NBA futures: Odds and best value bets for Most Improved Player
Chris Sheridan examines this season's NBA Most Improved Player race and handicaps the field, from the top contenders to some longer shots.
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If there is a lesson to be learned from last season’s Most Improved Player results, it is this: Voters will not hold a grudge against a player who leaves a good team, signs with a bad team and doubles his stats through doubling his usage.
Jerami Grant taught us this lesson last season after he left the very good Denver Nuggets, signed with the very bad Detroit Pistons, and put up a bunch of hefty stat lines for a team that finished last in the Eastern Conference with a 20-52 record.
Grant went from averaging 12.0 points on 47.8 percent shooting in Denver to averaging 22.3 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting in Detroit. And while this precipitous drop in shooting percentage flies in the face of the word “improved,” Grant received two first-place votes, 33 second-place votes and 31 third-place votes in voting by a panel of writers and broadcasters who cover the NBA on a regular basis.
Christian Wood of the Houston Rockets, who finished fourth, was a favorite throughout the season because of the numbers he was putting up for the Rockets, who were going through their post-Harden fallout and not winning all that many games. Still, Wood’s 21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds as he played for his sixth team in six seasons was enough to garner him 10 second-place votes and 16 third-place votes.
This bears remembering when looking at this year’s field of candidates for Most Improved Player, a category that lends itself to dipping one’s feet in the futures market because of the massive price incentives.
Even this year’s favorite, Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets (who finished third last season) is on the board at +900, a click above namesake Kevin Porter Jr. of Houston. There are a slew of worthy candidates in the +2000 to +2500 range.
So let’s have a look at the field:
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets (+900): There was a point last season right after Jamal Murray went down for the season when Porter’s odds for this award shrank from +12500 to +2000 in just under 72 hours. Here is a guy who was wheelchair material four years ago who Denver drafted and took a chance on, knowing he would need a second major back surgery.
Porter had four 30-point games among the Nuggets’ final 12 contests. He will need to improve his scoring average by at least five points from 19.0 last year to win.
Kevin Porter Jr., Rockets (+1000): The 21-year-old shooting guard had a 50-point game in a victory over the Bucks late in the season, and 50-point games tend to get voters’ attention.
While Porter Jr. has as much of a chance as anyone to win this award, keep in mind that oddsmakers tend to identify an early-season favorite after about 10 games and keep that player the favorite through most of the season. That’s what happened last year with Wood. It will leave someone worthy with much higher odds than might be appropriate.
Jordan Poole, Warriors (+1500): The 22-year-old had a stellar month of May for the Dubs as they failed to make the playoffs, and he has been starting during the preseason while Klay Thompson slowly makes his way back. What will matter here is whether Poole can sustain production off the bench in January after Thompson returns. He averaged only 12.0 points last season.
Collin Sexton, Cavaliers (+1500): One half of the East’s best speed backcourt, Sexton does not seem like a strong candidate simply by virtue of the fact that he averaged 24.3 points per game last season. In fact, it would appear he has reached his ceiling.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies (+1500): JJJ had a significant dropoff last season after he missed half of the year recovering from a knee injury, and there is room for noticeable improvement off his 2020-21 averages of 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds, especially with Jackson starting at power forward and being a featured scorer now that Jonas Valanciunas has been dealt away. This is a nice pick at +1500.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder (+1500): Other books are listing this guy as the favorite after he signed a max contract extension in the offseason with Oklahoma City, where he was shut down over the second half of last season due to a torn plantar fascia. He was scoring 23.7 points and shooting nearly 51 percent from the field, and those numbers will be hard to improve upon.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans (+2000): He began the preseason recovering from a broken foot, which really has nothing to do with anything. What matters for our purposes is whether he can put up numbers greater than the 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds he averaged last season for a 31-win Pelicans team. The prediction here is “No, he can’t,” and that means save your money.
Christian Wood, Rockets, De’Aaron Fox, Kings and Darius Garland, Cavs (+2200): Fox averaged 25.2 points, and it is hard to see him improving on that. Wood is what he is, and it’ll be an achievement if he spends a second season with a single team. Garland averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists, numbers he could surpass… in Philadelphia if he is traded for Ben Simmons.
Players at +2500 include Zach LaVine, Tyrese Haliburton, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Domantas Sabonis, all of whom can be in play for this award, with Sabonis the edgier candidate because he has triple-double material in his bag night after night. Brown has been the NBA’s leading scorer this preseason.
O.G. Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors is the only player listed at +2800 by Betway. That is not a bad pick at all, with many prognosticators saying that he should have a breakout season for a Raptors team that is going to learn what life is like without Kyle Lowry. He averaged 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, and if you put a gun to my head and said “pick one” then I would come up with O.G. and/or JJJ.
Terence Mann (+4000), who will be taking Kawhi Leonard’s spot on the rotation, merits consideration. So, too, does Seth Curry (+9000) of Philadelphia, whose shot attempts figure to go up in a non-Simmons-centric offense.