The halfway point of the 2013-14 NBA season seems like as good a time as any to handicap the race for the Most Valuable Player award. We've had a chance to see the best players on the best teams compete for close to three months now, during which a select group has begun to separate itself from the rest.
As you might expect, that crew includes LeBron James, winner of four of the last five MVPs; Kevin Durant, a three-time runner-up over that same span; and Paul George, the new kid on the proverbial block.
The question is, what do the oddsmaking and betting communities think of the field that's currently competing for the league's top individual, regular-season honor? That sphere of society may not seem like a bastion of accurate predictions, though sites like Intrade have proven otherwise in recent years.
For the discussion herein, we'll be drawing on the lines offered by oddschecker.com to provide a clearer picture of the MVP proceedings in the here and now. The players mentioned herein aren't ranked, but rather ordered from worst to best odds among those presently slotted at better than 100-to-1.
And if you're wondering where the injured (i.e. Chris Paul) and the losing (i.e. Carmelo Anthony) members of the conversation are, be sure to check the "Asterisks" slide at the end. Assuming these guys heal up and/or see their teams turn things around, they'll find themselves on the proper part of the list before too long.
But enough with the fine print-style mumbo jumbo. Read on to see how the jostling between the NBA's best and brightest is coming along!
Betting Odds: 99-to-1
If there's anyone who's "benefitting" from Chris Paul's absence from the Los Angeles Clippers, at least as far as public perception is concerned, it's Blake Griffin.
With their 112-103 win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday, the Clips moved to 6-2 since CP3 went down with a separated shoulder on Jan. 3. That success has stemmed in no small part from Griffin's improved play. The high-flying forward has upped the ante in points (24.5), assists (4.9) and free throw attempts (11.0, with a conversion rate of 73.9 percent) in those eight games without L.A.'s All-Star point guard by his side.
Those assist and free throw numbers point to a player who's much more than the thin-skinned, one-trick pony as which Griffin has been painted since he burst onto the scene as the league's Rookie of the Year in 2010-11. He's still putting people on posters like he owns a print company.
But with Paul out of action, all the other aspects of Blake's game—his craftiness in the low post, his superb passing, his steady ball-handling and his ever-improving perimeter shooting, to name a few—are finally getting their due.
Betting Odds: 99-to-1
The "best player on the best regular-season team" argument could've been applied with greater gusto to Tony Parker's MVP candidacy every year over the last half-decade or so. Parker, though, has yet to finish higher than fifth in the actual balloting.
That says much more about the public's perennial ignorance of and/or lack of appreciation for the success that the San Antonio Spurs have made to seem routine since Tim Duncan dropped into the NBA in 1997 than it does about Tony's own worthiness of the award. His 2013-14 raw numbers (17.9 points and 6.3 assists in 31.4 minutes) are down a bit from where they'd been in the two previous seasons, though he's still shooting over 50 percent from the field and is knocking down threes at a career-best 43.2 percent clip.
More importantly, the Spurs once again own the best record in the Western Conference, despite injuries to Danny Green and Tiago Splitter and the aging of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili throwing the rest of the rotation into a tailspin from time to time.
Surely, Tony deserves more credit than he's getting for serving as San Antonio's stabilizing force.
Betting Odds: 79-to-1
In some ways, it's surprising that Dwight Howard's hardly been mentioned in the league's ongoing MVP debate. His numbers are up nearly across the board from where they were during his brief stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, and his new team is reaping the rewards. His Houston Rockets have outpaced last year's edition by six wins through their first 42 games and have improved their place in the defensive rankings from 17th in 2012-13 to 10th as of this writing.
Surely, that all has to count for something as far as the MVP race is concerned...doesn't it?
And yet, for the most part, Howard's omission from this discussion is not only predictable, but also entirely comprehensible. For one, he plays alongside James Harden, whose incumbency with the club and productivity on the court entitled him to a massive share of the team's spotlight coming into the season.
Beyond that, the "Dwightmare" that preceded his arrival in Space City likely turned off a wide swath of folks who might've otherwise been inclined to take Howard seriously as an MVP candidate. Instead, he's seen his place as the best center in basketball usurped by Roy Hibbert and his value as a franchise cornerstone called into question.
Betting Odds: 74-to-1
By and large, James Harden's game hasn't changed that much since Dwight Howard arrived in Houston. He's still scoring a ton (24.3 points), getting to the line like it's nobody's business (9.0 free throw attempts per game), jacking up threes on the regular (6.2 attempts per game) and spearheading a top-five offense.
That's pretty impressive, considering that he's had to make some sacrifices in his own game to better serve Howard's. Interestingly enough, Harden's three-point percentage (.330) has dipped to a new career low, though he's shooting as well inside the arc (.520) as he has since parting ways with OKC.
Where Harden's MVP candidacy hits a serious snag is on the defensive end. He's still prone to lapses in effort and intensity as a defender, though that likely has as much to do with the demands of Kevin McHale that he must meet as a scorer, facilitator and pace-pusher than anything else.
If/when the Rockets establish themselves as something more than an inconsistent, not-quite-elite outfit in the Western Conference, Harden will be first in line to field more votes from those charged with parsing out the MVP.
Betting Odds: 29-to-1
There are only two players in the NBA today who rank among the top 10 in both scoring and assists. One of them is LeBron James, though his 6.6 assists per game place him on the fringe of this particular grouping.
The other? Stephen Curry, who currently checks in seventh in points (23.5) and second in assists (9.2).
Like Blake Griffin with dunks, Curry has shown this season that his game is about much more than launching three-pointers. Granted, that's still his defining feature; he's taken more threes (323) than has anyone else and has made more than all but two of his peers (Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson).
