Nikola Jokic Will Likely Win NBA Finals MVP — But the Value Bet is on the Heat
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post. Pictured: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets.
The Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP came into existence in 1969, and it has a very good case to be one of the most hallowed trophies in all of sports. Due to the star-driven nature of professional basketball, looking through a list of past winners is basically taking a tour of the top, top level of the sport’s greatest names.
In a sport like baseball, there is so much more variance in the World Series, and with football, it’s one game so we can get some fluky names included there. With basketball, it’s almost always the best of the best.
Of course, in the world of betting, we don’t deal in terms like “almost always,” we like to dig in and get the exacts. So I set out to find what patterns arise when looking over the history of the award, and what trends we can pick up on to inform betting on this year’s award. The NBA also introduced the Conference Finals MVPs last season, but since it’s only a two-year sample, it would be silly to extrapolate off that sample.
The NBA of 2023 — and the NBA media of 2023 who vote on the awards — look much different than they did even a decade ago, but I wanted to at least compile the full list of winners, alongside some potential factors we should be tracking.
(Note: I’ll be using the year the NBA Finals actually took place instead of the full season.)
NBA Finals MVP Winners
The first thing that stands out is that the arrival of Bird and Johnson really solidified the modern approach to voting for this award. In the decade before, there were some wonky results. So if we are focusing strictly on the past 40 Finals MVPs (using 1983 as our first season), a few more patterns emerge.
For one, every single one is from the winning team. We all hear about Jerry West winning Finals MVP in a losing effort — and there was some push for it in 2015 for LeBron James — but it only happened the first season the award was in existence.
Second, of the last 40 winners, an amazing 30 were the overall leading scorer in the series and six more were the leading scorer on the winning team, which we’ve already clarified is an essential part of the formula.
Finally, of the last 40 winners, only four were, in my opinion, very obviously not The Dude on the team that won, with another six up for debate. This is how I am defining the most "obvious" column, and while it is a bit subjective (and we'll note those cases below), more often than not, when you know you know.
It’s clear that most often the result is: Best player leads his team in scoring and wins the Finals and thus the Finals MVP alongside it. That exact result has happened in 26 of the past 40 seasons. Let's go through the winners who did not meet those exact qualifications since '85.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985)
Abdul-Jabbar was the leading scorer on the Lakers, but given that Magic Johnson had won two Finals MVPs with this iteration of the Lakers and would go on to win one more, it’s fair to at least wonder if 38-year-old Kareem was The Dude for this Lakers team. However, Kareem easily led the Lakers in scoring for the series, and his case was boosted a bit by becoming the all-time leading scorer in playoff history during the series, as well as the fact that he maybe should have won the 1980 Finals MVP that Magic won instead.
Overall, though, I’d tally this as a slight win for the leading scorer argument, because if Magic had scored more than Kareem for the series I don’t think any of those other factors would have mattered.
Larry Bird (1986)
Bird wasn’t the leading scorer for the winning team, but he was only 1.8 points behind Kevin McHale there, and he very nearly averaged a triple-double, with 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game in one of the greatest Finals performances in league history.
We’re already seeing that this is the type of thing that needs to happen to top the leading scorer narrative, though.
James Worthy (1988)
You’re going to notice a lot more of these toward the beginning of our 40-year cutoff. It’s arguable that focusing on the past 20 years would hold the most relevance for looking forward, but I wanted to make sure to get the full historical context for now. Magic Johnson may have been a much bigger name than Worthy going into the series, but this was the moment Worthy became “Big Game James,” as his Game 7 triple-double, along with the fact that he was the leading scorer for the series, was more than enough to snatch Finals MVP from Johnson.
Joe Dumars (1989)
Yet another victory for the leading scorer category. Dumars was definitely not Isiah Thomas, but when you add Dumars’ defensive reputation to leading scorer in the series, would you look at that: Finals MVP.
The Pax Romana (1990-2000)
Eleven straight seasons in which the most obvious player led the series in scoring and took home the MVP Award. Michael Jordan's dominance helped a lot, but we got four other guys in there with the same story: Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001)
Allen Iverson’s solo Sixers stopped the streak in name only, as he was the leading scorer but on the losing team. Shaq led the Lakers in scoring.
Chauncey Billups (2004)
OK, here’s our first funky one in almost a decade and a half. And honestly, it really isn’t even all that funky.
We all know about this balanced Pistons team, and given that Billups was only 0.4 points behind Richard Hamilton for the series lead in scoring — while also leading the team in assists — this is far from a nail in the coffin (or even a scratch on the coffin) of our leading scorer narrative.
Tony Parker (2007)
This is the year where it became fully clear that it’s just leading scorer. Tim Duncan put up 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game in a season in which he finished fourth in the MVP, but Tony Parker scored five more points a game than Timmy, so the Frenchman got it. Madness.
