MVP is a deceptively simple award to predict. There have been four separate instances of players going back-to-back in the past 13 seasons, after all, and it's been more than a decade since a player won it without having made either First- or Second-Team All-NBA in the previous season. This is a fairly small pool of players that we're dealing with here. At Caesar's Sportsbook, only 16 players have odds below 50-to-1 with less than a week to go before the season.
The list could probably be even shorter than that. It would be cliche to call the MVP a narrative award, at least in the traditional sense, but most winners follow a fairly similar roadmap to the trophy. Brandon Anderson of The Action Network recently covered some of the biggest:
- Availability. No MVP this century has missed more than 11 games. Jokic was the only viable candidate to hit that games played threshold.
- Winning. The average MVP's team this century has won 61 games. In fact, a 60-win team between 2000-2021 has had a roughly 38 percent chance of producing that season's MVP. Only two players have won the award this century without having come from a top-two seed.
There are two other major factors that tend to sway voters as well:
- How much help a player has. Only nine of the past 22 MVPs have had All-NBA teammates, but 13 have had All-Star teammates. No MVP in this period has had a First-Team All-NBA teammate, and 2016 Stephen Curry is the only MVP since 2006 to even have a Second-Team All-NBA teammate. He won 73 games, so exceptions were going to be made for him that typically aren't for others. Generally, players need enough help to win, but not so much that there's any question about who the most valuable player on their own team is.
- How their performance compares to their own, previous selves. This is a tricky one. As mentioned above, there have been plenty of repeat winners, but as I've covered in the past, pretty much every player that has won a second MVP award has done so through either substantial statistical improvement or by winning significantly more games. It is extremely difficult for a player to be recognized for their greatness when voters don't even believe that they are as great as they once were.
So let's go through the 16 candidates that Vegas considers remotely realistic and try to whittle the field down a bit based on the traits that voters tend to look for in award winners. While none of these candidates are by any means out of the conversation before the season has even begun, we're talking about value to you as a bettor. So let's split those 16 candidates up into three tiers and figure out where you should put your money before the season begins.
The longshots (higher than +2500)
- Paul George: +4000
- Zion Williamson: +4000
- Donovan Mitchell: +3000
- Jayson Tatum: +3000
George and Williamson are fairly easy cross-offs on durability alone. Since joining the Clippers, George has missed an average of 21 games per season. Williamson just barely made it under the 11 games missed threshold last season ... but he played in only 24 games as a rookie and is set to miss the beginning of this season as he recovers from a fractured foot. Each game he misses cuts into your margin for injuries. If he misses the first two weeks, he'll only be able to miss three more games all season and stay under 11 for the year.
Tatum and Mitchell are more interesting. Mitchell checked every box last season. His team was a No. 1 seed, but there is going to be a (perhaps unfair) voter backlash against Rudy Gobert after Utah's defense collapsed against the Clippers. Mitchell may have missed time last season, but it was with an ankle sprain, not an injury that was more likely to nag him into this season. That injury is probably the reason you're able to get Mitchell at these odds right now. Go back and watch the first two games of Utah's second-round loss to the Clippers again when you get the chance. Mitchell absolutely torched Los Angeles, and did so with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup. He was as problematic for them as Luka Doncic was a round earlier, averaging 41 points in those two wins 53-44-80 shooting splits. He just couldn't keep it up once that ankle started acting up. If it hadn't, the Jazz might have made the Finals and we might be talking about Mitchell as a favorite. If nothing else, that makes him a worthwhile flyer at 30-to-1. There are only four top-two seeds in basketball, and there's a good chance Mitchell is on one of them.
Tatum's path to a top-two seed isn't quite as clean. He's going to need some injury help from the Nets or Bucks, but Boston is in prime position to make a leap if they do. As we've covered when it comes to win-total bets, defense and depth are the two primary traits that define over-performing teams. Boston has both, and as good as Jaylen Brown has become, there's no universe in which voters want to reward him over Tatum. The statistical argument for Tatum is fairly easy to make as well. The lingering impact of COVID-19 held him below 25 points per game in Boston's first 38 contests. He reached nearly 29 in Boston's last 26. If that was as simple as better health, a 29-point scorer on a top seed is always going to be heard from in the MVP race.
The contenders (+2500 through +1000)
- LeBron James +1000
- Damian Lillard: +1200
- Nikola Jokic: +1400
- Trae Young: +2000
- Devin Booker: +2000
- Anthony Davis: +2500
- James Harden: +2500
James and Davis are fairly easy to eliminate because we already have a precedent for one of them seriously contending. James was the 2020 runner-up. Davis finished sixth. If James couldn't win the award while leading the league in assists and earning a No. 1 seed thanks in part to Davis siphoning off votes, the odds of either winning it so long as the other is present and healthy are fairly slim. Even if one goes down, Russell Westbrook gives the other another star to work off, and the rest of the roster is so thin that they'd be very unlikely to win enough games to produce a winner.
