2023 NBA MVP Odds & Picks: Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard and More Value Bets Entering the Season
Pictured (L-R): Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Clippers, Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Bucks, Luka Doncic #77 of the Mavericks, Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets, Joel Embiid #21 of the 76ers.
I'm previewing every awards race heading into the new 2022-23 NBA season, and we saved the biggest one for last — MVP.
What makes the Most Valuable Player discussion so delectable is that the entire conversation is deliciously opaque. There are no rules, no clear definition of what exactly makes someone "valuable."
Voters are simply told to vote for the best performing player in the regular season — whatever that means.
But while there are no specific MVP voting rules, that doesn't mean there's no way to predict who will win it. Voters reveal their criteria and answers to those questions above with their ballots each year. So what have voters told us?
We can learn a lot about predicting future awards by looking back at the past. Let's build a historical MVP profile by looking at past winners, then follow our patterns to choose who to bet on in 2022-23.
Don’t forget to check out my other futures breakdowns and best bets:
- Rookie of the Year
- Most Improved Player
- Defensive Player of the Year
- Coach of the Year
- Division Best Bets
- Over/Under Best Bets
Who Wins MVP?
Here are the past 10 MVPs:
- 2022: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
- 2021: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
- 2020: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
- 2019: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
- 2018: James Harden, Rockets
- 2017: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
- 2016: Steph Curry, Warriors
- 2015: Steph Curry, Warriors
- 2014: Kevin Durant, Thunder
- 2013: LeBron James, Heat
Looking at the list of recent winners, I found four key big-picture traits true of almost every MVP.
1. MVPs score a lot of points.
Even in the era of advanced metrics, voters are still suckers for raw numbers — and points remain king.
Fourteen of the past 15 MVPs have scored at least 25 points per game. That's a 93% hit rate, with 2015 Curry the only exception, and he was just one PPG short. We expect our MVPs to score, and score a lot.
That 25 PPG might not seem like a high bar, but only 14 players fit that criteria last season. Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Karl-Anthony Towns all fell short. We had 40 guys at 20 PPG, but 25 PPG is a much steeper ask.
The average MVP the past decade scored 28.5 PPG.
2. MVPs win a lot of games.
Yes, voters really are that basic. Much of the time, it really is just the best player on the best team.
We've had 23 MVPs this century. Sixteen of them (70%) played on No. 1-seed. Four more were on No. 2 seeds, which means 87% played for a top-two seed. Of course, the three outliers were Nikola Jokic the last two seasons as No. 3- and No. 6-seeds and Russell Westbrook in 2017 as a No. 6-seed. Those are the only three MVPs since Michael Jordan in 1988 to win the award outside the top-two.
Even including those recent outliers, winning is still king. MVPs this century average over a 60-win pace and a 1.56-seed. Heck, even narrowing the scope to just the last six years still means a 56-win pace for our MVPs, and that includes all three outliers.
3. MVPs play a lot of basketball.
As the old saying goes, the best ability is availability. You can't be the most valuable player from the bench — or the injury report.
There's little doubt Joel Embiid would've won one of the past two MVPs if he'd played more, but Jokic played all but eight games between the two seasons. Jokic held a huge 18.6-10.3 VORP advantage over Embiid the past two seasons, because he played more than 1,000 additional minutes. That's value.
Over the last 40 seasons, no MVP missed more than 11 games. That means at least 71 games played, an increasingly difficult bar in today's game. Remember how MVPs always score 25 PPG? Only Jokic, Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan, and Jayson Tatum scored 25 a game and played at least 71 last year. In many ways, Jokic won a war of attrition as the last man standing.
In fact, only six MVPs in the last 40 seasons have even missed more than six games! That's a heck of a bar, and it should be an immediate red flag for guys like Embiid, Curry, Durant, and James.
4. MVPs are young — but not too young.
Age is more than just a number.
