Exploring the Depths of NBA Defensive Player of the Year Odds
Last week it was the Most Improved Player of the Year race that was the most notable of the early season awards talk, but this week is all DPOY. Thinking Basketball, one of the sharpest non-betting specific NBA outlets, released a whole podcast around it, and with good reason — there is real depth to this race already.
There’s plenty of actionable words ahead, so let’s not dilly dally too much, but I do want to clarify one big difference for bettors of this award. And it’s a point that is always true with these awards, but maybe even more so right now in this DPOY race, so early on.
There is a vast difference in how to approach betting this race right now if you are the type of bettor to be tracking this market all season versus wanting to make a bet today and then be content with that bet the rest of the way.
But fear not, I address how both bettors should approach this market, so there should be something for everyone. I’m going to tackle this market in tiers for today.
Last but not least, before we dive in, a reminder of what Brandon Anderson has pulled out as the key tenets of a DPOY winner:
“We're looking for a big man on a top three-to-five DRTG defense with previous DPOY and All-Defense voting history, preferably top-two and First-Team. Reputation is king, so past winners are welcome to repeat and young guys are not allowed.”
Let’s start right at the top. Most books have the same three names there:
Rudy Gobert (+600, DraftKings), Evan Mobley (+800, BetRivers), Jaren Jackson Jr. (+1000, PointsBet)
Gobert is a three-time winner of this award, Triple J is the reigning champ, and while Mobley finished “only” third last season, he has an incredibly strong defensive rep early in his career. It’s a strong top three, but with so much of the season to go, none are a recommended bet at this second.
Gobert is rightfully the favorite, however. As noted above, prior standing is massive for DPOY, and no one in the league right now has more prior standing than Gobert. In addition to his three DPOY wins, he is a six-time First Team All-Defense selection. There’s also the fact that, even though it might not be the best way to accurately assess, team defense is a massive part of this award.
The Wolves have had, hands down, the best defense in the league early on this season, stifling opponents better than any other team in the league by basically any metric. It looks incredibly sustainable too, with an elite defensive team around Gobert, and the only potential curveball incoming being a KAT move that would theoretically improve the defense. (Although it’s worth noting that his defense at the rim has actually been very strong to start the season.)
As for Mobley and JJJ, they both fit into the category of “no rush.” For bettors, waiting to get more information on this race (how do the Grizzlies look—both defensively and overall—when Ja returns; will Mobley and Allen be a thing all season in Cleveland), as well as waiting to make sure players avoid any sort of injury that will keep them below the 65-game threshold, is far more valuable at this point in time than getting the slightly longer number.
With all three holding strong right now, it’s hard to imagine one truly running away with this award (ala Maxey with MIP right now), before bettors are able to gather more information and assess this top trio later on.
Players to Write Off
While I want to wait and gather more information on Gobert, Mobley, and JJJ, there are several players just below those three who I think are incredibly mispriced, as well as a few names I am fine writing off (for now) based on several other factors:
Anthony Davis (+1100, FanDuel) — Combining the major health concerns any time you talk about AD alongside the fact that the Lakers defense has been below league average as a whole this season, and the number is just too short.
Victor Wembanyama (+1600, BetRivers) — This is the most mispriced in the entire market, and it’s part of what is making me want to attack right now. Some books have Wemby as low as +700, or 14.4% implied. I’d have him around 2% or +5000. That 10+ percent gap. When combined with your ability to shop around, this price is what makes this a +EV market to be looking at right now.
Consider for a moment only five players in the history of the sport have even made First Team All Defense as rookies. Those names: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Manute Bol. Bol is the only player not in the absolute top tier all-time, and while Wemby has been amazing so far this rookie season, he’s not winning this award.
He’s still incredibly jumpy and foul prone. But even more so, he plays on quite literally the worst defense in the league. Now, that is very much not his fault—in fact, his on-off impact would likely be a central tenet of his case—but let’s not get ahead of the fact that this is a rookie who very well may not play the 65 games needed to qualify (either via injury or “injury” to get a better pick).
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1600, FanDuel), Brook Lopez (+2500, BetRivers) — Bucks defense is an absolute disaster, and one that, while it should improve a bit throughout the season, I don’t think will reach nearly the top 3-5 level we’re looking for here.
Chet Holgrem (+3000, BetRivers) — Similar to Wemby but even less hype in what is still an award that people vote on. I’ll say this though: I think he wins at least one in his career.
Bam Adebayo (+1600, FanDuel) — The Heat defense has been very mediocre this season, and Bam has proven time and time again that he’ll linger around this award but isn’t going to win it.
Herb Jones (+4000, PointsBet), Walker Kessler (+5000, PointsBet) — Including these two because they are as short as 25:1 at some books, and although they are indeed two incredibly fun defensive studs, they don’t have nearly the defensive reputation to get this award just yet. There’s another category coming later they could have fit into, but for both, their team’s overall defensive ranking is going to kill any hope of even being a leverage-able piece.
Bettors can see with so many names that are either mis-priced or just not bettable, there’s a lot to work with and bet.
