Moore: The 10 Best Early Value Plays for NBA MVP
Getty Images. Pictured (L-R): LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant.
Unbelievably, we’re 20% of the way through the NBA season.
It may feel like too early to talk about the MVP, but this season will accelerate quickly given the scheduling constraints.
The odds for MVP are also still fairly long on the board. No one player has firmly asserted himself as the frontrunner.
Here’s a broad look at the MVP futures and what their cases are relative to their value:
1. Nikola Jokic (+800, DraftKings)
I covered Jokic’s case last week. The Nuggets have won three in a row since then and seven of their last nine to get over .500. Jokic is still averaging 26-12-10 (after rounding) even with back-to-back games that brought down his assist numbers against the Suns, who didn’t send double teams at him.
Denver is turning the page on their season, back to full health for the first time this season with JaMychal Green (who missed the first two weeks) and Michael Porter Jr. (who missed three weeks with health protocol quarantine) back.
Wins will only bolster Jokic’s case. He has a number of dominant performances against good teams to back up the stats, and the fact that Denver is largely helpless without him also helps his candidacy.
The big problem might still be narrative. Voters, largely based on the coasts, are not going to be drawn toward Jokic. Joker is funny, but in a quirky way, not in a troll-your-opponent-on-Instagram way or a talk-trash-in-an-interview way.
There’s also concern about his minutes. Jokic is averaging 36 minutes per game, 16th-most per game, and he’s not missing any games. That’s related to how good the rest of the roster is and how much they need him. It makes him more valuable, of course, but it also makes the margin slimmer for Denver.
2. Joel Embiid (10-1, DraftKings)
When Embiid and Seth Curry both play, the Sixers are 9-0 this season. Embiid is averaging 28 points and 12 rebounds per game, with career highs in eFG% and TS% while shooting over 50% from the field and over 40% from 3-point range, both for the first time in his career.
With Curry and Embiid on the court, the Sixers are beating opponents by over 20 points per 100 possessions, an absolute shellacking. Philly suffered through a series of losses after missing half their team due to health and safety protocol quarantines, and it still has the best record in the Eastern Conference.
We are approaching that point in the season where analysts and TV networks start to look at the standings and go “Hey, we need to talk about the Sixers!”
Embiid is also popular with the media and voters. He’s done high-profile interviews with multiple ESPN reporters, some of whom have votes.
Additionally, the Sixers are fifth in defense, despite all the absences of starters and an absolutely hilarious game against the Wizards in which no defense was played by anyone as if it was actually against protocol.
For much of the season, before the COVID-19 issues, the 76ers had the NBA’s best defense. Expect them to continue to climb. Embiid makes a massive defensive impact player unlike Jokic (despite Jokic’s high steal rate). Embiid will likely finish as a Defensive Player of the Year vote-getter, and that will wind up as a strong tiebreaker against Jokic if it comes down to the two big men.
If Philly winds up with the 1-seed in the East, Embiid will be the favorite.
3. LeBron James (+900, BetMGM)
The narrative force.
A considerable bloc of voters last year literally wanted to give James the MVP because he’s old. He’s probably the second player in history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to get credit simply for his age.
Now, the Lakers are clearly the best team in the league, the defending champion, and everyone that voted for Giannis Antetokounmpo last season watched James prove he’s still the best player in the game in the playoffs.
There’s a strong desire to get James a fourth MVP, and pretty much anyone who is a star for a good Lakers team is going to wind up in the conversation. Voters will not miss an opportunity, if presented, to give him credit.
Now, if we actually put his resume up, we hit some trouble. James is averaging his fewest points since his rookie season and fewer assists since his last season in Miami (with a radically different offensive scheme and roster). His effective field goal percentage is the lowest since 2015, and his field goal percentage is the lowest for him since 2007.
Now, a not-great James statistical season is still better than 98% of all players in NBA history. However, the makeup of various voters is such that there will be deep-dive analysts that those numbers will bear discussion.
Anthony Davis is also playing incredibly well, and that will also impact votes. Players with superstar teammates have had a hard time garnering votes in recent seasons. In fact, Davis has a higher statistical probability by Basketball Reference than James.
However, and this is the biggest reason he has good value: James is the default pick. It’s too early to say this, and if you were to say “frontrunner” you would say one of the two players above. But this is the conversation about James:
LeBron is the default. If the Nuggets don’t win enough games, if Embiid misses a bunch of games (as he often does), if the Nets’ defense keeps their win total down, if Kawhi Leonard takes a stretch off as he’s known to, if Luka Doncic doesn’t get back to last year’s success, then even if James doesn’t put himself ahead of the pack, he’ll win. If there’s no clear MVP winner?
He will win.
If you’re looking for the safest bet? It’s LeBron.
4. Kevin Durant (+650, FanDuel)
Durant’s been spectacular this season, and the James Harden trade may not have sunk him the way we thought it might.
In the games since the Nets traded for Harden, Durant’s usage has stayed above 30%, right in line with his season averages. His points have stayed above 30 per game and his assists have stayed above six per game. On the season, Durant is second in the NBA in points per game, 22nd in assists per game and top-40 in rebounds, with 54-48-88 shooting splits.