All but four MVPs this century were age 24 to 28 their winning season. Makes sense, right? Younger players are still trying to win over the voters, and older players are on the wrong side of their primes, which means increased injury risk and deteriorating skills.
The only four MVPs outside that age range this century were Derrick Rose (age 22), Kobe Bryant (29), and Steve Nash twice (30-31). Rose is the only MVP since 1983 under age 24, and all four MVPs are considered questionable choices looking back.
That's a pretty narrow age range. The MVP favorite, Luka Doncic, is still only 23. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson are 23 and 22. Durant, Curry, James, Harden, and Paul George are all at least 32. Each of them would be the oldest MVP of the century.
Our Winning MVP Profile:
History tells us MVPs score at least 25 PPG, win enough to be a top-2 seed, play almost all their team's games, and are 24 to 28 years old.
Nine of the last 14 MVPs checked all four of those boxes. That's not perfect, but it's a 64% hit rate from just four simple rules. And of the five that weren't exact fits, only Jokic last year missed more than one box.
Are voter tendencies starting to shift? Maybe …
- Four of the last five MVPs missed more than six games. They missed 8, 10, 10, and 10, so it looks like 10 games missed is a fair bar in the modern era. That means 72 played, so you wonder if even 65 might keep someone in the mix.
- Three of the last six MVPs were not top-2 seeds. Their MVP seeds were 6, 3, 1, 1, 1, and 6, an average of a 3.0-seed and a 56.1-win pace.
This wouldn't be the first time MVP criteria shifted with the times. All but two MVPs before 1980 were big men. All but two MVPs last century played at least 36 minutes a game. The slower-paced 90s saw seven straight MVPs older than our 24-to-28 sweet spot, including six MVPs in their 30s.
None of those outdated trends are relevant anymore. Seven of the last eight MVPs played under 35 minutes a game, and we had 11 straight perimeter player MVPs before Giannis and Jokic the last few years. Maybe games played and winning as a high seed are becoming less important now too.
We need to be open to the possibility that MVP voter patterns are shifting, but we can still use what we've learned from history to direct our search rather than just blinding grabbing names.
Let's dig into the candidates, starting with the favorite.
Odds are the best available as of Oct. 17.
Luka Doncic (+500 FanDuel)
To bet Luka Doncic for MVP, you either have to believe the Mavericks are capable of winning 55 or 60 games — or you have to think everything above is completely irrelevant, voter patterns are dead, and it's just which high-usage heliocentric player puts up the prettiest stats now.
Luka averaged 28/9/9 last year, and that was with Jalen Brunson. Could he average a 30-point triple-double this year without him? Absolutely! Could he lead the league in scoring? He might! Doncic averaged 32 PPG in 25 games after the Porzingis trade with over 10 3-point attempts per game. He led the league in usage each of the past two seasons and should go up.
Doncic falls outside our MVP age range. He would be the second youngest MVP winner since the 70s. Has he won enough voters over with his style?
He also likely falls outside the winning criteria. The Mavs have the seventh highest win total in the West. History says we need a team capable of a run at the 1-seed. Books have the Mavericks priced as a play-in team.
The best Doncic MVP case comes in two parts. First, he played at EuroBasket so he might actually show up ready for Game 1 rather than using the first two months to play himself into shape. And second, Doncic perfectly fits recent winner trends, if what MVP voters want to make trendy is an all-usage, high-stats, 6-seed All-Star.
Could Luka Doncic win MVP? Absolutely. But should you bet him right now given the history of this award, combined with the fact that he has the shortest odds on the board? No way.
Unless you think the Mavs are a contender for a top spot and will prove it right out of the gates, there will almost certainly be a better buy point later in the season. Don't bet Doncic right now.
The Second Bananas
Can you really be the most valuable player of the entire league if you're not even the best player on your own team?
Davis is not better than LeBron James, Harden isn't better than Embiid, and George comes in second to Kawhi Leonard. Everyone knows this. George said himself just last week.
