A Betting Odds History of the 1990s Chicago Bulls Dynasty
Photo credit: PETER PAWINSKI/AFP via Getty Images. Pictured: Chicago Bulls
“The Last Dance” continues to garner acclaim and monster ratings from the sports-starved masses, as ESPN’s 10-part documentary on the 1997-98 Bulls (with a ton of coverage of the Bulls dynasty from the drafting of Jordan onward) brings memorable moments and podcast-filling content every Sunday.
One thing that struck me watching Episode 4 last week, however, was how the Bulls were treated somewhat as a shocking underdog. Despite Jordan’s incredible individual accomplishments — he won MVP and DPOY the same year (are you kidding me?) — the Pistons in 1991 were thought to be a wall the Bulls could not climb.
So I started looking at the betting history of Jordan’s Bulls, from preseason odds to Finals odds, using SportsOddsHistory and the Gold Sheet. What follows is a gambling history of basketball’s greatest dynasty.
1990-91 Season: The First Championship
- Preseason: +700
- Before playoffs: +250
- Eastern Conference Finals: -270
- Finals: -200
“The Last Dance” paints a definitive narrative from Michael Jordan’s point of view, and part of that narrative is that in 1991 the Bulls were scrappy underdogs. The documentary series makes a point to elicit the suggestion from players and beat writers that the defending champion Pistons were heavy favorites — they were a juggernaut the Bulls couldn’t get past.
Yet, oddsmakers had the Bulls as the favorites in the East even before the playoffs began and nearly 3-1 favorites vs. those very Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Preseason of 1990 is the last time any Bulls team with Jordan playing a full season had longer than +350 preseason title odds. What’s more, of the Bulls’ seven conference championship series with Jordan, this was one of just three times when the Bulls were shorter than 3-to-1 favorites.
But the idea that the Bulls were scrappy underdogs just isn’t accurate. They were in the preseason, but it became evident to bookmakers by the time the playoffs rolled around that Chicago was where the money would be. It’s possible that came from public money on Jordan’s rising popularity, but the more likely outcome is that oddsmakers simply recognized the inevitable.
1991-92: The Second Championship
- Preseason: +250
- Before playoffs: -200
- Eastern Conference Finals: -650
- Finals: -250
The Bulls’ first bid to repeat found them as much heavier favorites, as the enormity of Jordan’s success and dominance had started to sink in.
They first appeared as significant favorites this season and in the preseason, albeit still at plus money.
1992 is probably when the Bulls were most properly rated. Jordan had not yet joined the Dream Team in Barcelona, so his international stardom had not hit that stratosphere. You could still get the Bulls at -200 before the playoffs, which seems crazy in retrospect.
I was 10 at the time, so I do not have an accurate gauge of this. Did we know Jordan was the greatest at that point? Certainly not, with only one title. Did it seem likely? The NBA had always been more contentious: even in the Bird-Magic era, forgotten teams like the Rockets and Sixers made the Finals.
But the ability to bet Michael Jordan’s Bulls at -200 seems like the sweetest deal ever.
Interestingly, it took the Bulls seven games as -2500 favorites to finish the 51-win Knicks that year, but then immediately after they were still -650 vs. the 57-win Cavs.
You remember what happened:
You were still able to get them at -250 vs. the 57-win Blazers in the Finals, though. Conference imbalance, all the way back to ’92, I guess.
1992-93: The Third Championship
- Preseason: +120
- Before playoffs: +300
- Eastern Conference Finals: -150
- Finals: -240
Man, alive. You could get Jordan’s Bulls at +300 to start the playoffs. I would have been betting the Suns heavy and hedging with Chicago at that number. They went from +300 before the playoffs to -240 in the Finals.
The Bulls had 10 fewer wins than the previous season and didn’t have home-court advantage going into those playoffs. It’s also proof of just how good the favorite, the Suns (+200), were.