Paul Pierce (2008)
This one isn’t as egregious, but it’s yet another in the case for leading scorer. With hindsight, I think almost all NBA fans see Kevin Garnett as the clearly superior player to Pierce, but in the moment it was closer. Pierce also had a massive Game 5 in a moment that swung the series.
Plus he pooped his pants, which apparently is a factor we should weigh heavily when looking at the future of this award. How many people who have pooped their pants in the Finals haven’t gone on to win Finals MVP?! Zero! That’s just science.
Dirk Nowitzki (2011)
Dwyane Wade outscored him for the series as a whole, but Nowitzki led the Mavs in scoring.
Kawhi Leonard (2014) | Andre Iguodala (2015)
OK, I’m combining these two because, to be honest, they are the two that are truly the most unique, but I think they are actually perfectly tied together. In 2014, Leonard was the third-leading scorer for the series and second-leading on his team. Same story for Iggy the next season, so is there a chance that an all-around wing has more of a chance to steal this award in the modern era?
I don’t think so. These two Finals MVPs came during a stretch of seven straight seasons (and eight of nine) where the Finals MVP either went to LeBron James or the player directly guarding/opposing him.
I don’t think we can overstate how much of a grip James had on the league at that moment. He was the be-all and end-all. The reason Kawhi and Iguodala won MVP was because of LeBron. That’s a wild sentence, but it’s true.
Kevin Durant (2017, 2018)
Again combining awards because of the same question: Was Durant The Dude on those Warriors teams? It certainly felt like it in the moment, but I think a large part of that was, again, that positionally (and even narratively) he was the guy going up against LeBron. Add in the fact that he led the Warriors in scoring in both Finals, and it’s another mark in the column for leading scorer when there are multiple great players on a team.
Kawhi Leonard (2019)
This is just the final example of the leading scorer for the series as a whole coming from the losing team (Stephen Curry). Leonard was the leading scorer and most obvious candidate for the Raptors.
What History Says for 2023 NBA Finals MVP
OK, you saw a big chart and then you saw a lot of words, but for the most part, the takeaway is that the leading scorer gets the award. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule (Larry Bird averaging a near triple-double and the “LeBron Stoppers” in recent years most notably), but those are few and far between.
So let’s distill this down to one key point: The leading scorer on the team that wins the Finals is likely going to win Finals MVP.
So where does that leave us for betting the 2023 Finals?
Despite being on Denver in this series, it's the other side of things that are more interesting for this conversation.
Briefly on Denver: Nikola Jokic is unquestionably the best player in the series, and he's -340 to win the award. He's an all-around beast, and he leads the Nuggets in scoring for the playoffs by 2.2 points per game. However, his teammate, Jamal Murray, is fresh off a Conference finals in which he actually did lead the team in scoring. Of course, at the same time, he didn't come away with the Magic Johnson MVP trophy. In fact, he didn't get a single vote.
There are a few circumstances to note. Potentially most notably, Jokic did not win the regular season MVP this year, and while that is a regular season award, he has spent the entire postseason showing why he is indeed the best player on the planet. If anything, missing out on the regular season award has now made him somewhat unassailable when it comes to this award.
Is there a world in which Spoelstra and the Heat do everything in their power to stop Jokic? Potentially! But we've seen that Jokic's statistical floor is still far beyond what most players can dream of reaching. If Murray was priced around +3000 to win Finals MVP, I think there could be said to be value on that bet, but as is, at just +1200, it feels like neither are actionable bets right now.
There are plenty of ways to bet the Finals — and hopefully you grabbed either Jokic and/or Murray at some point this postseason, as the Action team has been all over this Nuggets team since the start of the playoffs.
However, if you are on the Heat, things get decidedly more interesting. Because even though Jimmy Butler is great, we just saw an Eastern Conference finals in which he almost didn't win the MVP, yet the Finals MVP is back to being priced as if he is a sure thing in a scenario where the Heat win.
Bam Adebayo, in particular, is the name that pops to me. I've talked elsewhere about being lower on Caleb Martin than the market, so it's no shock that it's the other mid-range long shot I like for the Heat. Adebayo is also going to get the chance to redeem what has been a rough stretch for him of late in the playoffs.
I think the biggest factor is that he will draw the most notable defensive assignment in defending Jokic. If the Heat have a path to victory, it begins and ends with Bam completely locking up Jokic. Adebayo was also the Heat's second-leading scorer during the regular season. If you'll recall, that's the exact formula Leonard and Iguodala rode to a Finals MVP just under a decade ago. Do a lock-down job on the All-World player on the other side of the ball and put up a solid all-around stat line.
Personally, I am all over the Nuggets in these Finals. I have their series line and many of my player props are centered around a short series win for Denver. That being said, in strictly this market, because of the odds that are available, Adebayo's odds at +4000 have the most value. It's also the perfect hedge for bettors who, like myself, are highly leveraged on Denver to win. So if you yourself are in that same space, Adebayo is the perfect complement at a very cheap price to potentially cover you in case of emergency.