NBA Futures Bets & Picks: Giannis Antetokounmpo Among 4 Bets for Wide Open MVP Race
John Fisher/Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Welcome back to Futures Friday!
Every week I dive into futures bets to play based on where the value is at that point in the season. There are four futures bets I’m eying this week, all focused on one award: Most Valuable Player.
For the most recent edition of this column, click here. For the full list of bets I’ve made so far this season, check out the chart below.
Typically here on Futures Friday, we put in a half-unit of bets. This week, however, we’re getting serious on the MVP race as we approach the 50-games mark and we’re bumping it to a full two units.
The MVP race has been topsy turvy over the last month. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry had separated themselves from the pack to a degree. Then, Curry underwent the worst shooting slump of his career and Durant suffered a sprained MCL that all but guarantees he will play less than 60 games this season which will make it very difficult for him to make up ground when he does return even if he didn’t rest further, which he likely will.
So now we’re in an interesting spot. There are still random “Shouldn’t this guy be in the conversation?!” takes from the talking heads and big media perspectives. (Hi, there, LeBron, we see you.) But realistically, if we take Durant out — which makes me nervous but the games played numbers are pretty black and white — then we’re down to four serious candidates, and so we’re putting a half-unit on each of those today after shopping around.
If you’re not looking to build a broad position like I have, just peruse these and decide which is the most compelling argument for you.
Stephen Curry MVP +400 (DraftKings, 0.5 units)
This is absolutely buying the dip. Curry was the favorite from around the two-week mark of the season on until the last two weeks. It took a career-worst slump from Curry to drag him down. He’s still at less than +350 at some books, so we’re getting the best value here at 4-1 at the down point.
Notably, on Thursday night, Curry went 10-of-20 from the field and 6-of-10 from deep on his way to 29 points in a win over the Wolves. One game is one game, but with Curry I’m much closer to believing that any bounceback will likely lead to a regression to the mean and that the worst is over.
Curry’s been dealing with a hand injury but while he’s gotten treatment there hasn’t been any indication it will be a long-term issue.
With Draymond Green out, the Warriors’ ceiling is definitely lower, but they’ve won four in a row and six of eight. They will be underdogs once, maybe twice even without Green in the month of February.
No one has less resistance than Curry. If his shooting numbers stabilize and the Warriors have a top-three record, and Curry finishes top five in scoring with a stellar net rating? Voters will want to vote for him.
So we’re adding Curry here.
Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum from “buying the dip” is this. There are a bunch of reasons to stay away from Embiid and why I’m not putting a bigger position on him.
For one, the injury threat is just always so high. Embiid suffered a torn meniscus in the playoffs last year and did not have surgery on it over the summer. His performance is all the more impressive because of it, but there’s always the risk of a sprain or soreness keeping him out double digit games.
The Sixers have the fifth-toughest remaining schedule based on strength of schedule and have more rest disadvantage games (four) than rest advantage games (three). They are 11-13 in games vs. teams .500 or better this season. Some of that was during their COVID-impacted stretch, but it’s a slight concern.
Embiid doesn’t really match up on any statistical level with Jokic’s production or Curry’s impact, but it hasn’t stopped the narrative. TNT Thursday spent a significant amount of time gassing up Embiid whose numbers are still dominant.
Embiid’s advantage defensively is significant as well. Even with the Nuggets 14th in defense and Jokic’s individual defensive numbers stellar, and the Warriors No. 1 in defense, the perception of Embiid’s defensive edge is massive. (His edge is very much real, he’s one of the best defensive players in the league. The perception of him exceeds even that.)
So if you look at the East and expect the Sixers to pass the Nets without Durant and the Bulls to cool down, Embiid could wind up with a top-two seed averaging 29-11-4 on 50-37-81 splits. That’s more than enough for him to get by Curry if he doesn’t come out of the slump and Jokic if the Nuggets can’t climb in the win column.
Giannis is in the top spot at a few books but is also +350 at Wynn. The lack of market consensus allows for a lot of arbitrage opportunities if you think the race really is four guys. (I tried to get there with Ja Morant and just couldn’t quite make the leap.)
Here’s the argument for Giannis: Giannis is right there with Embiid for most points per game among the MVP candidates. He’s averaging more rebounds — which is insane — and obviously more assists. Embiid shoots better from 3 than Antetokounmpo, but Antetokounmpo has been so much better from 2 (53% to 49%) that Giannis’ eFG% is better. So better overall production with better efficiency.
The Bucks are one game back of the Sixers in the loss column and three back of the 1-seed.
When Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday play together, the Bucks are 18-4 (!!!). That’s an 82% win percentage when those three guys are available. If the Bucks decide to make a late-season push, they can rattle off a nine-game win streak. Brook Lopez is still expected back at some point this season.
Now, the bad news. Milwaukee is 12-13 vs. teams .500 and better this season and they have the toughest remaining strength of schedule by win percentage at .542 on average.
They have five back-to-backs remaining, and their typically flawless division record is still great at 7-3, but not without blemish against a much tougher slate of teams.
If the Bucks decide to coast as champs do, Giannis’ numbers will look awesome and everyone knows he’s a DPOY candidate, but if the Bucks don’t finish with a top-three seed or win their division, voters will usually give the winning team the edge.
He’s still worth the bet here, because quite honestly if the only thing between Giannis and the MVP is how much the Bucks want to win in the regular season, he controls his own destiny to a degree.
This number is a little preposterous and there’s a reason why he’s shorter at several books.
Look, not all voters are going to give deep dives. They’re not going to study all the metrics and do all the film. But a decent amount are pretty smart voters who pay attention. Here’s what Jokic’s case looks like:
No player in NBA history has averaged 26-13-7 until this season. If you drop the restrictions to 25-10-7, only Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson have. If you take that and add “shot at least 50% from the field,” it’s just Jokic and Robertson.
Jokic leads the league in Estimated Plus-Minus at Dunks And Threes by a wide margin. If you’ve never heard of that, that’s fine, it’s new. Here’s what you should know. The MVP winner has been top five in each of the last eight seasons and top three in seven of the last eight. Its predictive value has been high in a small sample.
Jokic also leads in: VORP, PER, Win Shares, 538’s RAPTOR, and Box Plus-Minus. Every significant multi-variable metric doesn’t just suggest that Jokic is superior, but superior by a wide margin.
OK, but the Nuggets are 26-21, 6th in the West. That’s not good enough.
Let’s re-pin it.
The Nuggets are two games back in the loss column from the Sixers, one back of the Bucks, and four back from the 3rd seed. The Nuggets have the 21st-ranked strength of schedule remaining by opponent win percentage, with 19 of their final 35 at home, and an even split of rest advantage and disadvantage spots.
Jamal Murray is likely back sometime in late February/early March, and Michael Porter Jr. might return by the end of the season.
If the Nuggets finish top four without Jamal Murray and MPJ for 85% of the season? And he’s got this statistical edge? And he’s finally getting public respect (second-biggest vote-getter for All-Star in West frontcourt behind LeBron)?
There are voters who will hate to vote for him just as they hated to vote for him before. But at +460, the value on this is quite simply insane.
The downside is that the Nuggets may just not get there. Their roster is not great and its held together with duct tape and Jokic’s brilliance. If Murray comes back even at 80% there will be growing pains.
The Nuggets’ injuries help his narrative, but narrative has to be boosted by popularity for those voters who adhere to it, and Jokic is still not popular the way Curry, Embiid, and Giannis are. He has to leave no doubt as he did last year. That’s difficult … but not impossible, and so we follow the value here.