Jokic is sadly yet another easy candidate to ignore, though through no fault of his own. With Jamal Murray out, the Nuggets are almost certainly going to struggle to win enough games to keep him in the race. Even if they do, and even if Jokic is the biggest reason why, it's simply likelier that voters consider Michael Porter Jr. as a Most Improved Player because they haven't already done it. Porter is competing against the field. Jokic is competing against himself.
In some ways, you could argue that both Trae Young and Devin Booker are as well. That's the price of unexpected winning. Booker came two wins away from the championship last season. Young reached the Eastern Conference finals. In that sense, their teams are going to have to look capable of making it that far again to avoid disappointing voters. Atlanta is going to have a hard time doing so. Young needs an injury to Brooklyn or Milwaukee as badly as Tatum does, but his team doesn't have the defensive baseline to fall back on, and it has to be noted that the NBA changed its rules regarding offensive players initiating contact to draw fouls in part because of Young. He'll surely remain an elite offensive player, but every bit of statistical struggle counts. Booker, in some ways, faces the same obstacles that James and Davis do. Chris Paul finished fifth last season, and that creates something of a paradox. If Paul remains healthy, he and Booker will split votes. If he doesn't, the Suns likely won't win enough games to get Booker into the conversation. There's a good chance they don't anyway. Phoenix was by far the healthiest team in basketball last season. If that doesn't repeat itself, the Suns are due for a bit of regression.
That leaves us with two flawed yet intriguing candidates. Damian Lillard might be playing on the best roster of his post-LaMarcus Aldridge career. The Blazers finished second on offense last season. If they can come close to sustaining that mark while making incremental defensive improvements, then they're an injury or two away from having a chance at a top seed. Larry Nance Jr. replacing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter is perhaps the single biggest defensive upgrade any team made this offseason. The Blazers won't be a top defense, but they have a pathway to average. Average defense and elite offense usually equals more than 50 wins. Before you suggest that Lillard's flirtation with the trade market might hurt his candidacy, remember that Kobe Bryant won the award in 2008 despite very publicly asking for a trade. The catch here is health. Nance has never played 70 games in a season, and he missed more than half of last season due to injury. Jusuf Nurkic has played 45 games over the past two seasons. The odds of this team staying healthy are minimal, and Lillard just doesn't have a track record of winning at an elite rate without elite supporting talent.
You know who does? James Harden. We saw it last season when he kept the Nets within spitting distance of the No. 1 seed when Kevin Durant was injured. Had Harden remained healthy, he would have seriously pushed Jokic for the award. Harden once won 53 games with Eric Gordon as his highest-scoring teammate. No active player besides perhaps LeBron James has done more with less in the past than Harden.
Of course, at the moment, there's a Durant-sized elephant in the room. If Durant and Harden are both healthy, Harden isn't winning this award. It's unlikely that either would, but the tie would go to the player most voters perceive as better. Even if Durant does get hurt, the mystery of Kyrie Irving's status complicates Harden's candidacy. For now, he's out. The longer he stays out, the more impressive Harden carrying the Nets looks. His return would make it harder for any Net to win MVP.
But prior to last season's injury, Harden had finished in the top 10 in voting eight years in a row. That includes six top-five finishes and five top-three finishes. History says that a healthy James Harden always winds up in the conversation, and an injury to Durant gives Harden a fairly clear path to barging his way in. Betting on injuries is never a good idea, but look at the numbers here. If either Durant or Harden needs an injury to the other to become a candidate, would you rather take Durant at 7-to-1, or Harden with more than three times the payout at 25-to-1? This is about value, and Harden has substantially more of it than Durant does.
The favorites (+999 or higher)
- Luka Doncic: +425
- Kevin Durant: +700
- Joel Embiid: +700
- Stephen Curry: +750
Take out a second mortgage:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: +650
We've covered Durant already. All I'll ask of anyone planning to bet on him is this: what are the scenarios in which he wins? I'd suggest there are two reasonably plausible pathways. The first is a 70-win rampage similar to Curry's 2016 award that gets voters to ignore how much surrounding talent he has. The second is an extended Harden absence that coincides with Irving's return so as to give Durant enough support to keep winning. Neither appears particularly likely at this moment. Harden tends to be quite durable, last season notwithstanding. We have no idea what to expect out of Irving. The odds here just do not reflect the difficulty of Durant's path even if he is the NBA's best player.
Embiid is another relatively simple case. He's missed at least 18 games in all five NBA seasons he's participated in. He'd need to play at least 71 just to earn a seat at the table, and even that would guarantee him nothing. Do you really expect Philadelphia to repeat as a No. 1 seed given the drama surrounding Ben Simmons? That was a big part of Embiid's argument last season, and it appears unlikely to repeat itself.
Doncic is the betting favorite, and if he played for a good number of other teams, that would be easier to justify. He might be so good that it doesn't matter. After all, LeBron James won his first MVP (and 66 games) with Mo Williams as his best teammate. If that's the track Doncic is on, his roster might not matter.
