The aspirational quality of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award tends to blind people to just how small the field really is in a given season. Since Derrick Rose won in 2011, every winner has met two criteria. They have all been between the ages of 24 and 28, and they were all either a first- or second-team All-NBA selection in the prior season. Every player in the NBA wants to win MVP. Only a very, very small group actually has a chance to do so.
Depending on your cutoff, that list is either seven or eight players long this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell all check both boxes, though Antetokounmpo and Jokic both cut it close as they turn 29 during the season. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid is already 29 and turns 30 in March.
Maybe you want to extend an invitation to Devin Booker, who would have made an All-NBA Team had he stayed healthy, or perhaps you want to throw a legacy bet on Stephen Curry because he was one of the favorites before his injuries last season, but this isn’t the award to get experimental with. We know who wins it and we know who doesn’t. Below are the trends to watch when betting on MVP:
- Scoring separates real candidates from fringe contenders. We’ve had only one winner since Kobe Bryant in 2008 that averaged fewer than 25 points per game. That was Stephen Curry in 2015, who averaged 26.2 points per 36 minutes, but blew so many teams out that he rarely needed to play fourth quarters.
- Winning isn’t quite as important as scoring, but it definitely counts. Jokic bucked this trend by winning as a No. 6 seed in 2022, but before he did so, the average 21st century MVP won 61 games, and statistically speaking, 60-win teams in that period had a 38% chance of producing the MVP. If you’re going to win as anything less than a top-three seed (and that’s being a bit generous, as No. 1 seeds vastly outperform No. 2 seeds, who in turn outperform No. 3 seeds), it usually requires extenuating teammate circumstances. Jokic won because of how well the Nuggets played without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Russell Westbrook won because Kevin Durant left the Thunder. There are exceptions here in ways there really haven’t been for non-scorers lately, but they are a rarity.
- Availability mattered even before the new 65-game minimum for major award winners. Embiid winning despite playing just 66 games last season was an outlier. No other MVP this century missed more than 11 games, and 17 of 24 MVPs in that span played either 75 games or the equivalent in shortened-seasons. Yes, Bill Walton won with 58 games played in 1977-78, but players were still the voters at that point. Embiid’s 66 is the lowest figure ever for a media-voted MVP.
- Voter fatigue exists. There is statistical evidence suggesting that players who win their second MVP had better seasons than they did when they won their first. However, the bar typically stops getting raised after two. Jokic last season was an exception because of his bid for a third straight MVP, which had not been done since Larry Bird nearly four decades ago. Nobody is chasing such a historic marker this season.
So now that we’ve set the stage, here are Sam Quinn and Ameer Tyree’s best preseason bets for MVP.
All odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook
Players listed here have odds no longer than +1000
Quinn: Whoever your preferred candidate is, you should still have a ticket for Jokic (+375) as a precautionary method. He may not win the award, but his odds are so short in part because he’s a near lock to be in the running. If you exclude the rest Denver gave him after locking up the No. 1 seed last season, Jokic has never missed more than nine games in a season.
That durability means quite a bit when you consider how rickety the rest of the Western Conference is. The Lakers are relying on a 39-year-old LeBron James, the Warriors (Curry) and Suns (Durant) are built around 35-year-olds, neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George has ever played 60 games as a Clipper and the Grizzlies will be without Ja Morant for the first 25 games of the season. Denver will have its best player more often than the other top teams in the Western Conference will have theirs. That’s an enormous advantage in terms of seeding, and that played out last season as the Nuggets earned home-court advantage.
There are holes in Jokic’s preseason candidacy, of course. He dipped below the 25-point threshold last season, for instance, and those rest games the Nuggets took last season counted. Jokic was the favorite in March. He stopped trying, and Joel Embiid stole his trophy. That could easily happen again. Jokic does not care about this award. But he is the NBA’s best player. He has led the NBA in almost every all-in-one metric (PER, WS, BPM, VORP, RAPTOR and EPM, just to name a few) for three consecutive years. Oh, and voters already regret not giving him the award last season after his dominant championship run. Apology trophies don’t necessarily exist, but just remember how toxic the narrative grew last season. That’s not going to happen this time around. If Jokic deserves the trophy, he wins it. It’s as simple as that.
So what could prevent him from deserving it? Two candidates stand out here. If you’re looking for a “best player on the best team” candidate, I wrote in depth about why that is Tatum (+900) and not Antetokounmpo (+500) here. The short explanation is that Tatum (and his team) more closely fit the typical profile of an MVP. He’s younger, his team is likely more invested in the regular season, his roster is more designed to get him credit and he’s the more prolific scorer.
If you’re looking for a statistical candidate, then your answer is Doncic (+550). Last season, he became just the 18th player since the ABA-NBA merger to average 32 points per game. In the process, he became only the second to do so while averaging eight assists and eight rebounds. Before you argue that Doncic’s stats will take a hit now that he’s playing a full season with Kyrie Irving, remember that he averaged 30.6 points points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists with Irving in the lineup last season. Dallas spent its offseason prioritizing players who would make life easier for Doncic on offense over addressing its defensive vulnerabilities. Doncic loves lob-catchers. Dallas added two in Richaun Holmes and Dereck Lively. Grant Williams is a great floor-spacer for his position. Seth Curry is a great floor-spacer for any position. Doncic is going to post enormous numbers this season. If Dallas can defend well enough to earn a relatively high seed, he’ll be in the mix.
