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The NBA season starts Tuesday, which means this is when you can get the best value on NBA MVP bets. It’s also when there’s the most risk, of course; we know the least.
The two leaders going into last season were Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, and, boy, did those paths separate.
Davis and Antetokounmpo, the eventual MVP, were even at +400 last preseason, while James Harden, who very nearly took it, was +650.
We’re not fans of getting in on one player this early. You’ll have the opportunity to hedge or double-down later when the race clarifies. Now you want to use the good odds to your advantage.
So let’s build a three-player position, taking from three distinct categories: the favorites, the dark horses and the long shots. You should go heavier, obviously, on the favorites, with lighter positions on the dark horses and the long shots.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+275, DraftKings)
The reigning MVP is set to only get better. Antetokounmpo dabbled with the 3-ball last season, and, of course, there’s a possibility he expands it. If he does, that might be a wrap given his defensive and athletic advantages. The Bucks had the best offense in the league last season, along with the best record.
We’re hesitant, though, on Antetokounmpo, because we’re not certain the Bucks will repeat last year’s success. Win 50 games? Absolutely. Best record in the league? In the conference? Those are more up in the air, and we’re expecting some regression from Milwaukee. Those little chips at his resumé could have big impacts on the vote, especially with how unstable the NBA’s landscape is.
Steph Curry (+600, Westgate)
We made the case for Curry last month; you can read more here. However, the preseason has cooled me a little bit. Curry popped off for 40 vs. the Wolves on Oct. 10 in just 25 minutes.
That should be a sign of how great his season could be. However, the Wolves were still in it, albeit a preseason game, until late even with Curry going off. The reality is that the preseason indicates the defense and bench is in even more trouble than we thought.
The Warriors may not win enough games to put Curry in serious contention.
James Harden (+750, Westgate)
This number is patently absurd. Harden has finished top-two in four of the past five years, with two of his losses coming in two of the most competitive races we’ve seen in 20 years.
Harden’s preseason has given no signs that he’s going to wind up sacrificing numbers in a big way. Even if his scoring dips below the galaxy-brain levels of last season, it will correspond with an increase in assists both to Russell Westbrook and on the extra pass off Westbrook drive-and-kicks.
If the defense collapses on Westbrook, the help defender on the wing has to choose between Harden and another shooter. He’ll choose Harden every time, leaving the extra man open. The Rockets look primed to pick up right where they left off offensively.
The Rockets could disappoint, which could remove him from the discussion, but in that event, someone else will have jumped up as a result, which allows for an in-season hedge/double-up. If you’re looking for a max return out of this tier, Harden is the choice.
Anthony Davis (+750, FanDuel)
Davis is among the top-four liabilities for MVP at the Westgate. That’s to be expected, as any Lakers star is going to get a lot of tickets in Vegas. His number is down to +500 at Westgate, so the +700 to +750 you can get at other books has some value.
The preseason early results have shown a genuine commitment by LeBron James to set up Davis. If the Lakers outperform expectations, which seems likely, the narrative power will undoubtedly be with Davis, finally recognized on the big stage for his contributions.
The thumb sprain Davis suffered in preseason isn’t just a slight downtick to his chances, it’s also a reminder that any bet on Davis carries the risk of being sabotaged by his constant “questionable to return” status. But narrative, opportunity and skill set still land him in this tier.
LeBron James (+1000, Westgate)
It’s weird to put the player universally regarded as the best on the planet over the past 10 years in the dark-horse category, but he has to be here. James has openly said he wants to take a backseat to Davis and has fallen over himself to prove his commitment to that.
At the same time, with Davis’ injury history and what appears to be a renewed sense of focus and commitment, James has to appear here.
Kawhi Leonard (+1200, Westgate)
It’s odd that Leonard, the two-time and reigning Finals MVP, not only has odds this low, but that we can’t find a strong enough reason to move him higher.
Leonard is undeniably in the conversation as the best player in the NBA. He has prior vote credentials, finishing third in the epic 2017 race. He is the best player on the team widely regarded as the best in the league entering the season.
There is a thought that Leonard might rest too much this season. The math on that is complicated.
On the one hand, Leonard still had troubles with his leg in the playoffs; it flared up several times, and it looked like he was hobbling in each round. He has a proven path of success in resting 22 games, as he did last season.
However, the Clippers said there’s no such plan in place for Leonard this season. He’s now two years removed from a very confusing, very nebulous leg injury. Let’s say he misses only 16 games due to injury and rest. That six-game differential, for whatever reason, probably shifts the conversation and makes voters feel more confident in voting for him.
Bear in mind that Leonard averaged more points and rebounds last season per game than he did in 2017 when he finished third. His shooting wasn’t quite as efficient, but that only leaves room for growth.
Leonard trying to make the Clippers into a serious force, both in basketball and in business (something even Chris Paul and Blake Griffin couldn’t do), is a story voters can get behind, and the Clippers have a very real chance of landing the No. 1 record in the league. Though we lean toward their under.
Nikola Jokic (+1200, PointsBet)
If you want to play “value vs. the number,” you want to package Harden and Jokic. The Nuggets finished No. 2 in the West last season behind the Warriors, who are no longer the Warriors.
The Nuggets feature a cast of weapons as deep as any team in the league, and Jokic is the player who facilitates all of them. He is a weapon system unto himself.
Jokic became the first center since 1975 (the earliest possession data can be tracked) to average 30 points and more than 10 assists per 100 possessions. He averaged the most assists per game for a center since Wilt Chamberlain.
If Denver, which has the most continuity of any team in the West, secures the No. 1 seed in a brutal conference, Jokic would have to be in the conversation prominently.
Joel Embiid (+1600, FanDuel)
We’re high on the Sixers, projecting them for 56 wins and the best record in the NBA. So it should come as no surprise that Embiid’s value here is incredible.
The Sixers re-oriented their team around Embiid this summer. On the surface, it looks like they patched things together after Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach. But adding Josh Richardson and Al Horford, while keeping Tobias Harris, was done to augment Embiid’s game.
Embiid is probably the most impactful player in the league right now because he forces teams to account for him. You’ll struggle with everything LeBron brings to the table, Leonard will burn you no matter what you do while also locking you down, Jokic makes everyone better.
But when Embiid steps on the floor with his size and skill, you have to deal with him. It’s why so many will maintain that he’s a better player than Jokic despite Jokic having a better stat line (factoring assists and shooting percentages).
If the Sixers are as good as they could be this season, Embiid will be the biggest reason why, which is why he’s great value.
His injury history, likelihood to rest multiple games, tenuous chemistry with Ben Simmons and offensive decision-making are all reasons to be cautious. His injury status will always make him a dark horse entering the season until he wins the award.
Damian Lillard (+2800, FanDuel)
Luka Doncic (+5000, DraftKings)
Ben Simmons (+5000, PointsBet)
Kemba Walker (+15000, DraftKings)
Donovan Mitchell (+8000, FanDuel)
Paul George (+3000, Westgate)
Kyrie Irving (+6000, Westgate)
Our MVP position
Putting it all together, here are our MVP positions:
James Harden: +750
Anthony Davis: +750
Damian Lillard: +2800
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