NBA futures: Odds and best value bets for NBA MVP
Chris Sheridan examines this season's NBA MVP race and handicaps the field, from the top contenders to some longer shots.
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The so-called "secret sauce" when it comes to winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award is not so "secret" after all. Take it from a guy who used to vote on these awards, the only secret is ascertaining what "valuable" means to the average voter.
Once you’ve got that figured out, you are halfway there.
The MVP award is not given to the best player in the NBA. It is given to the player who was most valuable to his team, and that is an important distinction. Because if the postseason voting does not deteriorate into a popularity contest (as it sometimes does), the winner of this award will have managed to outperform individual expectations on a team that overachieved its way through the regular season. Each year, there is one quality that is more important than all others. Last season, when Nikola Jokic of Denver won, it was durability.
This season, there will be something differentiating the winner from the rest of the pack, but what exactly that quality is remains to be seen.
If the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers are flirting with 70 wins, that victory total may be the determining factor (for James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Anthony Davis). If the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat or Utah Jazz become unlikely first-place finishers in their respective conferences, that could translate into first-place votes for Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler or Donovan Mitchell. Voters love overachievers.
If the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks or Golden State Warriors are atop the conference standings in April, that will be a plus for the candidacies of Zack LaVine, Julius Randle and/or Steph Curry. If Karl-Anthony Towns suddenly finds himself traded to a contender, you won’t be seeing him listed with flyer odds of +9000 as you are today.
So keep all of those happenstance chances in mind when handicapping the futures odds for the upcoming season. Yes, Luka Doncic (+380) is a worthy favorite and may even be considered the best player in the NBA when it’s all said and done next June. But Doncic, Kevin Durant (+600), Joel Embiid (+700), Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+900) are the other contenders whose odds are shorter than 10/1, and it is tough to dismiss any of them.
Durant is coming off a stellar Olympics in which he practically won a gold medal for Team USA all by himself, Embiid was the runner-up last season and is currently navigating a fairly tricky Ben Simmons roadblock, Curry has his running mate back in Klay Thompson and could be poised for leading the resurgence of his team, and Antetokounmpo is the reigning Finals MVP whose Milwaukee Bucks team is not being given the level of respect typically afforded a returning champ.
Damian Lillard (+1400) and Jokic and James (+1500) make up the second tier of contenders, with Lillard the only one among them who could be considered "overdue". His Portland Trail Blazers, just two years removed from the Western Conference finals, would need to win the West outright in order for Lillard to get mainstream consideration, whereas Jokic and James would likely need their teams to finish first in the West to be in the mix.
Sitting with preseason odds of +2000 are Harden of the Nets and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks, and at +2500 are Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers, Davis and Russell Westbrook of the Lakers and Booker of the Suns.
Let’s 'cap the field, mostly the favorites, but also some of the longer shots:
Doncic (+450): Unless Westbrook outdoes him, he figures to lead the league in triple-doubles for a Dallas team that will have a new coach. Says here he will need to average a T-D and finish first to get the award.
Durant (+600): Arguably the best player in the NBA right now, he will only get this award if he seriously outperforms teammate Harden, who is the odds-on favorite to lead the league in assists and will be asked to score more than expected for as long as Kyrie Irving remains unvaccinated.
Embiid (+700): Reacted favorably to Doc Rivers’ coaching style and would have won the award if he had stayed healthy throughout the season. Simmons' unexpected return to the Sixers on Monday night throws a monkey wrench into the equation, but you can bet your bottom dollar the Sixers were already scheming to play 100 percent through Embiid on offense.
Curry/Antetokounmpo (+900): Safe to assume that both would have to finish first in their respective conferences to get serious consideration. Curry can help himself if he goes above his career-high scoring average of 32.0ppg set last season.
Jokic/James (+1500): The Joker would have to become the first repeat winner of the award since Giannis two years ago, which is not out of the question if the other contenders fall by the wayside due to injuries as they did a year ago. James is never out of consideration even though he has not won this award since 2012-13. He was closing on Giannis when the pandemic hit two seasons ago, you may recall.
Young/Harden (+2000): Young became quite the villain in last year’s postseason as Atlanta knocked off New York and Philadelphia, but making the jump to MVP level may be asking a little much from a player who gets a lot of help from his teammates. As for Harden, splitting the vote with Durant is always going to be a factor. His chances are tied to the Nets’ W-L record.
Leonard/Davis/Booker/Westbrook (+2500): Kawhi is injured and should not even have odds; Davis is always an MVP threat if he can remain healthy; Booker needs two things: For the Suns to finish first, and for himself to be measurably better than Chris Paul, who would get the sentiment votes; Westbrook is an intriguing pick. He was averaging triple doubles down the stretch for Washington last season.
Mitchell/Paul George/Jayson Tatum (+3000): Mitchell finished in first place in the West last season, but teammates Rudy Gobert (Defensive Player of the Year) and Jordan Clarkson (Sixth Man) got the hardware. He needs another No. 1 finish, and the same probably goes for George, who will be asked to carry the Clippers offensively if and until Leonard returns from a torn ACL. Tatum certainly has MVP-caliber talent. But can his Celtics outperform expectations to the degree where he is considered? He is the best flyer of this group.
Zion Williamson (+4000): He is coming off a broken foot. His team was better last season. Highly unlikely.
Ja Morant (+4500): If he played in a market that people actually paid attention to, there might be something in the “worthy flyer” category here. But the Grizzlies are going to have to really, really overperform in order for Morant to even get into the discussion. But if the scoring average goes from 19.1 to something in the 27s or 28s, you never know.
Jimmy Butler (+5500): Worthy flyer alert. Worthy flyer alert. This may be the best two-way player in the entire Eastern Conference, and the Heat are going to be sneaky good in returning most of the same lineup that made it to the NBA Finals two years ago. Amid all the hoopla over the Nets and the Bucks, these guys are under the radar. And if they overperform, it’ll be because of Butler first and foremost … although it may come down to Erik Spoelstra getting the credit in Coach of the Year voting.
Bradley Beal/Irving (+6000): Beal would likely need to be traded to a contender to win this award, and Irving would have to change his stripes (and that cat doesn’t do that quite so easily) in order for either of these to hit. Save your money.
Domantas Sabonis/Julius Randle (+6500): These is a case to be made for both of these guys being worthy of flyers at these prices. Sabonis is the triple-double machine that nobody ever hears about, and he is being coached this season by Rick Carlisle, who likes to spoon-feed his featured scorer. Randle should have been in this discussion rather than the Most Improved Player discussion a year ago, and if the Knicks are an above-60-win team he will be in the discussion this year, assuming the improvement is not directly attributable to Kemba Walker.
Chris Paul/Zach LaVine (+8000): Paul would have to beat back Father Time even more than he did a season ago; LaVine has a quality cast around him and should not be dismissed. His ppg average would need to go from 27.4 to 30ish, which is doable.
Towns (+9000): Unless he gets traded, no way. But if he gets traded (new ownership does not want to get rid of him) he will instantly enter the conversation. Best player nobody ever sees play.
Anthony Edwards, Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton, LaMelo Ball (+15000): Edwards and Siakam’s teams aren’t good enough, Middleton is the embodiment of a second fiddle, whereas Ball has a puncher’s chance if the Hornets can win the East, which ain’t likely. The only player with odds longer than +150000 who is worth a mention is Walker (+40000) of the Knicks. If Randle gets hurt and the Knicks seriously overachieve, he will be the reason.