- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One week we’re talking about alcohol being banned from baseball clubhouses, the next we’re talking about Carlos Boozer. Don’t you just love sports?

Well, I’m talking about Carlos Boozer, anyway. As I watched him take over the Utah-Golden State game the other night, leading the Jazz to a 115-101 victory and 3-1 series advantage, I couldn’t help thinking: What if? As in: What if Boozer had remained in Cleveland three years ago rather than jumping at Utah’s gigantic offer (six years, $68 million)? Would the NBA not be happier place?

Most assuredly. Boozer, the best player on a 51-win team that’s now 48 minutes from the Western Conference finals, is exactly what the Cavaliers need to seriously contend for the title. Or rather, he’s exactly what LeBron James needs to seriously contend for the title. And as we all know, LeBron’s presence in the championship round would do wonders for the league’s TV ratings — especially with so many heavily marketed stars (Kobe, Shaq, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady et al.) already on the golf course.

Nobody in these playoffs has “flashed” quite like Boozer. After all, he missed almost half of the past two seasons because of injuries and wasn’t selected to an All-Star Game until this, his fifth year in the league (and first as a 20-10 man.) But when a talent like him actually raises his level of play in the postseason — when so many others, such as MVP Nowitzki, go the other way — it’s hard not to notice.

Boozer first made us notice him in Game 2 against Houston, when he had 41 points, 12 boards and six assists in a losing effort. He really made us notice him, though, with his Game 7 performance, a 35-14-5 tour de force that not only lifted Utah into the second round but also gave it a very advantageous matchup with lower-seeded Golden State.

The Warriors series has been more of the same. Don Nelson’s greyhounds have no answer, save assault and battery, for Boozer’s biceps-flexing around the basket. And to think the Cavaliers used to have Carlos in their employ — before he slipped away, Gilbert Arenas-like, after just two seasons.

That has to be killing David Stern, whose hype machine has gone to great lengths to promote LeBron. Basically, Boozer’s departure from Cleveland was A Big Mistake — the result of a loophole in the CBA that made it harder, cap-wise, for teams to hang on to second-round picks than first-rounders.

Arenas exploited that situation to strike a sweet a $65 million deal with the Wizards, a contract Golden State couldn’t match. The particulars of Boozer’s leaving were a little different — and a lot more acrimonious — but the root cause was the same: That dumb distinction in the labor agreement, since eliminated, between No. 1 and No. 2 picks.

Watching the 6-foot-9 Boozer throw his 266 pounds around now, it’s hard to believe he lasted until the 35th selection in 2002. (The Wizards could have had him with either of their first-round choices but opted for Jared Jeffries at 11 and local favorite Juan Dixon at 17.)

But then, that’s kind of the story of Boozer’s life. In Duke’s loaded program, he was never thought of The Man, merely as another solid, sound Mike Krzyzewski player. Indeed, in that ‘02 draft, NBA clubs were much more enamored of Boozer’s teammates, Jay Williams (second overall pick) and Mike Dunleavy (third), than they were of him.

But Williams went for an ill-fated motorcycle ride, and Dunleavy, not Boozer, has turned out to be the Product of the Duke System. In fact, when all the results are in, Boozer might have the best pro career of anybody on the Blue Devils’ 2001 NCAA championship team (Shane Battier and Chris Duhon being the other notables).

He’d certainly be a good fit for the Cavaliers, who are currently getting by with gangly Drew Gooden (11.1 points/8.5 rebounds a game this season) at the power forward spot. The combination of King James and Boozer the Bruiser might be enough to push the Cavaliers past the Nets and Pistons and give them at least a shot in the NBA Finals. My money would definitely be on them.

But it’s doubtful Boozer regrets his decision to head for the mountains. He was always the third or fourth wheel at Duke, remember, and with Cleveland he never would have been more than LeBron’s Sidekick, his Scottie Pippen; in Utah, though, people can see him for what he is: a basketball player in full.

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