Last summer, Chicago Bulls centre-forward Joakim Noah donned his recruiter hat and set about wooing free agent Carlos Boozer. The two men, both just shy of seven feet, folded themselves into a table on a sunny terrace at the Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and took in the views of Lake Michigan and the Wrigley Clock Tower. Boozer, looking for a place to land after five NBA seasons with the Utah Jazz, ordered sea bass. "We had fun," Boozer said.
Noah's second attempt to lure another of the NBA's best power forwards didn't go as smoothly, however. Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh and his girlfriend also received the Trump treatment. And while Bosh may have been more coveted by the Bulls' management, by the time the plates had been cleared, Noah said he knew he'd prefer to have Boozer join him in the low post.
"The difference between Chris and him, was Chris was kind of checking out what the other guys were going to do," Noah said Wednesday morning, before the Bulls played the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre Wednesday night. "Carlos was just ready to start right away. He really wanted to be here in Chicago. I liked that."
By now, everyone knows how the summer concluded. Boozer agreed to a five-year, $75-million (all currency U.S.) contract with the Bulls, while Bosh joined his buddies, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, in Miami to create an instant powerhouse and one of the most talked-about off-season manoeuvres in NBA history. (The Bulls went after all three stars, but came up empty.)
With Boozer, the Bulls seem poised to make their best run in years after back-to-back first-round playoff eliminations. They boast a point guard in Derrick Rose who followed up a rookie-of-the-year season by making his first all-star team last year and winning a world championship with the U.S. team. The Bulls have an outstanding inside duo with Noah and Boozer, both top rebounders, and new head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation as a defensive-minded wizard.
Even Toronto Raptor Jarrett Jack says the Bulls have emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
"I think they definitely fielded the one boy they've always needed for a number of years," Jack said of Boozer. "The one thing they always said they needed was a low-post scorer. Someone they could throw the ball to and get those easy baskets or easy looks."
The Bulls, for all their changes, still have a difficult climb. They face the same problem as the Raptors: an Eastern Conference crowded with powerful teams. Thibodeau said he's not counting anyone in the Eastern Conference out, including Toronto.
"The Eastern Conference is a lot stronger," he said. "When you look at the top, you see Boston and Miami, of course, and Orlando's playing terrific. Then when you think about Amar'e Stoudemire going to the Knicks, Philly's better, and I think of teams like Toronto - I like their depth, I think their second unit is terrific, there's no dropoff, they play hard. And I think Cleveland's going to be hard. You're making a mistake if you're overlooking Cleveland."
Too many injuries have meant that the Bulls - 2-4 in the preseason before Wednesday's game - also haven't had a chance to generate a flow. In an unfortunate twist, Boozer broke his right hand this month. The red cast he sported at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday won't come off for another month or so. Sitting out on Wednesday were Joakim (the flu) and Kyle Korver (sore ankle). Forward Taj Gibson has also missed a couple of games with a sore heel.
Noah, the charismatic son of a former Miss Universe second runner-up and an American tennis star, was clearly feeling under the weather on Wednesday morning. He spoke softly, slouching in his seat, a red tuque squashed over his trademark long hair. But he perked up when asked how he's feeling about the season, which kicks off next week.
"I'm really excited," he said. "When [Boozer]comes back, it's going to get ugly."