|Time||8 p.m. ET|
|TV||NBA League Pass|
|Odds via PointsBet. Get up-to-the-minute NBA odds here.|
The Bulls might just be the best story in the NBA. The Nuggets are trying to stay above water while battling injuries. Chicago’s in a letdown spot after a monster win vs. the Nets. The Nuggets are on the third game of a road trip and play better versus good teams than bad.
Who comes out ahead? Will it be a defensive battle or an offensive showcase? Let’s break it down.
Nuggets Must Overcome Slew of Injuries
Denver’s injury problems are at capacity. If the Nuggets suffer any more, their game-by-game win probability probably goes too deep underwater. They’re without Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and P.J. Dozier with both Porter and Dozier expected to miss the season. Austin Rivers and rookie sensation Bones Hyland are both out due to COVID protocols.
Still, they have Nikola Jokic who is playing at an MVP level. He leads the league in PER, EPM, VORP, Win Shares per 48 minutes and VORP. The Nuggets outscore their opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court this season.
The Nuggets have played well since being forced to put Jeff Green in the starting lineup. Their shooting has improved remarkably over the last five games after a miserable start to the season. Part of that is bolstered by the play of second-year big Zeke Nnaji, who leads the league in effective field goal percentage on jumpshots this season per Synergy Sports.
The key for Denver is it needs to win three of the four stints with its starters and one of two stints with its exceptionally bad bench. The Nuggets don’t even need to win one of the two stints, they just can’t get blown out by 10 points in the roughly six minutes per half that Jokic sits.
The Nuggets have a positive net rating with starters in the first, second, and third quarter, but a very poor net rating (-4.6) in the fourth quarter. The Bulls are top five in the first and fourth quarters, but less impressive in the second and third with starters on the floor per NBA.com.
Denver’s defense started the season off great, but it is now 30th in defensive rating in the last two weeks. As a result of the improved shooting and defensive regression, the over has hit in seven straight Nuggets games and nine of their last 10.
The Nuggets’ lack of talent in the backcourt with Murray and Hyland out will prove to be an issue against a Chicago team that plays a top-10 defense in drop coverage versus pick and roll. Chicago’s also third-best against handoffs, which is a key part of Denver’s approach.
You need good guard play to punish drop coverage, and with Monte Morris and Facu Campazzo splitting minutes at point guard, Denver lacks explosiveness.
Turnovers are a crucial stat for the Nuggets. Since 2017, Denver is 96-51 SU (65.3%) and 80-62-5 (56%) ATS when they have fewer turnovers than the opponent. Conversely, they are 51-74-2 ATS when they have more turnovers than the opponent. They’re also just 17-28 SU as a dog when they have more turnovers.
The Bulls score the fourth-most points off turnovers per 100 possessions, while Denver gives up the ninth-most. Particularly with how good the Bulls are in transition, which we’ll get to in a minute, that’s going to be key. The Bulls should be able to get turnovers, which negates an offensive edge for Denver.
Bulls Can Match Up With Jokic
Chicago is without Javonte Green and Coby White due to COVID, and Alex Caruso is day-to-day with a hamstring injury. Caruso gave it a try Saturday vs. Brooklyn but left in the first half.
Chicago’s also without Patrick Williams who was lost for the season with an ACL tear.
The Nuggets have historically primarily run pressure at the level of the screen in pick and roll the last few years, but that’s changing. They play more drop-and-switch coverage than blitzing.
The Bulls, notably, play much better versus drop-and-switch than they do against at-the-level. Denver does a good job containing mid-range shots, the Bulls’ bread and butter. Denver allows the 10th lowest rate of mid-range shots in the league, but it is allowing the ninth-highest field goal percentage on middies.
The big edge in this game is likely at the rim. Denver contains shots there well, allowing the 12th fewest shots, but is dead last in at-rim field goal percentage allowed.
Chicago, on the other hand, is not great at creating at the rim or scoring there, ranking bottom 16 in both.
Denver has had a bad transition defense for years but has made strides earlier this season. That’s fallen off, with Denver now 14th in transition defense. Chicago, meanwhile, is not just the best team in the league scoring in transition, but the gap between it and the second-best team is the same as the gap between the second-best team and 13th.
Chicago has the bodies with Nikola Vucevic and Tony Bradley to defend Jokic, to whatever degree you can. Vucevic in particular should be able to get open looks on pick and pop, whether the Nuggets play at the level or drop.
The Nuggets will probably match up Will Barton against Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon vs. DeMar DeRozan. LaVine gets the edge in that situation, but getting cutters to the rim will be important on the back side.
Based on half-court and transition data, I have this at Bulls -7.5. Some of that is impacted by the blowouts Denver suffered without Jokic. However, the defensive falloff from Denver, combined with the significant edge on the bench for Chicago (who is 11th in net rating among bench units) is enough to believe there’s value on Chicago.
The Bulls are a healthier, more complete team, with a big edge in forcing and converting off turnovers. Denver’s undersized.
I like the Bulls to -6.
As for the total, I have this projected under, but that’s significantly impacted by the Nuggets’ defensive start and the offensive struggles by both teams the first three weeks of the season. I’m not going to play it, but I would have a slight lean to the over based on recent trends and the matchup.
In particular, I like the Bulls’ team total over of 109.5, but I won’t be making a play on it.
Pick: Bulls -4.5, good to -6