Sunday, December 4 2022
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USATSI

The MVP award is by far the NBA’s most debated, but it’s worth noting that those debates tend to include only a very small number of players. By the end of last season, the race was almost exclusively between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, but to some extent, we could have predicted that before opening night. Two major qualifiers have whittled the field down to only a few candidates before the past several seasons even began:

  • Every MVP winner since Derrick Rose in 2011 was chosen as either a First-Team or Second-Team All-NBA Player in the previous season.
  • Every MVP winner since Steve Nash in 2006 won the award before his 30th birthday.

So, by that logic, we have only seven viable candidates this season: Jokic, Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker and Ja Morant. Unsurprisingly, when you pull up the odds at Caesars Sportsbook, you’ll see that the four favorites all fall within that group. Six of them are 15-to-1 or better. The highest odds in that group belong to Booker at 30-to-1. The field drops off from there. Only two more players are even at 50-to-1 or lower.

Of course, we wouldn’t be betting responsibly if we limited ourselves exclusively to the “All-NBA players under 30” club, so let’s lay out a few other criteria before diving into the specific candidates:

  • Availability is the best ability. No MVP this century has missed more than 11 games. Of those 23 winners, 17 played in at least 75 games (or the equivalent in a shortened year). Load management has likely relaxed this standard somewhat, but Jokic’s durability has been a major talking point compared to Embiid’s over the past two seasons, when Denver’s center has played in 27 more games than Philadelphia’s.
  • Scorers win this award. The only winner since Kobe Bryant in 2008 to score fewer than 25 points per game was Stephen Curry in 2015. He had a pretty good excuse: His Warriors were blowing opponents out so frequently that he averaged just 32.7 minutes per game.
  • Jokic aside, this award tends to go to top seeds. Prior to Jokic winning from the No. 6 slot last season, the average 21st century MVP won 61 regular-season games, and statistically speaking, a 60-win team from any point in the 21st century had a roughly 38 percent chance of producing an MVP winner. Jokic was only the third player since 2000 to win this award without playing for a top-three seed. Jokic is proof that voters are willing to keep an open mind about candidates on inferior teams, but it’s usually under extenuating circumstances. Jokic won with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. playing just nine combined games for Denver last season. Russell Westbrook won immediately after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City.
  • Previous winners tend to be judged against their own past performance. When a player wins his second MVP award, it almost always comes with either a meaningful statistical improvement or a sizable leap in wins. Historically speaking, this only tends to be true of players seeking their second MVP. Once a player has two, he tends not to be judged against his own standard quite as aggressively. Jokic might be an exception. If he wins MVP this season, he will be the first player since Larry Bird to win three in a row. Neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James ever did it, and there will therefore be voters who judge Jokic not against the field or even himself, but James and Jordan.

And so, with the field trimmed down to a relatively small group, let’s pick our best preseason bets to win the 2022-23 NBA MVP award.

The favorites

I’ll begin by saying that I have bet on Doncic, but I wouldn’t advise you to do the same. I bet him in June, when his odds were sitting in the 600s. He’s now the favorite at +475, but I think he’s less likely to win the award today than I did three months ago. While Jalen Brunson’s absence creates an enormous scoring burden and a narrative boost, Spencer Dinwiddie is a far less capable backcourt partner for Doncic than Brunson was. Playoff lineups featuring Doncic and Brunson scored nearly 115 points per 100 possessions. Swap Brunson in for Dinwiddie and that number falls to around 109. Dinwiddie’s inconsistent shot is going to deprive Doncic of spacing, and Jason Kidd seems ready to exacerbate the problem by starting JaVale McGee at center. Dallas made the Western Conference finals by surrounding Doncic with shooters and wings. They’re doing the exact opposite right now. Eventually they’ll figure that out. That is the time to bet on Doncic, at which point his odds will be more favorable.

Four other players are available at 10-to-1 or lower. I’ll say from the outset that Kevin Durant (+900) is off the board for me. Forget about the trade risk, which is considerable, and remember that he’s played only 90 regular-season games over the past three years. I can’t trust him to stay healthy. Look at it this way: If Kevin Durant winds up meeting the MVP criteria, isn’t it likely that the Nets are a top-two seed? And in that case, doesn’t Steve Nash at +2500 for Coach of the Year look more enticing? There are better ways to bet on Brooklyn than Durant’s MVP odds. 

To a lesser extent, that’s where I’m leaning on Embiid (+550). After two consecutive near misses that were followed by playoff injuries, I have to imagine the 76ers are going to be as cautious as possible with Embiid’s health. Signing Montrezl Harrell allows them to do that. Harrell has averaged at least 22.9 minutes in four consecutive seasons, and he’s not sharing minutes with Embiid. He wouldn’t have picked Philadelphia if he didn’t feel relatively comfortable that he would get playing time even when Embiid is healthy and also have opportunities to start when Embiid misses games. 

I backed Antetokounmpo (+650) before last season. The odds are better this time around, and he’s a more complete player today than he was 12 months ago. I’m still leaning against betting on him even though he’s the best player in the world. With Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all in their 30s and Mike Budenholzer already being conservative with minutes, I just struggle to see the Bucks prioritizing the regular season as much as they have in the past. Lopez was hurt most of the regular season and Middleton is coming off an injury in the playoffs. I wouldn’t fault anyone for betting on Giannis. His stats last year were virtually identical to his 2020 MVP season. You’re essentially betting on whether or not the Bucks care about winning enough games to get Antetokounmpo to the top of the race. I’m guessing they don’t.

