Before the season, we NBA MVP field is typically quite narrow. There are usually only a handful of candidates in a given season. History tells us that the award typically goes to 24-to-28-year-olds coming off of All-NBA seasons that average at least 25 points per game. History gives us the occasional Derrick Rose or Steve Nash surprise MVP winner, but we usually have a pretty good idea before the season who has a real chance to win the award.the
And yet, for whatever reason, we're quite bad at predicting who's going to win MVP during the season. Case-in-point: last year's winner was Joel Embiid. When ESPN's Tim Bontemps conducted the first of his three mid-season straw polls in December, the voters had Embiid ranked 10th. Nikola Jokic ranked fifth at the first straw poll of the 2021-22 race and third in the 2020-21 campaign. Meanwhile, the leader of last year's first straw poll, Jayson Tatum, finished fourth. The 2022 leader, Stephen Curry, finished eighth, and the 2021 leader, LeBron James, finished 13th.
There's no one, single reason we tend to get the race wrong in November and December. Sometimes it's injuries. Sometimes it's surprising team performances. Sometimes players just start hot and cool off. Regardless, we have a real track record of early season odds being off. There's not much value in pegging which of the favorites are going to fall off. At this stage, you either have those tickets or you don't. There might, however, be value in seeking a dark horse.
There are a couple of fringe candidates worth monitoring. Anthony Edwards is available at the 20-to-1 range at most books right now. He meets our scoring criteria at 26.3 points per game, is leading a team that, so far, has fought for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and if you're looking for a narrative component here, not only did he thrive for Team USA over the summer, but checks a number of narrative boxes voters would never admit looking for. He's playing for a small-market team, he's defying the narrative that the Rudy Gobert trade knocked Minnesota out of title contention, and with the past five MVP winners being foreign-born, he has seemingly given the NBA a chance at its next great American talent. Structurally, Edwards' case looks a lot like Derrick Rose's candidacy in 2011: best scorer on the No. 1 defense for a team that overachieves.
Still, he hasn't been especially efficient thus far this season. He's not a high-end playmaker. He's been spectacular on defense, but that gets overshadowed by Gobert and Jaden McDaniels. Edwards will make his way into the MVP conversation, but it feels like we're a year or two early here. The same can likely be said of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose odds are a bit lower at most books (hovering around 16-to-1). Individually his numbers are where they need to be, but he is Oklahoma City's oldest starter at 25. His young teammates just need a bit more seasoning. The Thunder are good right now. Next season, they'll likely be great. Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Edwards could feasibly factor into the race, but they are likelier not to, and given their odds, the value proposition here is minimal.
Fortunately, we've got another fringe candidate with much more appealing odds. Tyrese Haliburton, with odds as long as 80-to-1 at BetRivers as of this writing, is sitting right on the edge of all of our typical predictors. The typical MVP baseline is 25 points per game. Haliburton is averaging 24.7. He didn't earn All-NBA honors last season, but was an All-Star on that trajectory before injuries in the second half of the season knocked him off of most ballots. We're looking for a player between the ages of 24 and 28. Haliburton is 23 and turns 24 late in the regular season.
All logic dictates that Haliburton should fall in the "give it another year" category we lumped Edwards and Gilgeous-Alexander into. He probably does. But for 80-to-1 odds? I'm willing to take the chance that he's here now, and there's some statistical evidence suggesting that he is.
He is currently only track to become the 10th member of the NBA's 50-40-90 shooting club. Three of the other players to do so, Stephen Curry, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, won MVP in seasons in which they got there. Two others, Kevin Durant and Larry Bird, did so at other points in their careers. Haliburton is generating high-value shots for both himself and his teammates.
Speaking of those teammates, Haliburton leads the NBA in assists at 12.5 per game, but what has made him so special so far this season are the kinds of assists he's generating. Trae Young is second in the NBA at 11.2 assists per game. However, Haliburton's assists created 33.6 points per game. Young's create only 28.3. Haliburton is doing a better job than any other player in the NBA right now at generating 3-pointers for his teammates. Young is currently the only player in the NBA within 11 points created on assists per game of Haliburton.
That gap is so wide that, as of this writing, Haliburton currently leads the NBA in combined points and points created off of assists. In total, he's generating 58.7 points of offense per game. MVP favorite Nikola Jokic is at 50.9. To some extent, Haliburton's raw numbers here are inflated by pace. The Pacers are the second-fastest team in the NBA and score the fourth-most fast-break points per game in the league. But they do so because they have Haliburton. His skill set informs their style. Even if his numbers are slightly inflated, they are for a reason.
There's also the "help" angle here. Our top five candidates by odds at most books right now are Jokic, Luka Doncic, Tatum, Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. All five have at least one All-Star-level teammate (though Jamal Murray, Jokic's running mate, is currently hurt). But right now, Haliburton's only teammate averaging even 15 points per game is Myles Turner, at 17.9. Benedict Mathurin, Buddy Hield and Obi Toppin are all underperforming relative to expectations. It hasn't mattered. Haliburton is so good that the Pacers currently have the NBA's No. 1-ranked offense.
There are certainly holes in Haliburton's early season candidacy. There's a reason he's at 80-to-1, after all. Haliburton is a bad defender to say the least. The Pacers as a whole are worse, ranking 28th on that end of the floor through 11 games. It's going to be hard to maintain their current 52-win pace, especially once if they ever endure any injuries. Even if the Pacers do maintain that pace, the top of the East is so strong that it might not matter. Let's say Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee finish ahead of Indiana. It's not impossible to win as a No. 4 seed. Jokic just won as a No. 6 seed, and Russell Westbrook recently did so as well. But that's a rarity defined by the absence of teammates. Westbrook lost Kevin Durant to free agency. Jokic lost Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to injuries. Beyond those two, the last MVP to earn a seed lower than third was Moses Malone in 1979. Lower-seeded MVPs are becoming slightly more acceptable, but are still a rarity.
Haliburton probably isn't going to win MVP. At this moment, it seems as though Jokic is going to rampage toward a third trophy, though with 70 or so games left on the schedule, it's too early to say much definitively yet. What we can say safely is that 80-to-1 is ridiculous value for Haliburton right now. If there's a worthwhile dark horse on the board, it's him.