I just want to state for the record that my colleague WorldWideWob absolutely would have talked himself into betting the Knicks (+130) in those conference finals, and I would have absolutely bet the Suns +190, talking myself into Jordan’s rumored exhaustion and how good Barkley and his Suns were.
And then this beat would have befallen me:
1994-95: Jordan Returns From Baseball
- Preseason: +1200
- Before playoffs: +500
- Eastern Conference Semifinals: -185 (Magic +165)
The Jordan rumors were circling for months. In a modern market, I feel like there’s an ESPN Woj report on how he might consider a return “eventually” and every talk show is devoting an hour to it.
The fact that he came back and they were still favored vs. the Magic is a big indicator of how quickly the market moved once the playoffs began. Imagine holding a Magic series ticket. You won the last bet against Jordan in a playoff series.
Of note, in Game 6, the Bulls led 102-94 with under 3:30 to play. The Magic outscored them 14-0 the rest of the way to eliminate them in six… in Chicago.
1995-96: The Fourth Championship
- Preseason: +350
- Before playoffs: -400
- Eastern Conference Finals: -500
- Finals: -950
I’m really curious what made them the favorites in the preseason after losing in six to Orlando. I get it, Jordan needed a full offseason and training camp, they added Rodman, etc.
But with the depth of the West at that time with the Sonics, Spurs, Jazz and Rockets — not to mention the Knicks and Pacers still hanging around and Penny and Shaq returning as East champs — it’s interesting that either public money or some sentiment drove the Bulls back to the top.
Of course, it was pretty smart oddsmaking, since this went on to be what is still considered to be the best team of all time with 72 wins and a title.
In an Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the very team that beat them a year earlier in six games, they were -500 favorites… and they swept the Magic on their way to going 11-1 through the East.
The Seattle SuperSonics that season won 64 games and had a +8 Net Rating, which is stellar.
They were +650 in the Finals and lost in six games because they put Gary Payton on Jordan too late.
1996-97: The Fifth Championship
- Preseason: +100
- Before playoffs: -200
- Eastern Conference Finals: -500
- Finals: -600
That’s more like it: +100 preseason favorites and -200 before the playoffs seems more in line with the myth and aura of these Bulls.
They rampaged through the East again, going 11-2 this time, with the Hawks and Heat each taking just a game off Chicago.
Oh, and Jordan put a double-nickel on the Bullets in the first round:
But, of course, the big story of that season is the “Flu Game.”
Fun fact: The Bulls were one-point dogs in that game, winning 90-88. This is another game I would have loved to have occurred in the modern era for how the betting lines would have swung as it got reported Jordan was on his way to the arena, getting news that Jordan will play, etc.
1997-98: The Last Dance
- Preseason: +140
- Before playoffs: +140
- Eastern Conference Finals: -125
- Finals: -115
Pippen in a hold-out. Jackson’s last season. Rodman vanished to Vegas for several days. Jordan might be done. Going for the elusive 3-peat (again).
Still the favorites.
Looking over the odds for that year, the Lakers having the third-shortest preseason odds at +700 with Shaq and Kobe is startling. The Lakers went 7-2 in the first two rounds vs. the Blazers and Sonics, then got swept by the Jazz. Can you imagine if they’d gotten past the Jazz — and in Jordan’s last Finals, he faced Shaq and Kobe?
I’m not trying to take anything away from what was an incredible and very worthy Jazz team, but given how painfully the Jazz’s last Finals appearance ended, maybe giving up to the narrative machine might not have been as heart-wrenching.
A couple of interesting things about that series…
- The Bulls went 4-2 against the spread in that series but 1-2 as favorites.
- They were actually underdogs in Games 1 and 2 in Utah, and in Game 6.
- Chicago was a two-point dog in Game 6, so even if Jordan misses the Bryon Russell shot, Jazz bettors still lost.
- The under in that series was 5-0-1. Utah’s defense was legit, and the Bulls were legit exhausted.
But in the end, the Bulls covered, the Bulls won and Jordan Bulls bettors cashed for the last time.