DALLAS -- Jimmy Butler and his teammates do not waver in their public support of one another. They stick up for the team no matter how badly a player might be struggling or a group might be functioning. That unity has been on display throughout the Chicago Bulls' surprising first month of the season, but it might get tested if the reserves continue to struggle like they did in a lackluster 107-82 loss to the lowly Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.
Yet again, the Bulls' second unit failed to pick up the slack for a tired starting group playing without Dwyane Wade (rest) a night after an emotional win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet Butler, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg and other players again tried to keep the faith in a unit that doesn't deserve any.
"[I still have] a lot of confidence in them," Butler said. "But I think they need to have more confidence in themselves than we can put in them. That's all it comes down to. We've got some really good players, but they have to believe it first before anybody else can."
There were other issues for the Bulls in this game. Rajon Rondo scored just two points a night after racking up a triple-double against the Cavaliers in his best game of the season. The Bulls managed just nine assists while playing with little energy throughout much of the contest. But as much as Butler tried to shield his younger teammates from criticism -- saying "everybody" had to be better -- the Bulls' biggest flaw remains the same. The bench is not good, and it can't help a starting group that continues to pile up minutes.
Although the entire bench has underperformed the past few weeks, the biggest area of concern for the Bulls is that Nikola Mirotic is playing worse than he has in three seasons as a Bull. Mirotic was 0-for-4 from the field and registered a minus-24 in 13 minutes starting in place of Wade. He is 6-for-27 his past four games and looks like he is playing with no confidence. Butler, like the rest of the organization, is hoping Mirotic can turn things around soon. The All-Star swingman is hoping somebody can get through to the struggling big man with some advice.
"Make sure he understands that it happens to everybody," Butler said. "Make sure he understands that we're here with him. He is still a part of this organization, and we need him on this team ... we need Niko to play, man. And when he starts thinking, it only gets worse. When you just play, great things happen."
Hoiberg said after the game that Mirotic would stay in the rotation, but that's more because of lack of depth than anything else. There isn't an answer on a bench already playing without Michael Carter-Williams (left knee/left wrist) and Doug McDermott (concussion protocol). Bobby Portis has struggled all season. Cristiano Felicio hasn't played much but didn't have much of an impact in 15 minutes Saturday. Jerian Grant and Denzel Valentine have shown flashes of promise but haven't done so on a consistent basis. Isaiah Canaan has been the most consistent reserve, but he is shooting only 29.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Hoiberg is correct in saying his team will be in better shape once McDermott and Carter-Williams are back. Both players are better options than anything else the Bulls have at the moment. But to believe McDermott and Carter-Williams will save the day once they return is a stretch. McDermott will space the floor because of his shooting ability, but his defense is still porous. Carter-Williams is a solid defender, but he's a career 25.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Both players have flaws, but their flaws are easier to gloss over in context of the rest of the reserves.
"Right now, we're struggling with the bench group to get the ball in the basket," Hoiberg said. "That's something that we just need to keep preaching confidence to them and get them playing well and trying to get them to go out there and play with energy. Just give us a lift when we need it."
But Butler, who struggled to find consistent time in his first two seasons under Tom Thibodeau, made a solid point regarding a player's confidence. There's only so much teammates and coaches can say; at some point, players rise or fall based on their own talent. Right now, the Bulls' young reserves are falling a little lower each night. Butler and his veteran teammates have to try to build them back up.
"You got to remind these guys that everybody's not a top-five pick," Butler said. "So they don't come in right away being 'the guy.' Besides D-Wade, everybody else had to work their way up. Work, work, show that you deserve to be out there, and when the chance presents itself you go out there and show what you're capable of. We got to keep these young guys and this bench, even the starters, realizing work is what's going to get you out there, and production is what's going to keep you out there."