OG Anunoby (+2500, Caesars), Scottie Barnes (+6000, BetRivers) — I’m lumping these two together for reasons beyond just team and position. They are the only two among the even semi-real contenders (the Toronto defense has been outstanding with these two very much at the helm) who I both don’t want to bet (or even leverage right now), but don’t want to write off. I’m keeping my eye on them until further notice.
Second Tier I Like
Joel Embiid (+2500, BetRivers) — Ok here’s the spot if you want to make one bet, and you don’t want any of the top three.
Embiid is averaging the second-best rebounds and blocks per game of his career, while also being once again one of the best rim protectors.
Rim Protection Check-In!
➡️ More Rim FGA Defended
⬇️ More Effective Rim Protection
What stands out? pic.twitter.com/6BsJaDWsYX
— NBA University (@NBA_University) November 13, 2023
There is no way on God’s green earth that he is winning MVP again this season, so if voters want to reward what has actually been his best season so far, this is the way to do it. Philly’s defense ranks eighth overall this season, but that’s actually an unlucky ranking. By Crafted NBA’s adjusted defensive ratings, they rank tied for fourth, and Embiid has been central to that, leading the team in nearly every advanced defensive metric.
The health issues are always there with Joel, but at more than twice the number you can get for AD (and again: on a better team defense), this is a great bet to have right now.
Jrue Holiday (+2500, BetRivers) — Here’s the other potentially great set-it, bet-it, and forget-it guy. The Celtics defense is tied with the Sixers early on in those luck-adjusted rankings, and while they have several key cogs in that defense, Jrue has been the best. Jayson Tatum can actually match Jrue on most on most statistical fronts right now, but that would be a very large leap for Tatum whereas it’s the baseline for Jrue. As such, it’s fair to think that Tatum will come back to earth a bit. That’s even before we get to talking about how the Celtics are using Jrue. Thinking Basketball did an awesome video the other day about just this topic, so watch it here:
Jrue is also a three-time First Team All Defense NBA selection, but one who has never won DPOY, which matters for a narrative award like this. Add in the fact that he’s arguably the most likable player in the league (again: it’s an award real live humans vote on), and at +2500, there is a ton of value right now.
Draymond Green (+3000, DraftKings) — Dray is my least favorite of these three, in part because the Warriors defense is a little worse than Philly and Boston (though it will likely end the season around the 76ers), but also because I struggle to see Draymond winning the award over either of these other two if it came down to a head to head between them late season, and like these awards often do. He has a decent chance to be in the conversation at the end of the year, but at 30:1, I’m actually looking at a few pieces with longer odds to serve that exact purpose.
Speaking of which…
For these bets, I don’t actually think these players will win DPOY. But I think there is a very good chance they will be in the final conversation, and thus: getting them at such a long number now will allow us to leverage them later on to potentially load up on the favorite, if needed.
Jaden McDaniels (+10000, DraftKings) — I have referenced this moment on a few podcasts, but I do think it was notable that Kevin Durant settled on McDaniels as the toughest defender in the league when he was on NBA TV recently. McDaniels doesn’t have the recognition in this award yet, having not even made a Second Team All Defense Team yet, but this feels like the year he arrives on the scene.
As mentioned just above, last season, when the narrative surrounding Brook Lopez first began, bettors could grab him at +15000, and as the season moved along and the DPOY race moved into a two-man race between Lopez and JJJ, being able to leverage that 150:1 ticket on Lopez held immense value, even though he didn’t end up winning the award. That’s the thought here with McDaniels and co.
Of all the players we have talked about so far, he has the best health projections (young and hasn’t been they type with nagging injuries year-in, year-out), and with Gobert and the rest of that Wolves defense as is, that is likely to be a top unit all season. Even though it’s early in the season, here’s where the team with the best defensive rating on November 14 has ranked the last five seasons (skipping Covid year): Bucks (4th), Celtics (2nd), Lakers (3rd), Celtics (7th), Celtics (1st).
It’s certainly not a guarantee to end the season in the top three, but it’s a great sign the defense will still be elite by the end of the season. The worry with McDaniel is that Rudy Gobert will get all the credit—but that’s why Gobert is +600 and McDaniel is +10000.
There’s a very solid chance McDaniel will be in the conversation for this award, and being able to leverage a +10000 ticket will have real, actionable value. If you aren’t going to be betting this award as the season goes along, this isn’t the play for you, however.
Mitchell Robinson (+8000, BetRivers) — The thought process here is similar to Jaden McDaniels, plus Matt Moore, Joe Dellera, and I talked this over in great length, even landing on Robinson as the play for the Buckets podcast on Monday, so make sure to check that out.
Nic Claxton (+10000, BetRivers) — This is Joe Dellera’s favorite of the longshots here, and while I was hesitant at +4000 (because of the fact that he has already missed eight games and that he doesn’t have the reputational cache of some others here), at 100:1, it’s worth a tiny sprinkle for a player who finished in the top 10 of the award last season. Again: the top value here is as a potential leverage piece later in the season.
If you are looking for one player to bet:
Joel Embiid (+2500, BetRivers)
Jrue Holiday (+2500, BetRivers)
Building blocks of a portfolio:
Jaden McDaniels (+10000, DraftKings)
Mitchell Robinson (+8000, BetRivers)
Nic Claxton (+10000, BetRivers)