NBA Odds: Bulls Struggling but Still Top Contenders in East

Matthew Jordan

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 12:45 PM GMT

Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015 12:45 PM GMT

The Chicago Bulls were supposed to have their most talented team this season since the end of the Michael Jordan Era. However, the club is in a free-fall and players are starting to gripe. What does this mean for the Bulls' NBA futures odds at sportsbooks.

Defensive Intensity Missing
I previewed the Bulls game in Cleveland on Monday here at SBR and hugely recommended taking the Cavaliers -3 at sportsbooks, and that paid off easily with their 108-94 victory. It was Chicago's sixth loss in eight games and just about every issue the team has of late was on display in that game.

The No. 1 problem has been defense, as the Bulls have annually been among the NBA's leaders on that side of the ball since Tom Thibodeau was hired as head coach. However, in this eight-game struggle the team has allowed triple digits six times. We are 43 games into the season and Chicago has allowed at least 100 points 22 times. Last year in leading the NBA in points allowed at 91.8 per game, the Bulls allowed 22 100-point games overall.

Entering this season, teams in which Thibodeau served as either an assistant or head coach ranked in the Top 5 in defensive efficiency in each season dating to 2006-07. Currently Chicago is 12th in defensive rating in allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Since the calendar turned to 2015, the Bulls are 5-6 and allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions. That's the sixth-worst defense in the NBA during that span.

If you are looking for one key reason why the defense has slipped, it's Joakim Noah, who was first-team All-NBA last season and the Defensive Player of the Year. Noah was basically playing on one leg at the end of last season, has long dealt with foot problems and had offseason knee surgery last May. He hasn't been 100 percent yet. Noah has missed 10 games, including the past three with a sprained ankle, and all of his numbers are down. In addition, power forward Taj Gibson, another great defender, has missed nine games and his play has been a bit off.

The Bulls are thrilled with the free-agent signing of Pau Gasol, but he's not great defensively. Neither is Derrick Rose. Rising star Jimmy Butler is a great defensive player but hasn't been as strong of late.

 

Offense Better but Also Sliding
The Bulls are a way better offensive team this year than last with Gasol having an All-Star caliber season, the return of Rose from injury and the emergence of Butler, who leads the team at 20.6 points per game. In the first 35 games of this season, Chicago averaged 103.1 points per night and shot 44.9 percent. In the past eight, though, those numbers have dropped to 97.9 & 42.7 percent. The Bulls shot only 38 percent from the field Monday, their fifth-worst percentage of the season, and it's not like Cleveland is a good defensive club. Three of Chicago's worst games of the season have come this month.

Butler's scoring is down to 17.0 points in January and he's shooting only 40.3 percent. Rose has his good days and bad but is still only shooting 41.3 percent overall. Don't overlook the importance of swingman Mike Dunleavy, the team's best 3-point shooter when placing your NBA picks. He has missed 10 straight games with an ankle injury. Noah, while he has very little offensive range, is the most skilled passer among centers in the league so his absence hurts there as well.

 

What Now?
Derrick Rose doesn't usually say much publicly so it was striking --especially using a profanity -- to hear him call out his teammates after Monday's loss.

"Everybody has to be on the same page," Rose said. "Until then, we're going to continue to get our ass kicked. ... We got to give a better effort. It seems like we're not even competing, and it's f---ing irritating."

In something even more rare, Thibodeau canceled the team's scheduled practice at the last minute Tuesday morning. No coach likes practices more than Thibodeau. That's been the one criticism, that he wears his players down. Maybe he's learning.

Chicago's troubles might stretch on a bit longer.  Five of the Bulls' next 10 opponents have a winning percentage of .570 or better. They host the champion Spurs on Thursday and then are at very good Dallas in the second of a back-to-back Friday. A trip to Golden State looms next Tuesday to kick off a six-game road swing.

The NBA odds still list Chicago as the +260 third-favorites in the East behind Cleveland (+220) and Atlanta (+240). The Bulls are +800 to win the NBA title.

NBA Free Pick: Don't panic yet. The Bulls shouldn't care much about the regular season, instead getting all their guys healthy by March. This is still the second most talented team in the East behind the Cavaliers. Expect a Chicago-Cleveland East Finals as long as Noah gets to 100 percent by the spring.

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