But Dallas has played at only a 47-win pace over the past two seasons, and their only major additions this offseason was Reggie Bullock. He'll help the Dallas defense, but will he help as much as Jason Kidd could potentially hurt? Kidd's overly aggressive scheme in Milwaukee led to a Bucks team featuring multiple top defenders finishing 19th in his last full season and 26th in the games he coached in his final partial season before getting fired. When Mike Budenholzer took over, the Bucks ranked No. 1 in each of the next two seasons. Building a defense around Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't particularly hard. Kidd couldn't do it, and he won't have Antetokounmpo this time around.
The downgrade from Rick Carlisle to Jason Kidd could be substantial, and we haven't even covered the lengths he's going to in order to pump up Kristaps Porzingis. That might help the Mavericks win games, but watching Porzingis post up won't help Doncic put up MVP-caliber numbers. Doncic will win MVP eventually. There are just too many questions to take such low odds this season. There's not much value in betting him now.
Curry might be another story. Though they differ stylistically, he and Harden might be the only two players in basketball that raise an offense's ceiling as high as Doncic does. The difference here is that Golden State had a top-five defense last season that could be even better this time around. Curry had the second-most first-place votes last season and he got them despite playing on a play-in team. The last time he, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson played together without Kevin Durant, they won 73 games. Thompson won't be back for a bit, but once James Wiseman went down last season, the Warriors went 14-5 and dominated minutes Curry and Green played together. The path is straightforward here. Golden State needs to stack up some wins early on, while Wiseman is hurt and they aren't devoting developmental minutes to him. Then they need to last until Thompson returns, hope he's his old self and that Jordan Poole can lead their bench offense, and if those things happen, Curry is right in the thick of this race. That's a lot of if's, but they're more realistic if's than, say, Durant's. Curry would be my pick if the alien that currently plays power forward for the Milwaukee Bucks returned to his home planet.
Alas, Giannis Antetokounmpo remains earthbound. That's bad news for the field. Antetokounmpo should be the favorite entering every season until further notice. There may never have been a preseason candidate better-positioned to win this award than Giannis is right now. Here are just some of the reasons why:
- Since Mike Budenholzer took over, the Bucks have played at a 58-win rate in the regular season. That doesn't even do them justice. Milwaukee slept through a 3-5 stretch in the Orlando bubble and then sacrificed regular-season wins last season to tinker with their defensive in anticipation of the playoffs. If you exclude everything that happened before the bubble, Milwaukee was winning at a 63-win pace under Budenholzer. Well, there's little reason to believe that this season's Bucks will have the same regular-season issues last year's did. They no longer have to experiment with switching defensively. They've figured out how to do it, and can now revert more often in the regular season to the drop-coverage scheme that earned them consecutive No. 1 rankings. They've replenished the depth they lost in the Jrue Holiday trade by re-signing George Hill and adding Grayson Allen. They still play in arguably the NBA's easiest division, and since Budenholzer took over, the Bucks are 38-4 against Central Division foes. Barring major injuries, there is almost no reason to believe the Bucks aren't going to win at a rate that will allow Antetokounmpo to win MVP.
- While we're at it, Kyrie Irving's absence only helps Milwaukee. The Bucks winning 65 games wouldn't have been nearly as impressive if the Nets had won 67 or 68. Well, with Irving out, Milwaukee's odds of securing the No. 1 seed have only increased. That will only help Antetokounmpo's chances.
- The most games Giannis has ever missed in a season? Exactly 11. He's never had a season in which missed games would knock him out of the MVP race. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have combined to miss less than 60 games over the past four seasons, so his supporting cast is likely to remain intact as well.
- Neither Middleton nor Holiday has ever made an All-NBA team. Nobody is outshining Giannis.
- That uphill battle that former winners tend to face? That largely only applies to second-time winners. Once a player has won MVP twice, he tends to earn a sort of benefit of the doubt from voters. James averaged fewer points and assists in his third MVP season than he did in either of his first two. Michael Jordan's lowest-scoring MVP awards were his third and fifth, though his numbers were relatively stable after the first two.
- If you're looking for the narrative voters will get behind during the season, there isn't a better one than the Giannis apology tour. His spotty playoff track record turned off voters last season, when he had a far stronger case to win a third straight trophy than most acknowledged at the time. Well, any lingering playoff questions have now been answered. He just scored 50 points in a championship-clincher and is well on his way to becoming the face of the league. There's no longer an excuse to vote against him. If Antetokounmpo is the most valuable player in the 2021-22 regular season, he's going to win this award.
You have to look really hard to find reasons not to pick Giannis. Holiday and Middleton played in the Olympics, so maybe they'll be tired after a long playoff run? Might the Bucks take their foot off of the regular-season gas pedal after winning a title? Will there be any lingering effects from the postseason knee injury that didn't hold him back at all in the last five Finals games?
There's no such thing as a preseason MVP lock. Nobody should even come close. But the proper favorite doesn't have the lowest odds right now. There just isn't better value on the board than that.
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