2019 NBA MVP Odds: Has Giannis Distanced Himself from the Field?

2019 NBA MVP Odds: Has Giannis Distanced Himself from the Field? article feature image

Photo credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Bucks defeated James Harden and the Rockets last night, 108-94, in Milwaukee.
  • With those two neck-and-neck for the 2019 NBA MVP award, did Giannis put his final stamp on the race?

You can argue about who is the most deserving third-place MVP candidate this year — Paul George, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard? — but the top-two spots are set in stone at this point. The Westgate Las Vegas  SuperBook agrees, as Giannis Antetokounmpo (-400) and James Harden (+300) far outpace the field.

And after last night’s game between the Bucks and Rockets, it seems that Giannis put his final stamp on the race. The Bucks won, 108-94, in Milwaukee, and Giannis finished with 19-14-4 in 32 minutes. Harden shot just 9-of-26 in the game and was held to 23 points in 37 minutes.

Here’s a full rundown of the odds via Westgate, before diving into the race a bit deeper as it stands today (March 27), broken down by tiers:

Tier 1: Giannis and Harden

At the beginning of the year, I built an NBA MVP model that I’ve updated throughout the season. Right now, I have Harden and Giannis neck-and-neck, which doesn’t seem to be consensus at all.

Matt Moore’s straw poll suggested Giannis was a near-lock, and Basketball Reference’s gives him a 54.8% probability of winning. Harden is just at 20.5% with Jokic at third at 6.1%.

My model and the one from Basketball Reference aren’t that different; mine is just a bit higher on Harden’s odds given his ridiculous statistical thresholds this year. He is currently averaging 36.2 points per game, and the Rockets are currently projected by FiveThirtyEight to surpass 50 wins and finish third in the tough Western Conference.

This isn’t Russell Westbrook in 2017, when he was a statistical historic outlier (averaging a triple-double) but didn’t have the massive team success. The Thunder that year finished sixth in the West with 47 wins. Harden is putting up ridiculous numbers and his team is in the top three of one of the most talent-heavy conferences ever.

And let’s put Harden’s scoring this season in perspective. Removing Wilt Chamberlain, who ruins record books, here are the players to hit 35-plus points per game when playing at least 60 games in a season:

  • Michael Jordan in 1986-87: 37.1 PPG
  • James Harden in 2018-19: 36.2 PPG
  • Rick Barry in 1966-67: 35.6 PPG
  • Kobe Bryant in 2005-06: 35.4 PPG

Of course, points per game isn’t everything in an MVP race, although Basketball Reference’s model is quite simple. According to an old blog, they weigh just four metrics: team wins, points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game. Using those, you can get the winner in a lot of seasons.

But not all seasons: For example, in 2005 and 2006 it had Steve Nash ranked fourth and seventh, respectively. Using my model for those years, it was lower on Nash, too. In 2001, it had Shaquille O’Neal as the predicted winner; Allen Iverson took home the award.

This is not a shot at that model or mine. The point is, voter habits don’t seem to be as predictable for MVP as they do in, say, Rookie of the Year, where using raw metrics (points + rebounds + assists), you can nail the award every year. It seems that there’s more to the MVP race — be it an “it factor,” some other narrative, exposure on national TV, etc.

And so while I think Harden in a normal year should be essentially even with Giannis in terms of candidacy — and thus a good value bet — it probably just won’t happen this year. Giannis is the biggest rising star in the NBA at just 24 years old, he was a co-captain for the NBA All-Star game with LeBron and his Bucks are a league-best 56-19 and should have home-court advantage during the entirety of the playoffs.

So for as much as Harden has taken on a ridiculous offensive load and largely delivered at unprecedented levels, Giannis seems to be the voters’ choice.

Tier 2: Nikola Jokic, Paul George, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant

I’ll probably get some fun mentions on Twitter with not having Paul George either in Tier 1 or by himself in Tier 2, but I think that’s just really underrating Jokic specifically.

Jokic, a superstar 23-year-old center in Denver, is perhaps the most underrated player in the league. His stats this season are incredible, and any way you want to measure value, he’s right there with the top guys. He’s ahead of this group in most advanced metrics, and he’s the surefire best player on a Nuggets team that’s right with Golden State for first in the West.

The argument for PG over Jokic is an easy one, sure: George leads the entire NBA with a +7.37 ESPN Real Plus-Minus, and he’s had perhaps the best two-way season in the league. Defense is hard to measure statistically, but every stat we have — plus the eye test — suggests he’s been utterly awesome on both ends of the floor.

But the argument for Jokic over PG is also an easy one: PG gets a boost in plus-minus metrics because the Thunder bench is infinitely worse than Denver’s; it’s no surprise OKC falls off without the starters.

And as much as Jokic is maligned for his defensive play, the Nuggets have been largely just fine with him on the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Denver starters have allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions — a top-10 mark in the NBA. Further, Jokic has the argument of other advanced stats plus the top-end team success Denver has seen this year.

They’re both awesome top-five candidates, but let’s give the Joker some love, too.

Tier 3: Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard and others

It’s sometimes difficult to discuss MVP: Is it best player or best season? If the former, LeBron James should have way more than his four MVPs; he’s been the best player for essentially the last decade. Curry and Kawhi are other examples: They’re likely top-five players right now, and if you wanted a player for the playoffs, they would be on a very short list of players.

But if it’s “best season,” then these guys are in a lower tier, most of them in part to having awesome teammates around them and thus less important roles than, say, Giannis has — or too much missed time due to rest and injuries.

All in all, this seems to be a two-man race between Giannis and Harden, and it’ll be interesting to see if the media continues to crown the Greek Freak as the early winner, especially after last night’s head-to-head victory.

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