In case that's not already disqualifying, all three are older than our ideal age range, scored under 25 PPG each of the last two seasons, and are injury risks.
Could these guys briefly join the conversation? "Hey, you know who's keeping the Team X even without Superstar Z these last few weeks?!" Sure, maybe. But that doesn't win MVP.
Probably Too Young
Ja Morant (+1500 DraftKings)
Zion Williamson (+2500 BetRivers)
Anthony Edwards (+8000 BetRivers)
I know how excited you are about these guys, but history says to save your money. Each of them would be the second-youngest MVP since the '70s. You might not think that matters, but it takes a while to win voters over.
Ja Morant put up a ton of points last season, and played on the second-best team in the West. He also finished seventh in MVP voting despite that. Part of that was due to injuries, but Morant's relentless style makes him a recurring injury risk. His Grizzlies are also priced as a fringe play-in team and missing their second-best player to start the season. It's probably not his year.
Zion Williamson is skinny, and that's great, but he's a bad MVP ticket right now. Think of it like investing in a hot new tech company — not last summer when the stock was low, nor two months from now when everyone's raving about the proven product, but right now after the reveal show, right as the stock price is spiking.
Zion was at +6600 two months ago. If you wanted to make a speculative sprinkle at that point, I wouldn't have stopped you. But at 25-1 when we have no idea how healthy he is, how he'll fit on the new-look Pelicans, what numbers he'll produce, or how good that team will be, it's just not a wise investment.
If you must play a young star, Anthony Edwards is the best play because of the long number — and because he plays on the best team of the three. Rudy Gobert's teams are usually regular season juggernauts. If the Wolves push 60 wins and Edwards makes another leap as the face of this team, he'll get some buzz.
Probably Too Old
Kevin Durant (+1000 Caesars)
Stephen Curry (+1600 BetRivers)
LeBron James (+3500 Circa)
Kawhi Leonard (+4000 Circa)
Jimmy Butler (+8000 Caesars)
It's not that age itself is disqualifying — it's that increased age is highly correlated with injuries and games missed. That's even true for the game's greats, guys who have won plenty of accolades and know to save their best for May and June.
Jimmy Butler played some of his best ball ever for the top-seeded Heat last season. He didn't get a single MVP vote. He's averaged 58 games the past five regular seasons and just came off a deep, grueling postseason run. He's a no bet.
LeBron James has played 56, 45, 67, and 55 games his four Lakers years, an average of under 56 games per season. That's just not enough.
James barely averaged 25 PPG the two seasons before last, and there's little reason to believe the Lakers will be anything close to a top seed. He would be the oldest MVP in history by three full years.
LeBron gets his own rules so you never know, but you should really only bet on James if you're hoping for a cash-out play.
Durant and Curry are more realistic MVP contenders.
Kevin Durant has played 90 games the last two seasons since returning from that torn Achilles, just 58% of the available games. Durant is 34 with a ton of miles, and he also has about 30 added variables of various Nets teammates and situations.
We know Durant is good enough to win MVP, but that's not what you're betting on. You're betting on him staying healthy all season, playing 70 games, and being a top-two seed. That's not impossible, but it's not a smart bet, especially as the fourth shortest favorite on the board.
Stephen Curry is the smarter bet. The Warriors are better, a clear threat for a top seed with the championship core intact. Curry has less injury history and has played at least mid-60s games in eight of the last 10 seasons. The scoring and production will obviously be there.
Steph was a huge MVP favorite as the calendar turned to January. Then Draymond Green got hurt, Curry's numbers fell off, he got hurt, and the Warriors stumbled toward the playoffs. Curry finished with four MVP votes.
You can choose to interpret that as seeing value on Curry because he was just that close to winning a year ago. Or you can see it as evidence of just how unlikely it would be for a player Steph's age, coming off an additional 764 playoff minutes in what might be the Warriors' Last Dance chance at a ring, instead using his energy for another MVP run.
