Mears: Predicting the NBA Finals MVP

Mears: Predicting the NBA Finals MVP article feature image
Credit:

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry

I won’t lie: There’s not much excitement left in the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors clearly are the more talented team, and they’re currently -2000 to win the title.

In Game 3 in Cleveland, they’re the rare Finals road favorite. In situations like this, finding some nice betting value typically makes a series worth watching, but the spreads and totals are pretty sharp. Instead, let’s look at Finals MVP odds and whether history can point us in a clear direction.

 

The NBA.com stats database goes back 21 years to the 1997 NBA Finals, which was Michael Jordan’s fifth title. To look at what has been the most predictive metric for Finals MVP, I pulled each player’s ranking solely in the Finals for the following stats:

  • Points Ranking: Total number of points in the Finals
  • Team Points Ranking: Total number of points in the Finals on their team
  • Fantasy Points Ranking: Total number of fantasy points in the Finals
  • Fantasy Points Team Ranking: Total number of fantasy points in the Finals on their team
  • Plus-Minus Ranking: Cumulative plus-minus in the Finals
  • Plus-Minus Team Ranking: Cumulative plus-minus in the Finals on their team
  • Net Rating Ranking: Net Rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) in the Finals
  • Net Rating Team Ranking: Net Rating in the Finals on their team

Here’s the data for each player who won going back to 1997, and what it means for betting this year’s MVP.

The data seems to be resolute: The voters almost always give the MVP to a player on the winning team (the only nonwinner was Jerry West in 1969, which was the first year the award was presented), and they mostly care about raw statistics. Of the 21 Finals MVPs in this sample, 18 of them led their team in total points in the Finals, and 17 led their team in total fantasy points.

One of the notable exceptions was in 2015, when Andre Iguodala won the Finals MVP over LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Here were the stats on the main guys in that series, ordered by most points:

  • LeBron James: 215 points, 402.5 fantasy points
  • Stephen Curry: 156 points, 258.2 fantasy points
  • Andre Iguodala: 98 points, 200.0 fantasy points
  • Klay Thompson: 95 points, 163.2 fantasy points
  • Timofey Mozgov: 84 points, 168.0 fantasy points
  • Draymond Green: 78 points, 230.0 fantasy points

That award clearly belonged to LeBron, who put up one of the greatest performances in a Finals defeat ever. Given his point and fantasy point totals, voters didn’t know what to do — they couldn’t give it to someone not on the winning team, apparently. So instead they gave it to the guy who “stopped him,” although that still seems like ironic logic. Anyway, history says that voters like winners and players who put up raw stats.

So where does that put us through two games in the Finals?

The narrative currently: Curry is the runaway favorite, especially after making a Finals-record nine 3-pointers in Game 2, along with Kevin Durant’s struggles in Game 1. And that’s the case, per 5Dimes: Curry is at -335 as of Tuesday night.

The Cavs are huge dogs to win this series, and if they make it only four or five games, I find it highly unlikely LeBron wins the MVP, even though he’s clearly the best player in this series. So it really comes down to Curry versus Durant, and the gap right now isn’t nearly as wide as the odds suggest. Curry has 10 more total points, and Durant actually owns a five-point edge in total fantasy points. Even if the series is a sweep, that means the Finals is only halfway over.

So mostly you’re betting this: What are the odds that with a 10-point head start, Curry will outscore Durant for two to three games? He should definitely be a favorite, but I’m not sure -335 is warranted. Durant easily has a 35-point game in him, and considering the team dynamic, it’s possible Curry lets Durant cook in at least the closeout game to give him a boost of confidence.

There may not be value in the -2000 series price, but there’s definitely some value left in the Finals MVP odds, even if you want Curry. It’s really a two-man race here, and while I prefer Durant at +315 right now, even laying the odds on Curry is much better than betting the Warriors’ series odds or moneylines over the next week.


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