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After messy move, Boozer turns it on

On the NBA
by: Melissa Majchrzak, Power forward Carlos Boozer has been making points for the Utah Jazz since a deal to keep him in Cleveland went south.

Carlos Boozer arrives in the Rose Garden on Saturday night as one of the most dynamic players - and perhaps the premier power forward - in the NBA.

The Utah Jazz standout ranks among the league's top 10 in scoring (eighth, 24.1), rebounds (sixth, 11.5), double-doubles (second, 24) and field-goal percentage (eighth, .559) and is expected to be a member of the U.S. team that will go for the gold at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Imagine, then, the impact Boozer could have had in Cleveland if he had stayed with the Cavaliers instead of signing a six-year, $68 million contract with the Jazz after the 2003-04 season.

The Cavs might have had enough firepower to beat San Antonio and win the NBA championship last season. And Jim Paxson still might be their general manager.

But Paxson - the former All-Star guard with the Trail Blazers who's now a scout with Chicago - was fired after the 2004-05 season by new ownership, which blamed him for allowing Boozer to walk from restricted free agency.

A second-round pick by Cleveland after a solid but unspectacular career at Duke, the 6-9, 265-pound Boozer was an immediate hit with the Cavs, earning second-team all-rookie honors, then averaging 15.5 points and 10.7 boards as a second-year player.

After that season, Cleveland had the option of allowing Boozer to become a restricted free agent or keeping him for one more year at $695,000. The Cavaliers say they reached an understanding with Boozer and agent Rob Pelinka to allow the player to opt out, after which he would sign a six-year, $39 million pact with them.

But after Cleveland eliminated the final year of the deal, making Boozer a restricted free agent, he signed an offer sheet with Utah. The Cavs had the option to match but were over the salary cap so they could match only to the midlevel exception, and Boozer signed a much more lucrative contract with the Jazz.

'Boozergate' is in the past

All hell broke loose in Cleveland, with critics calling for Paxson's head. The Cleveland camp claimed that owner Gordon Gund and Pelinka had made the agreement, and that the agent and his client had reneged on the deal. Boozer disputes that account, still smarting from the notion that he double-crossed his old team.

'Of course it hurt,' he says. 'I'm a good guy. I care. It was tough, especially when they talk bad about you in the papers and lie about things and try to portray you in a certain way. But after that, you have to be a man, stick your chest out and go play ball.'

A year later, Paxson was let go by a group that purchased a majority share of the Cavs from Lund. There may have been other reasons, but 'Boozergate' - as it was called in Cleveland - contributed heavily to Paxson's demise.'

'I was not around when the organization got bamboozled,' majority owner Dan Gilbert said, even before he gave the GM his walking papers.

Today, Paxson chooses to take the high road over the incident that basically lost him his job.

'The people who were a part of it - Gordon and myself, Carlos and his agent - we know what really happened,' says Paxson, who lives in Portland. 'I'm comfortable in knowing that. I've moved on from there.'

Shortly after Boozer left Cleveland, Paxson engineered a deal that reaped Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao from Orlando in exchange for Tony Battie. Gooden and Varejao were key components of the Cleveland team that reached the NBA finals last season.

'I'm proud of that, and that we identified Carlos as a player with a lot of potential,' Paxson says. 'He's a much better pro than even we thought when we drafted him. He's very gifted.

'While what happened is not something I look back on and think of as a great part of my career, I know we made a good pick with Carlos.'

An 'instant double-double'

Boozer had a rough start with Utah. After leading the Jazz in scoring (17.9) through 51 games, he missed the rest of the 2004-05 season with a foot injury. That drew criticism from owner Larry Miller, who questioned Boozer's heart in a newspaper interview.

When Boozer missed the first 49 games of the next season with a hamstring injury, Miller was questioning the wisdom of the player's signing. Since then, Boozer has been healthy, robust and one of the game's most effective interior threats, and Miller has apologized publicly.

Utah coach Jerry Sloan says any insinuation that Boozer is a slacker 'is very unfair. Ever since he has been here, Carlos has worked his butt off and been in terrific shape. He got hurt, and there's nothing you can do about that. A lot of people said, 'He's making big money; the guy should be playing.' I've never questioned that about him. He was hurt, or he'd have played.'

The past two years, Boozer, 26, has played up a storm. Now, he and point guard Deron Williams are regarded as one of the better tandems in the NBA.

'My rookie year, Booz was injured and we didn't get a chance to play together,' Williams says. 'But once he got back, we started clicking. You know he's going to bring it every night. He's an instant double-double, 25 and 12. No secret about it, he's the guy I look for. I know his tendencies, where he likes the ball, and he finishes for me.'

Portland coach Nate McMillan, an assistant on the U.S. team staff, appreciates Boozer's old-style approach to the power forward position.

'He's old-fashioned, not like the new power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki, who play mostly on the outside,' McMillan says. 'He's the traditional power forward who plays with his back to the basket, but he has a great all-around game. He can score, shoot, pass and rebound. We feel he'll be a big part of our Olympic team.'

Could Boozer and Williams be the next Karl Malone/John Stockton combo in Salt Lake City? Premature, all parties agree.

'John and Karl played 18 years together,' Sloan says. '(Boozer and Williams) have to be recognized as who they are, not somebody else.'

'I'm getting tired of the talk about (Malone and Stockton),' Boozer says. 'I have so much respect for those guys, the incredible work they put in for so long. We're just getting started. Maybe we can have that discussion 10 or 15 years from now.'

'We still have a long way to go before we're compared to those guys,' Williams says. 'There's no comparison.'

Not yet, anyway.