But Steph has clearly stepped up his efforts elsewhere. As hinted at previously, he's done an excellent job of setting up his teammates for scores with all manner of inventive passes and has thus far gotten to the free throw line a career-best 4.8 times per game.
If Curry weren't so cavalier with the ball—he "leads" the league with 4.3 giveaways per game for the turnover-prone Golden State Warriors—he'd probably own a more prominent place in the MVP race.
Because there may be no player more capable of securing a victory than Curry when he's caught fire.
Betting Odds: 21-to-1
Leading the way among players from the "Having a Transcendent, Career-Defining Year in His Prime" category is none other than LaMarcus Aldridge.
The 28-year-old is well on his way to his third straight All-Star Game, thanks to personal bests in points (24.1), rebounds (11.3) and assists (2.9).
And, of course, to the Portland Trail Blazers' surprisingly sizzling start to the 2013-14 season. Aldridge's improved productivity amidst an increased workload, as the pivot point of Portland's league-leading offense, has catapulted the Blazers from Western Conference also-ran to potential contender far faster than anyone expected.
Along the way, Aldridge has inserted himself into the "best power forward" debate that'd been dominated by Blake Griffin and Kevin Love over the last three years. And being the best player at your position goes a long way toward garnering recognition from the MVP crowd.
Betting Odds: 19-to-1
Nobody's made a bigger leap in the league this season than has Paul George, even when you factor in the occasional cooling-off period in his game.
Which is remarkable when you consider that he was the named the NBA's Most Improved Player last season. Better still, it'd come as little surprise if George were to become the first two-time MIP in league history. He's probably the league's best two-way player not named LeBron James, with a scoring game (23.1 points, .460 from the field, .394 from three, .868 at the line) that better complements his standing as an elite perimeter defender.
That in itself would be enough for George to steal some votes at the MVP ballot box at the tender age of 23. The fact that he's emerged as not only the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA, but also a fearless crunch-time killer for the Indiana Pacers should cement his spot as a legitimate contender for the top honor in basketball.
Betting Odds: 6-to-4
Anyone who's bent on denying LeBron James his unprecedented fifth MVP in six seasons could cite a wide range of reasons for doing so. Aside from straight-up voter fatigue, he/she might mention that James' points, rebounds and assists are down, that his turnovers are up, that his Miami Heat have lost four of their last six games and/or that there are other talented challengers out there who are just as worthy of the honor (if not more so) than is LeBron.
But those arguments, convincing as they may be at first blush, can all be rebutted, if not swiftly so. The decline in James' scoring is actually smaller than one might otherwise expect, given that he's taken nearly a shot-and-a-half fewer per game. His career-best field goal percentage (.583, fourth in the NBA) has certainly helped in that regard.
As for the Heat's recent struggles, this team has suffered through at least one panic-inducing lull every January since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh first came to South Beach. Why should we expect that they won't bounce back from this one like they have from each of the previous three?
Speaking of Wade and Bosh, their productivity has dipped considerably, as well, with the former missing 11 games while on a Spurs-esque preservation plan.
Despite all of that, the Heat are actually one game ahead of last season's pace. To be sure, they're not likely to rip off 27 wins in a row like they did in 2013, but if/when this team goes on an extended run of success, you can bet it'll be due to LeBron's MVP-caliber play.
Betting Odds: 1-to-2
Kevin Durant didn't stumble into being the current odds-on favorite to (finally) win his first MVP. Sure, he didn't choose to lose Russell Westbrook to a third knee operation, though Westbrook's absence has done plenty to accentuate the positives of KD's candidacy.
Durant's fresh off yet another week for which he was named the top player in his conference—the third time that's happened this season.
And for good reason. This last week alone saw Durant average an astounding 39.3 points (.565 from the field, .400 from three), 4.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to three wins in four tries. That string included a career-high 54-point outburst to propel the Thunder past the Golden State Warriors at home.
On the whole, Durant is scoring and sharing more than he ever has and remains within striking distance of his second straight 50-40-90 season, in addition to establishing himself as an elite defender by nearly every measure Synergy Sports has to offer (subscription required).
More importantly, Durant's extraordinary efforts have kept OKC just a game back of the Spurs in the race for the top spot in the uber-competitive West. If ever there were an appropriate time for KD to break LeBron's stranglehold on the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, this would appear to be it.
KD, though, isn't concerned with the awards talk—not yet anyway. "It's premature," Durant said after his monstrous game against the Warriors (per the Associated Press). "It's way too early in the season. I try not to think about that type of stuff. Of course, as a player, you'd love to win an MVP award, but I can't take my focus off the team. Every day, I've just got to keep chipping away, keep enjoying the process, and we'll see what happens."
Betting Odds: 29-to-1
CP3's been sidelined by a shoulder separation suffered during the Clippers' win over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 3. L.A. has gone 6-2 without him, though only one of those victories and both of those defeats have come against teams with winning records.
Betting Odds: 29-to-1
Love's numbers are phenomenal—he's fourth in scoring (25.2 points) and second in rebounding (13 boards), which puts him within striking distance of becoming the first player to lead the league in both categories since Wilt Chamberlain pulled it off in 1965-66.
But Love's Minnesota Timberwolves are two games under .500 and four back of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Seeing as how the MVP should be at least loosely tethered to team success, his candidacy won't likely gain any traction until his team starts winning at a clip more commensurate with his own impressive stats.
Betting Odds: 74-to-1
Westbrook's now-troublesome knee went under the knife for the third time in eight months on Dec. 27. There's no indication yet as to when he'll be back, which, along with Kevin Durant's scoring tear, puts Russ' MVP candidacy in jeopardy.
Betting Odds: 99-to-1
There's about a snowball's chance in you-know-where of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy going to a guy whose team is 11 games below .500 and two out of a playoff spot in the awful Eastern Conference.
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