts about his future contributed to Utah's poor 19-17 start this season. "All this talk about whether I was going to be here or not be here, it was a distraction for us," said Boozer. "I played inconsistently, our guys played inconsistently."

Boozer is averaging his typical 19.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, earning praise from Sloan as Utah's most consistent player, with general manager Kevin O'Connor lauding Boozer as "terrific" on and off the court this season. That's why the Jazz surprisingly informed Boozer's agent, Rob Pelinka, that they are very interested in retaining Boozer when his contract expires once and for all this summer, which will undoubtedly lead to speculation that Utah will then seek to move backup power forward Paul Millsap, whose four-year, $32 million offer sheet was matched by Utah last offseason. The Jazz likely can't afford to pay both of them, as they're already committed to more than $56 million in salaries next season without Boozer on the payroll.

But the future looks strong in Utah, where the Jazz have maintained the league's fifth-youngest roster while building around Deron Williams (25 years old), Boozer (28), center Mehmet Okur (their oldest player at 30) and Andrei Kirilenko (a 29-year-old who becomes a free agent in 2011). They own the unprotected rights to New York's lottery pick, currently projected to be No. 9 or 10 overall, as well as their own No. 25 pick.

Even so, the Jazz have been playing since January like a team on a deadline, knowing this may be their last chance to contend as a group before Boozer is set free. "I think every team feels that," said Boozer. "You never know what a team is going to do in the summer. We have a lot of financial stuff being in a small market. We have a lot of guys who make a lot of money because they're really good players. So they have a financial situation they have to deal with.

"It might be the last go-round -- we're not sure. I'm not sure. I don't know if anybody on the team is sure. But at the same time, why wouldn't you want to play with that sense of urgency every year?"

Boozer's Jazz are No. 4 in the conference, and with three weeks to go, they're squeezed one game behind Denver and Dallas (tied for No. 2) and one game ahead of No. 5 Phoenix. Home-court advantage means everything in the West, and working in Utah's favor is a remaining March schedule of five games against losing teams. Nothing can help an impending free agent more than a deep playoff run.

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