Tyree: People knocked Jokic (+375) for his defense and lack of postseason success after he won his first two MVP awards, but now he’s a champ and the reigning NBA Finals MVP. He finished second to Embiid (+850) despite this narrative last season and now he has the hardware to back up his claim as the best player in the world. Jokic has led the NBA in win shares for three straight seasons and there’s no reason to believe that a decline is on the way for the 28-year-old superstar. Several Western Conference teams have retooled in a big way to make a championship push and Jokic has as good of a case as anyone if Denver still comes out on top despite him being the only All-Star on his team.
Doncic has been heralded as a future league MVP for a while and definitely looked the part from a stats standpoint last season after posting a career-high 32.6 points while shooting 49.6%. However, Dallas didn’t even make the postseason. Team success matters when it comes to this award and Doncic likely has the best supporting cast of his career right now. Can the Mavericks make a push in the Western Conference? I think they can if Irving and Doncic build on their chemistry from last season. People want to see a new face at the forefront, and that helps the cases of Doncic and Tatum.
The middle of the pack
Players listed here have odds between +1001 and +2500
Quinn: Let’s say you subscribe to the “no one over 28” theory of MVP voting. That would knock the past three winners out of the running, and logically, someone needs to replace them. The easiest pick on that front would Gilgeous-Alexander (+1500). He more than met the scoring criteria last season by averaging 31.4 points per game. Durability has been a bit more of a concern, but it’s hard to separate true, injury-related absences from tanking maneuvers in Oklahoma City. Gilgeous-Alexander played 68 games last season, so he at least would have been eligible. The Thunder haven’t won at the level they’d need to for him to compete yet, but take a look at the durability issues for the rest of the West that we covered above. If the Thunder stay healthy and the young players grow, there’s room for growth here.
Anthony Edwards (+2000) doesn’t quite meet the bottom of our age bracket. He’s just 22, younger even than Rose when he won in 2011 at the age of 23. The counting stats aren’t there yet. The Timberwolves haven’t won enough yet. Edwards hasn’t even made an All-NBA team. This is, simply put, a bet on talent. That talent was on display at the World Cup and it was on display down the stretch last season. Minnesota can leap in the standings if Karl-Anthony Towns stays healthy. Swapping D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley creates more shot opportunities for Edwards. Edwards is probably a year or two away. Antetokounmpo and Jokic were notably hot preseason bets in the years before they won. But it’s better to be a year early than a year late in MVP betting. I’m taking the swing.
Tyree: History is against Curry (+1400) here, as he would become the oldest MVP ever with a win at 36 years old by the end of the upcoming season. The sharpshooter has taken home the trophy twice and I believe the Golden State Warriors will prioritize his scoring this season even more with Jordan Poole gone and Chris Paul setting the table. Curry won the scoring title the last two times he attempted more than 20 shots per game and that’s a realistic number for him to hit in 2023-24. The real question is whether his old, undersized team can keep up.
I’m also in on SGA as a young player who could enter the conversation after an All-NBA season. The 25-year-old guard finished fourth in points per game (31.4) last season and only Doncic and Embiid tallied more isolation points per game (6.9) than him. SGA has the counting stats and flash of an MVP. Now he just has to get his team into the playoff picture. The Thunder’s young core has to be ready to make another significant jump, but I don’t think they need to finish toward the top of the conference for SGA to receive legitimate consideration. He finished fifth in MVP voting last season and voter fatigue could help him climb higher.
The long shots
Players listed here have odds of at least +2501
Quinn: As we covered above, MVP long shots are rare. We’re usually working with a very small list of realistic candidates. If you’re going off-book with a long shot, there are two reasons to do so: a player meets all of the criteria except for age, or he meets all of your criteria except for availability. One candidate stands out in each setting.
I wouldn’t advise a bet on James (+2500), but in this odds range, he is surprisingly appealing. He has averaged at least 25 points 19 years in a row, so scoring isn’t a problem. If you include the postseason, the Lakers went 17-10 in games James played after the trade deadline. That’s a 52-win pace even before accounting for the added schedule difficulty of a postseason run. Voter fatigue obviously wouldn’t be a problem since James has won the award four times and easily could have won it a fifth time had he stayed healthy in 2021. That’s the “if” here. James hasn’t hit the 65-game minimum since 2020. He’s not going to play enough. If you want to bet that he defies Father Time? Go for it, he makes sense as a long shot in every other respect.
Zion Williamson (+4000) has never played 65 games in a season. In fact, he’s averaged just 28.5 in his first four NBA seasons. But remember, Embiid played 31 games in his first three seasons. There’s precedent here. Williamson hit the scoring line in 2021 and was on pace to do so again last season before he got hurt. The Pelicans reached as high as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference when he was healthy a year ago and have largely kept the same roster since. A healthy Williamson is unlikely, but at these odds, he’s worth a long shot bet if you have any faith whatsoever in him staying on the court.
Tyree: James wasn’t a top 10 MVP vote-getter for the first time in a long time last season, but don’t be surprised if he gets some buzz with a hot Lakers start. He and Anthony Davis proved that they can still dominate as a dynamic duo en route to a Western Conference finals appearance last season and they’ve added depth since then. James has never fallen off from a stats standpoint. His continued excellence has been held against him because of the high standard he’s set. A small sprinkle wouldn’t hurt, but it’s still very unlikely that James will get the job done after turning 39 during the season.
Mitchell (+2800) is still climbing after putting up a career-high 28.2 points per game in his first season as a Cleveland Cavalier. While his team fell short with a first-round playoff exit last season, he’s a prolific scorer with the kind of defense that’s built for long-term success. The Eastern Conference has gotten tougher following recent trades, but that could make it even more impressive if the Cavs compete with or surpass the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Only four players attempted more shots per game than Mitchell last season and another scoring jump could give him a boost after finishing sixth in last year’s voting.