CHICAGO -- Dwyane Wade knows what it's like to carry a team and be the offensive focal point each night. He knows his Chicago Bulls team comes into Thursday's matchup against the San Antonio Spurs having lost three straight games and six of their past nine.
But when asked if the team is relying too much on Jimmy Butler right now, the 14-year veteran's answer is grounded in his own past reality.
"No," Wade said after watching Butler play 43 minutes in a loss to the Detroit Pistons on Monday night. "He's doing a great job, man. He's shooting a high percentage from the field. He's shooting a [large] amount of free throws. He's our go-to guy. I think what we got to do a better job of is when he's not on the floor of figuring that out. But he's doing a great job. I got no problems with [his] higher volume at all."
Wade is right about the numbers. At 47.2 percent from the field, Butler is shooting at a higher clip than he has at any other point in his career. He's averaging 9.9 free throws a game, which is almost three more per night than at any other point in his career. He has been dominant throughout much of the first quarter of the season and is the single biggest reason why the Bulls have 11 wins. But since a Nov. 19 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the numbers also show that Butler is wearing down in the fourth quarter more than he has in recent memory. After shooting 46 percent in the fourth quarter of games leading up to Nov. 19, Butler comes into Thursday night's contest shooting 29 percent from the field in the fourth quarter since then, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.
From a minutes perspective, Butler is averaging 36.2 a night, which is eighth most in the league. But that's actually fewer than the 36.9 minutes he averaged in the 2015-16 season and the 38.7 minutes he averaged in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Here's the difference: Butler is being asked to do more than ever. Without Derrick Rose on the floor, Butler is taking almost a shot and a half more per game this season (16.9) than he did a year ago (15.4). He has risen to the challenge: 26 points, 6.6 rebounds (both career highs) and 4.1 assists a game.
But since Nov. 19, Butler is shooting 47 percent in the first and second quarters and 63 percent in the third quarter, but then there's a precipitous drop to 29 percent (12-for-41) in the final 12 minutes.
Aside from Wade, who is averaging 19.8 points a game, and the consistency of Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez, Butler just isn't getting enough help on a nightly basis. Specifically, the Bulls' bench has been awful. As a group, the Bulls' bench ranks last in the league in field goal percentage (39.3) and 29th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (29.5). They are 27th in the league in points per game with 28.3, 23rd in the league with 15.0 rebounds a game, 22nd in the league with 2.43 steals and 26th in the league with 1.43 blocks a game. By any measure, the Bulls' bench has been bad. It's made up primarily of Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Isaiah Canaan, Cris Felicio, Doug McDermott, Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine.
Both Butler and head coach Fred Hoiberg have had chances in recent weeks to criticize the bench, but both remain outwardly confident that the group will turn things around, even if the numbers don't suggest that.
"So what if they're in a slump?" Butler said. "I'm pretty sure some time soon, the starters are going to be in a slump. But I guarantee they're going to shoot their way out of it because we need them to do so. We need them to stay aggressive and play the game."
With that in mind, the Bulls are hopeful McDermott will return Thursday after missing the past 11 games because of a concussion. The hope within the organization is McDermott will be able to stretch the floor and boost the lack of 3-point production. The Bulls are also hoping to get Michael Carter-Williams back from a left wrist injury at some point, but Hoiberg admitted before Monday's loss that Carter-Williams was still "a ways away" from returning. Both Hoiberg and Bulls general manager Gar Forman are clinging to the belief that McDermott and Carter-Williams will stabilize what has been this team's weakest link up to this point.
But the reserves' talent level hasn't improved during another season in Hoiberg's system. Mirotic and Portis, both first-round picks, have regressed badly. McDermott, another first-round pick, has shot the ball better (51.4 percent from the field compared to 45.2 percent last season), but he's still a poor defender. Canaan is shooting a career-low 28 percent from three-point range. Grant filled in nicely for Rajon Rondo in a Nov. 15 win over the Portland Trail Blazers but is 9-for-33 in his nine games since then. Valentine, the Bulls' first-round pick last summer, is shooting 27.7 percent from the field this season. Felicio hasn't played many minutes, but he had a nice showing Monday with four points, six rebounds and a block in 15 minutes. Carter-Williams, acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks for underachieving first-round pick Tony Snell, should provide a defensive boost for the bench whenever he returns. But Hoiberg is the first to acknowledge that the reserves' biggest problem is scoring, not a strength of Carter-Williams' game. He is a career 25.6 percent 3-point shooter.
Hoiberg has lamented a lack of practice time for his younger players to get better. The coach has been sending a few players, such as Grant and Felicio, to the team's D-League affiliate to get more playing time when possible. But if Hoiberg thought he could win with the group, they would be on the floor in more NBA games. At the completion of Wednesday's games, the "Bulls' bench has played 1,794 minutes this season, which is the fifth fewest in the league both in terms of total minutes and minutes per game," according to ESPN Stats and Info research.
Hoiberg has tried to shuffle around players and mix more reserves with veterans such as Wade and Butler, but to no avail. The Bulls don't function well without Butler on the floor, and they can't afford to go long stretches with too many backups on the court. Even though Hoiberg and Forman want to believe their second unit is better than what the numbers suggest, their players have not lived up to expectations. While there's still time for each of these players to turn things around in their young careers, the flaws in each player's respective games become more pronounced as the season continues.
"What we have is what we have," Wade said. "We got enough to win ballgames. We've won 11. We have enough to win, we just get to where we're playing more consistent. That's the toughest part when you've got a new team kind of coming together, when you depend on young guys, is that consistency. The good teams figure it out earlier than not. If we don't figure it out, we'll be .500 all year. If we do, we're going to take some games and go over. It's on us. The coaches do a good job preparing us. They've done their job.
"It's on us as players to go out there, whatever comes in the game, play their part, play their role, understand the game plan, understand tendencies and all these things. If we don't do that, we're failing each other from that standpoint. It's our job as leaders to continue to stay on guys that doesn't do it and vice versa, for them to point us out as well. That's a winning team."