That brings us to Jokic (+850), who has an extremely complicated preseason case. At this moment, I’m leaning toward betting on him. Yes, he’s likely to score fewer points with Murray and Porter back in the fold, but their presence also likely leads to significantly more winning. Denver would be my pick to earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, which the franchise has never done in its NBA history (though it has in the ABA). That would make his case distinct enough to pull in voters worried about the historical ramifications of giving him a third straight trophy. Just know that if you make this bet, you’re not winning on ties. Jokic has to be the clear-cut winner. I think he’s likelier to be such a winner than these odds suggest. However, Jokic is not my pick to win the award.

The middle of the pack

Jayson Tatum (+1200) is my pick to win the 2022-23 MVP award. Let’s go through every criteria we’ve covered thus far:

  • Tatum earned First-Team All-NBA honors last season.
  • Tatum is only 24 years old. He’ll be 25 when the trophy is handed out. That’s prime first MVP age. Durant and James were 25 during their first MVP runs, and Antetokounmpo turned 25 soon after.
  • Tatum has never missed more than eight games in a season, and even that number was due to a lengthy COVID absence in the 2020-21 season.
  • Tatum averaged 26.9 points per game last season, and he was trending up as the season ended. From Feb. 13 on, he averaged over 30 points per game.
  • The Celtics had the NBA’s best winning percentage from Jan. 20 on at just shy of 78 percent. That translates to a 64-win pace. From that date on, they outscored opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions. The second-place Grizzlies had a plus-8 net rating in that span. The Celtics destroyed everything in their path until they reached the Finals. They’re bringing back the same roster, but with Malcolm Brogdon added.
  • Tatum has never won this award. Jokic, Durant and Antetokounmpo have. They’re facing harsher standards than Tatum.

I have two more notes on Tatum before we move on to other candidates:

  • Both Tatum and Embiid train with Drew Hanlen. As Hanlen told Chris Mannix, Tatum laid down the gauntlet to Embiid last season by saying “you’d better win MVP this year, because it’s mine next year.” He wants it, and that can be the difference between winning and losing.
  • Who was the last Celtic to win MVP? Larry Bird in 1986. That’s who Jokic is trying to match with his third straight MVP. It would be awfully poetic of a Celtic to deprive him of that honor. That’s a narrative voters can get behind.

I will be betting heavily on Tatum. In truth, there are no other candidates in this range that I especially like, but there are a few I’m keeping an eye on. Stephen Curry (+1600) probably isn’t going to play enough games to seriously compete for MVP, but he easily could have won it two seasons ago. If the Warriors go all-out in the regular season and his shooting percentages revert to their standard excellence, he’ll be right in the thick of things. Trae Young’s odds are a bit low for my taste at +4000, but there’s a common sense to this if you think Dejounte Murray fixes Atlanta’s defense. Young’s offenses are always good, and Murray’s presence shores up the bench units that have been a disaster for his whole career. There’s a fringe case for Atlanta to be a very strong regular-season team. I’m not ready to buy into it yet, but if you can find Young at +6000 or so, I think that would be worth a flier. 

The long shots

I’m staring daggers at James Harden (+10000). He was a serious threat to Jokic in 2021. Before that, he finished in the top three of voting in five of his previous six seasons. Just imagine it. The Sixers, with their revamped supporting cast, start off red hot. Embiid suffers an injury that keeps him out for 20 games or so. Harden keeps him afloat as he did the Nets two years ago without Durant. He starts getting credit for leaving money on the table to help the Sixers sign P.J. Tucker. He’s changed his off-court habits and recaptured his prime form. I have no idea if any of these things actually happen, but at 100-to-1, they’re easy enough to imagine. If the NBA season played out 100 times, I bet it would happen at least once.

I would like to take a swing on at least one Raptor and at least one Cavalier. The Raptors won at a 53-win pace when OG Anunoby was healthy a season ago. Their roster is deeper and Scottie Barnes has so much room to grow. I can’t see him winning MVP in his second season, but at +50000, the odds are so high there’s not much harm in throwing a dollar on it. Pascal Siakam at +15000 is the better play, but I just don’t think he has the upside. In Cleveland, I’m leaning Donovan Mitchell at +80000. Newcomers don’t win this award as frequently as they used to, but players like Steve Nash and Charles Barkley have gotten narrative boosts by lifting the Suns to new heights. I think Cleveland will contend for the No. 1 seed this year, so I want to have a Cavalier in my portfolio.

And then there’s Anthony Edwards at +7500. He’s going to be the offensive engine of a very good regular-season team. He meets every criteria we’ve covered except for scoring, but a third-year leap is relatively standard. He’s also such an incredible quote that voters will want to cover his campaign. I think there are probably safer ways to bet on a strong season in Minnesota, and Edwards is the Most Improved Player favorite at the moment, but if you’re looking for a long shot, Edwards looks a lot like Derrick Rose did before the 2010-11 season.

Source: CBSSports.com

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