After six seasons of wallowing in the pen of NBA mediocrity and indifference, the Chicago Bulls are on a stampede.
Even with Wednesday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Bulls are still leading the Eastern Conference with a 27-12 record near the midpoint of the NBA season. That is heady stuff for a team that has not finished above .500 since eking out a 42-40 record in 2015-16 and which plays in the same division as the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
A revamped roster has fully bought into coach Billy Donovan’s offensive principles. It had the benefit of a full training camp together and has generated optimism around Chicago and Illinois not seen since the peak of the Tom Thibodeau era in the middle of the last decade. The Bulls lead the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (38.9), are second in overall shooting (47.5), and eighth in points per game (111.5).
Gone are the miserable days of GarPax, swept away with the front office tandem of Vice President Arturas Karnisovas and General Manager Marc Eversley. Donovan is enjoying a second wind in his third NBA act, with a relatively young cast led by Zach LaVine flying around veterans DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.
Bettors have been steadily jumping on the bandwagon throughout the season, shortening futures odds to the point where the Bulls have become an intriguing overall longshot that still offers value in certain markets. The Bulls have a shooting guard from North Carolina and still play The Alan Parsons Project’s Sirius when introducing the starting five, but they are a few lengths from the halcyon days when they had the shooting guard from North Carolina and Eye in the Sky thundered through Chicago Stadium and the United Center.
The Central Division is up for grabs
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 13, 2022
Everyone not named the Bucks were longshots to win the Central Division, which is to be expected when the favorites are the reigning champions and also have the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bulls hit the ground running at 4-0, though, and never really looked back in what has become a surprising three-team race along with the Bucks and another upstart team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls’ staying power has resonated across various sportsbooks. At PointsBet, Chicago’s division odds have gone from +900 in the preseason to -110, which makes the Bulls co-favorites with the Bucks. Caesars has experienced similar action as the Bulls have dropped from +1000 to +100. While WynnBet is not available in Illinois, those in the Chicagoland area can make the quick trek to Indiana and get the Bulls at +115.
And a good Bulls team means robust handle for in-state sportsbooks. BetRivers noted that 41% of its Illinois-based handle on Central Division futures is on the hometown Bulls. While the Illinois Gaming Board does not specifically break out NBA wagering as a category in its revenue reports, the $226.6 million handle for basketball in November nearly matched January’s 2020-21 midseason total of $229.7 million.
The good news for those, ahem, bullish on the Bulls is there is still prime value to this play because neither they nor the Bucks have yet traveled the I-94 corridor to play the other. The first of the four head-to-head meetings takes place Jan. 21 in Milwaukee, and the remaining three matchups are slated for March and April.
Eastern Conference sleeper perhaps?
"Let it sink in, let it suck, let it hurt. We've got to understand we're at the top of our conference and we have to show we're there for a reason." -DeMar DeRozan
📰 | @SamSmithHoops game recap:
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 13, 2022
One of the things that makes the Bulls such an interesting play is that Donovan’s brand of basketball is positionless to a degree. Yes, there are guards, forwards, and centers on the roster, but the ball doesn’t stick in any of their hands. Chicago has four players averaging at least 4.0 assists and five who have racked up 100 or more dimes.
Winning playoff basketball is predicated on having a go-to player — the Bulls have two in DeRozan and LaVine — and also having a half-court offense that does not bog down when the up-tempo game gets taken away through scouting reports and familiarity with tendencies over the course of a seven-game series.
With the top six teams in the East separated by 4 1/2 games, the Bulls have settled into the middle of the pack in terms of Eastern Conference futures options, a proper sleeper considering their lack of postseason track record compared to peers.
They can be had anywhere from +900 (BetRivers) to +1200 (PointsBet), with +1000 the most common play. BetRivers having the shortest odds again reflects the popularity in the home market, especially for this futures offering, as a whopping 76% of the handle in Illinois is riding on the Bulls in hopes of not getting the horns.
Long odds still to end 24-year title drought
It has been more than a generation since Michael Jordan got separation from Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to complete Chicago’s second “three-peat” and claim a sixth title in eight seasons. Neither Donovan nor the Bulls have been to the finals since that iconic jumper, and while the East may be up for grabs, winning a title will almost certainly require taking down a prohibitive favorite from the West, be it Golden State, defending champ Phoenix, Utah once more, or perhaps upstart Memphis.
Bulls title odds have dramatically shortened from the preseason, but they are still a long way from being considered among the frontrunners. FanDuel noted the Bulls are a popular play to win the championship, accounting for 11% of the handle and 15% of wagers placed. The team’s current +2100 listing ranks tied for seventh with Philadelphia.
After opening the season at +15000 on PointsBet, the Bulls’ title odds there have shrunk to +2500. Caesars and DraftKings also have +2500 listings, with the former having started the year +10000. BetRivers is currently the shortest at +1800 after making Chicago a +15000 play in the preseason.
DeMar DeRozan Da MVP?
The Bulls’ trajectory clearly changed in the offseason following their acquisition of DeRozan from the San Antonio Spurs. The 32-year-old appears hellbent on getting back to the playoffs after a two-season absence and leads Chicago in scoring at 26 points per game.
There is the chance the dueling MVP candidacies of DeRozan and Lavine — no scoring slouch himself at 25.6 per contest while shooting 41.2% from deep — could cancel each other out for votes should the Bulls maintain their 57-win pace, but the market has definitely picked up for DeRozan in his 13th season.
He was a +30000 preseason MVP offering at WynnBET, which has since shrunk to +3500, while both PointsBet and Caesars have gone from a +25000 offering to a current listing of +3000. Bettors at FanDuel have shown interest as well, with 5% of the handle and 9% of tickets on DeRozan, who it now lists at +4000.
At BetRivers, DeRozan has accounted for 20% of the MVP handle, trailing only Stephen Curry. His odds shortened from +50000 to +10000 there in a nine-day span in early November, and he is currently +4000.