Brooklyn’s defense is terrible, ranked 25th in the league. But they have the fourth-best offense and wins over Denver, Golden State, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami this season.
You would assume that the presence of Kyrie Irving and Harden would drag down his numbers. But if you watch the Nets play, it stands out that Durant is still the engine of the team. He’s what makes Brooklyn go.
Irving has shifted into almost entirely a scoring role, and Harden has shifted into much more of a playmaker. With the fifth-highest pace in the league, there might be enough usage to go around to keep his numbers up.
The Nets’ defense is too poor to put Durant any higher, but if Jokic is No. 1 with the 20th-ranked defense, Durant deserves mention here.
5. Kawhi Leonard (55-1, FanDuel)
Ho-hum, second-best record in the West, a head-to-head win over the Lakers, averaging 25-5-6 on 51-42-90 shooting splits. The Clippers are also 12-3 when Leonard plays this season.
The Clippers’ defense has been pedestrian this season, ranking 16th. Additionally, the defense has been five points better per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court.
But if Leonard’s going to get seriously into the conversation, he has to get there on his strength as the NBA’s best two-way player.
Paul George has also been sensational this season, and as it is with James, there’s a cost to superstar teammates. However, at 55-1 it’s still incredible value for one of the top-five best players in the league.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (+800, FanDuel)
It may seem crazy to put the two-time reigning MVP this low. It may seem crazy to put the player averaging 27-10-5 while shooting 54% from the field for the team with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
But there are so many factors working against him.
Antetokounmpo is averaging his fewest points, rebounds and assists per game of the last three seasons (his MVP era) on his worst eFG% of that time while playing more minutes.
The Bucks have been far from their usual dominant selves to start the season. They’re second in offense, ninth in defense, second in Net Rating, but they have losses to the Lakers, Jazz, Heat, Nets and Celtics.
What’s their best win? Against the Heat, who they lost to the next night?
Last season, the Bucks’ starting lineup was +18.9 per 100 possessions. This season, +10.4. Now, that’s still great. It’s fourth-best among all lineups this season with at least 100 minutes.
But that, combined with a much worse bench after the Bucks traded a lot of depth to get Jrue Holiday (and not Bogdan Bogdanovic) has resulted in a reduction in their margin for error.
Milwaukee just hasn’t been as dominant this season. Antetokounmpo has not been as dominant this season. That is on top of a voter resistance to voting a player three times in a row; it’s only happened three times in NBA history and not since 1986 with Larry Bird.
Antetokounmpo’s playoff struggles also leave a bad taste. Voters are often willing to forgive it twice, but not a third time.
You would be betting on massive improvement over the course of this season, and a narrative shift to take Giannis.
7. Domantas Sabonis (200-1, BetMGM)
This may seem crazy, but the Pacers are 9-7 despite a litany of injuries and a brutal stretch of injuries, along with the situation with Caris LeVert after trading Victor Oladipo.
Meanwhile, Sabonis has recorded a double-double in 16 straight games, tied with Jokic for the most to start the season.
Sabonis is averaging 21 points, 13 rebounds and six assists per game. Barring a run to the 1-seed, I can’t find a path for Sabonis to the MVP, especially given the Pacers actually have a -0.1 Net Rating with him on the floor. But he’s been so sensational and the Pacers have gotten so many good wins, he warrants at least a mention here.
8. Anthony Davis (25-1, DraftKings)
Davis’ numbers don’t jump off the page at 22-9-4, but he’s considered to be in discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, and again, the Lakers effect is very real. James is his biggest obstacle; it’s just very difficult to win MVP when LeBron is on your team.
The Lakers’ sitting atop the Western Conference is a huge factor here. If James was to take time off for rest or injury, it would open the door for Davis. I’ll include him on this list, but a lot of things would have to fall into place.
9. Luka Doncic (+450, DraftKings)
I can’t put the shortest odds player here for a team that is 8-8 on the season, who is shooting 27.8% from 3-point range.
Doncic’s numbers have been incredible as always, averaging 27-10-10. (Those are after rounding. Remember when averaging a triple-double was a big deal?) But Dallas’ offense has been poor after trading Curry, and with so many players out due to COVID-19 or contact tracing. The offense should improve as both Kristaps Porzingis gets into more of a rhythm and as shooting percentages regress to the norm.
But you’re not buying low at this number, you’re still just 4.5-1 with a lot of a brutal schedule in front, and if Dallas misses the playoffs, not even a 28-point triple-double will get it done.
I don’t see the odds for Doncic getting much shorter until midseason so you have time to wait to see if Dallas can steady itself before buying in.
10. Stephen Curry (10-1)
Curry scored 62 points in a game this season and lit the world on fire, but the Warriors have continued to be inconsistent. They beat the Lakers and then lost to the Knicks.
This is a problem.
Curry’s averages (28-6-6) are up there with Leonard, and his ability to warp the defense is still tremendous. He’s still one of the most impactful players in the league. But Golden State’s offense hasn’t been great even with Curry on the floor.
Curry has to either lead the league in scoring or get his assists up and the Warriors need to finish with at least a top-four record for Curry to get a major push. It’s hard to see those things happening, but keep an eye on him.