Bovada has released its 2018-19 NBA MVP odds, and in the spirit of the Supreme Court's recent ruling to legalize sports gambling (America!), it's time to get down to some real handicapping business. Below, I've broken this year's MVP race into three categories: best value bets, sleepers and danger picks -- i.e. who to stay away from.
Right now the three favorites on Bovada's board are LeBron James (+333), Anthony Davis (+400) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450). I agree those should be the top three guys. LeBron has a good chance to lead the Lakers to a 15-win improvement and a top-four seed in the West, and perhaps even more importantly, seeing him in a new uniform, leading a new team that only won 35 games last season without him, is going to counteract a lot of the voter fatigue that came with his putting up the same old ungodly numbers for a Cleveland team everyone was pretty bored with.
That said, a little over 3-1 isn't great value for LeBron, who is in his 16th season and could very well miss a lot more time than he did last season, when he almost miraculously played all 82 games. He's the rightful favorite in my book, but last year he opened at 7-1. You can do better from a value standpoint. With that in mind, let's get to the handicapping.
Best Value Bets
MVP odds: +400
Davis is going to put up monster numbers without DeMarcus Cousins alongside him in New Orleans, that much is certain, and he's getting to the point in his career where he's been so dominant for so long that voters, I believe, are going to start gravitating more and more toward him. The 4-1 number isn't a huge payoff, but by comparison, last year's preseason favorites were Kevin Durant at the same 4-1 number and Russell Westbrook at slightly under that at 7-2 -- and I think Davis has a far better chance to win the award than either of those guys had last season.
From that standpoint, $400 for a $100 investment is a smart play, as in any diversified portfolio you have to secure at least one frontrunner stock that's a good bet to pay your bills before you go hunting the big game. In all reality, Antetokounmpo gets you basically the same value as Davis if you want to go that way. Bettor's choice.
MVP odds: +1100
There are a couple ways to look at Kawhi's MVP candidacy. First, the Raptors won 59 games last season, and it will be tough to get too far above that number in 2018-19. Without a major win improvement, Kawhi could struggle to get the recognition he might deserve for making Toronto a much better team. On the other hand, Toronto is going to be really good -- 62-65 wins is not unreasonable, and in that case, with Kawhi leading the way, there would likely be a sentiment among voters that these regular-season wins mean more than they used to with the "old Raptors." Changing the perception of an entire organization is sort of a big deal in MVP voting.
With all that in mind, look at the value you're getting at 11-1 on a guy that when healthy is a top-four player in the league. Last season, the closest player to those preseason odds was Stephen Curry at 10-1, and Curry was never going to win last year. Leonard can absolutely win this year if a few things break right. Fact is, the only reason you're getting Leonard -- who was 6-1 to start last year -- at the 11-1 number is the question about his health, which is fair. But he passed his physical. Don't overthink it. There is an opportunity to win $1,000 here with less than a $100 investment.
MVP odds: +1400
The Thunder have a chance to be really good this season with Carmelo Anthony gone and Paul George and Andre Roberson both back. The defense, in particular, has a chance to be the best in the league, which puts OKC, in my mind, in the running for at least a 55-win season. That would be a seven-win improvement from last season, which is a big-time jump for a playoff team in the West.
We know Westbrook is going to put up MVP numbers, but if those numbers actually translate to significant success from a win/loss standpoint, he will be in line for a whole new batch of praise having proved himself capable of being the lead dog on an elite team. I wouldn't call Westbrook a top-three favorite, but he's not far off. At almost 15-1, that is great value. Get a little wild and throw $200 down (I definitely think Westbrook is worth a little heavier bet that you might normally make on a so-called long shot), you're looking at almost a $3,000 payout for a guy that has a plenty realistic shot at winning the award for a second time.
MVP odds: +2800
A second-year player winning this award is not likely. Derrick Rose did it in his third season. Before that, you have to go back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won it in his second season (1970-71), and Wes Unseld, who pulled off the impossible in winning the MVP as a rookie in 1968-69. Those were different times in the league, but still, Simmons has an outside shot here. At 28-1, there are worse bets.
A few things would have to happen. First, the Sixers would have to surprise some people and finish with at least a top-two seed and probably north of 55 wins. Both of those are doable. Not likely, but doable. Second, Simmons would have to put up some ridiculous numbers to get more of the credit for that success that his teammate Joel Embiid. We know Simmons can put up numbers.
Put it like this: If he can get to 20 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals per game (which, crazily enough, is within range), he would be just the sixth player in history to reach those marks in a single season. The other five? Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, James, Westbrook and James Harden. The last player to do it? Harden, last season, when he won the MVP.
MVP odds: +10000
When Jimmy Butler was healthy last season, the Wolves were on track to be a top-four seed. He averaged 22 points, five assists and five rebounds a game. He could get that point total above 24 on a good year, and his defense will always win him points with voters. Moreover, only three players had a higher real plus/minus than Butler's 6.39 mark last season -- Chris Paul, Harden and Curry. When you're in that kind of company and getting 100-1 odds, yeah, you're a dangerous sleeper.
A lot would have to come together. It's not even certain Butler is the best player on his own team (some would say Karl-Anthony Towns, his deficiencies notwithstanding). But Butler is seen as a winner, and if Minnesota gets its act together (looking at you, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns) and starts playing winning basketball up to the level of its collective talent, Butler would get a lot of credit for that. Again, this is about the value. Don't expect to win the bet, but don't throw out the ticket. Throw 20 bucks at it and you would win $2,000. If you're anything like me, you're going to waste $20 on a lot dumber things.
MVP odds: +1600
When one of the three best players in the league, on a team that is a very good bet to win 60 games, is getting 16-1 MVP odds, that would seem like a good bet. Don't fall for it. Curry is not winning. The Warriors have no interest in wearing out their best players in the regular season, and beyond that, Curry has had incredible seasons the last two years and not had any shot at winning the award. He's not going to just go out and average 30 points again. There's no need. And short of that, he has entered the LeBron zone where we just take his greatness for granted -- not to mention that he and Durant are going to largely split each other's votes as long as they're in the same uniform.
MVP odds: +1600
Irving began last season as a 50-1 long shot to win MVP, then quickly jumped up into probably a top-five candidate halfway through the season. But he has narrative on his side. When Gordon Hayward went down, nothing was expected of the Celtics, so when they remained an elite team and at one point rattled off 16 straight wins, Irving got a ton of credit for that. This season, Boston is expected to be great. There's really nowhere to go but down in that regard. Also, there is just too much firepower in Boston. With Irving, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, no one player is going to have the opportunity to do enough to realistically compete for an MVP. Stay away from Kyrie.
MVP odds: +1600
There is going to be a lot of temptation to get on the Embiid MVP train, and for good reason. He has top-three-player-in-the-world talent. Problem is, a true big man hasn't won the MVP in 14 years (Kevin Garnett in 2003-04). Embiid is going to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate/favorite who could reasonably average 25 points a game, so you wouldn't be a fool to take a shot on him. But in my opinion, it's a sucker's bet. If the Sixers are really good, Simmons will likely have monster numbers himself, so this becomes about value. Simmons is getting 28-1, so there's a reason to reach. At 16-1, it's just not enough value for Embiid, who on top of the unlikelihood of the Sixers being good enough to truly get him into this conversation, is always an injury risk. If this was just about big men being dominant, Anthony Davis would already have an MVP. Stay away.