It's not impossible. But at +1600, it's not a good bet either.
The one bet I absolutely do need to make in this tier is Kawhi Leonard.
Could Kawhi be this season's Curry? Everything lines up. He's healthy and rested after a full season away and was as good as any player on the planet the last time we saw him on a court. The Clippers are loaded and certainly have the depth and talent to make a run at 60 wins and the top spot in the West.
Leonard is an elite two-way player who scores plenty of points, and he's easily the best current player without an MVP. That gives Kawhi a very easy narrative path if he's anywhere near contention. Doesn't Kawhi Leonard deserve an MVP at some point?
Voters will ask themselves that too, especially if Leonard comes back and looks great. Remember how Kevin Durant was the straw poll MVP last season before getting hurt.
Obviously the huge red flag here is games played. Leonard hasn't played more than 66 games since his major injury with the Spurs, and he's never played more than 74. He's almost entirely skipped playing back-to-backs for the Clippers. It's pretty hard to see him top out past 60 or 65 games.
But if 60 games and a top-2 seed as the best player on one of the league's best teams is a very plausible outcome, then isn't it pretty reasonable to think 67 games and the top record in the league is in play? At +4000, we only need a 2.4% chance of victory. That number is far too low.
The Clippers are my title favorite, and they might be the best team in the league. If they look the part the first few weeks and Leonard looks great, he's a guy whose MVP price will slash to +1000 practically overnight.
Now is the time. Kawhi Leonard at +4000 is my favorite MVP long shot on the board, and if you're only making one bet right now, he'd be my pick.
These Guys Are In Range, If You Believe
Devin Booker (+4500 Caesars)
Trae Young (+5000 PointsBet)
Karl-Anthony Towns (+7500 Circa)
Donovan Mitchell (+8000 DraftKings)
Young, Mitchell, and Towns are off the radar as MVP candidates, but they make more sense than you think. Each on a team expected to be in that 4-to-6 seed range. Each is in his prime, at the right age with little health risk, so we expect the numbers and games played to be there.
What if the Hawks or Cavs surprise as a top-2 seed in the East? What if the Wolves do so in the West? It's probably only five wins above expectation, so it's certainly in play.
Trae Young averaging 30/10 for a No. 2 seed would be on every MVP ballot. So would Donovan Mitchell as the 28 PPG shiny new toy of a darling Cavs team suddenly atop the East.
History tells us those three are too off the radar, having never received so much as an MVP sniff before. They're intriguing and could have a moment but probably cash-out plays at best.
Devin Booker's number is too long. He finished fourth in MVP voting last season, after all. He's in his prime and put up 29/5/5 for a 64-win team literally six months ago, and that team is — for better or for worse — basically running it back.
I can't get past the Phoenix stank, but if you believe in the Suns, these odds are too long. Personally, I think last year was the high water mark.
The 4 Bullseyes
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+600 PointsBet)
Joel Embiid (+700 Caesars)
Nikola Jokic (+1200 Caesars)
Jayson Tatum (+1400 DraftKings)
These are the four best age 24-to-28 players in the league. Each one plays on a team that could be a 1-seed. They all put up numbers. These four check every box. They're our four most likely MVPs heading into the new season.
Personally, I can't quite put Jayson Tatum with the other three. He did score 30.2 PPG from February 13 forward, and if he puts up 30 PPG for a 60-win Celtics team, he'd absolutely be an MVP threat.
Even then, unless Boston blows away the field, Tatum leaves me a little cold. If you asked NBA fans to rank the four guys above, I suspect Tatum would be a near unanimous 4th place. He's just not quite the level of those upper echelon guys. Combine that with the weird Celtics energy after the Ime Udoka suspension and Robert Williams injury news, and I just can't get there.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a good MVP ticket until proven otherwise.
Barring injury, Giannis will put up something like 30/11/6 as one of the league's clear top three players, and three might be too high. The Bucks played at 60, 63, 52, and 51-win paces the last four years. They'll always be in the mix near the top of the East with a healthy Antetokounmpo.
It's notable that those two low 50s win totals came the last two years, though. Giannis is in his prime, but his teammates are not. It's a rapidly aging Bucks team, ad Khris Middleton is already injured to start the year. The Bucks roster is sneakily not as strong or deep as it once was.
For Milwaukee to finish as a top-2 seed, Antetokounmpo would probably have to play well enough and long enough to deserve MVP. But I'm not sure he or the team believe that's this year's goal. This roster will save itself for a playoff run, and that means Antetokounmpo too. He's almost too valuable.
Joel Embiid is the back-to-back runner-up and led the league in scoring last season. He plays on a Philadelphia team I've repeatedly written about as a possible regular season juggernaut and serious 1-seed threat.
Voters love Embiid. They're dying to give him MVP. There's just one problem.
Embiid missed 14 games last season. He missed 21 each of the two years before that. Embiid's played 328 games across eight NBA seasons, just 51.6% of the available games. Even if you throw out the first three seasons, Embiid is averaging just 59.4 games the last five years. It's just not enough.
The Sixers might be good enough to weather the storm without Embiid this year, keeping their record pristine with defense plus Harden and Tyrese Maxey. If Embiid matches last year's 68 games for a 60-win squad and there just isn't a 78-game candidate that checks every box, could he win MVP?
He could. But even in that best-case scenario, he's still not a sure thing. It's just too much to ask of a +700 third favorite.
Even if you do want to bet Embiid, you shouldn't do it right now. That injury is coming, even if it's just two or three weeks. That's when you buy the dip and add Embiid to your portfolio.
And then there's Nikola Jokic, who would be my slam dunk MVP pick if not for one tiny problem: voter fatigue.
Jokic's numbers are out of this world. He's at the peak of his prime and might be the best player in the world. And with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., he plays for a team that could win as many games as anyone. He's also durable and plays almost every game.
Jokic could easily be the best player with the best stats on the best team.
But are voters too sick of rewarding him to care? Would they really give Jokic a third straight MVP?
LeBron James never won three straight MVPs. Neither did Michael Jordan, nor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only three men ever have. Would voters really make Jokic the fourth?
If Jokic really is that good, if the Nuggets really are one of the best teams in the league, and if Jokic is clearly the best player and checks every box, are you sure you're willing to bet on voter fatigue being enough to stand in his way?
How many potential MVPs really truly were robbed by voter fatigue? Michael Jordan in 1997 is an easy one. You can argue for LeBron James in 2011, but that was a different sort of Decision fatigue. Any other examples? It's not as common as you think.
Nikola Jokic is an absolute bullseye. He's my pick to win this year's MVP. If you're only betting one name for the year, he's the ticket I'd recommend.
If you're planning to monitor this race and build a portfolio, Jokic is an absolute must-have, and you should bet him now because his odds will only shorten. Bet365 has a promo with Jokic available at +1400, implying a 6.7% chance.
There is no way on God's green earth a player this good in his prime on this great of a team has only a 6.7% shot at MVP.
Best Bets Heading into the Season
I'm making two MVP bets right now: Kawhi Leonard at +4000 and Nikola Jokic at +1400.
That effectively gives me a Kawhi-or-Jokic ticket at +1000 heading into the season, and I feel fantastic about that since those are the best players on easily my two favorite teams in the West.
I'll build a portfolio all season, and the hope is to buy the dip on Embiid and Antetokounmpo at some point at +1000 or longer. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We can wait for the right price.
If I do land Giannis and Embiid later at +1000 and add them to my preseason Kawhi and Jokic tickets, I'll have an MVP position on any one of those four winning MVP at around +265. Sounds like a winning position to me.