Buying or Selling NBA Award Front-Runners Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 5, 2023

Buying or Selling NBA Award Front-Runners Right Now

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    DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks smiles while on the court in the game against the Houston Rockets  at American Airlines Center on December 29, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
    Tim Heitman/Getty Images

    Believe or not, the 2022-23 NBA season is just about at the halfway pole. That makes this a great time to take stock of where all the most important award races are headed.

    Outright predictions are definitely fair game this time of year, but it's equally important to assess the front-runners in every category. They should, after all, accurately reflect the pulse of each race.

    Then again, what if they don't? What if the perceived favorite deviates from who you'd pick or who you believe the consensus to be? Should you adapt your leanings to conform with the current favorite or view the front-runner with a healthy dose of skepticism?

    This is the issue we're attempting to reconcile here. Using odds from FanDuel, we'll determine whether the betting favorite for every major player award is on track to bag the hardware or if we're better off directing our attention elsewhere.

    This exercise is not meant to address who should win. Rather, it's about properly identifying who will win. So, yes, we will be taking into account things like voter fatigue and historical context.

    The trusty ol' buy-or-sell meter will be our guide through this process. Any "buy" verdicts should not be interpreted as gospel. They are more so imply the chosen front-runner is, in fact, one of the two or three most likely candidates to the award. A "sell" verdict, on the other hand, simply means that more likely or better-value options are on the table.

Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic (-650)

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    DETROIT, MICHIGAN - DECEMBER 28: Paolo Banchero #5 of the Orlando Magic looks down against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on December 28, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
    Nic Antaya/Getty Images

    Um, so, yeah. The Rookie of the Year race is over.

    Paolo Banchero ranks in the top five of points (first), rebounds (third), assists (second) and steals (fifth) per game among all rookies. His efficiency pales in comparison to some of his peers, but he's easily taken on the most central role of the bunch. No newbie has a higher usage rate, and it isn't even close.

    The way Banchero manipulates defenses from the outside-in belies his age and experience, right down to his capacity for drawing fouls. The confidence in his jumper is there, and even the efficiency is starting to come around. He's drilling 34.3 percent of his triples since around Thanksgiving.

    Certain catch-all metrics will favor other rookies—most notably Walker Kessler (+18000). Hardly anyone, though, is going to vote for a big man still averaging under 20 minutes per game despite an uptick in playing time.

    Bennedict Mathurin (+600) has been good enough on the offensive end to make this a discussion. Just not a long one.

    There is a galaxy separating what Banchero is doing from everybody else. He isn't just the most likely Rookie of the Year. Failing a seismic change in availability, he is the Rookie of the Year.

    Verdict: Buy, buy, buy

Sixth Man of the Year: Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers (+140)

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    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 30: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on December 1, 2022 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Every so often, you're reminded that betting odds reflect where people are investing their money rather than reality. This is one of those times.

    Make no mistake, Russell Westbrook has been loads better since moving to the Los Angeles Lakers bench. Through 30-plus appearances off the pine, he's averaging 14.6 points and 7.9 assists while converting 46.7 percent of his twos. He's also still shooting under 30 percent from deep, sub-67 percent at the foul line and well below average inside five feet (51.9 percent). The Lakers continue to lose the minutes he plays (minus-29 overall), as well.

    Purple and gold ubiquity is fueling Westbrook's "front-runner" status more than anything else. He doesn't even check the volume-scoring box for crying out loud. The past six winners of this award have cleared 16 points per game, and only two have averaged under 15 since 2006-07.

    This isn't just an issue of potential alternatives. It's a matter of better options, period.

    Malcolm Brogdon (+550) or Bennedict Mathurin (+1200) should probably be the prohibitive favorite. Jordan Poole (+300), Norman Powell (+1400) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (+1600) are fortifying their own cases game-by-game. Christian Wood (+4200) will wind up with too many starts following the Maxi Kleber injury, but Malik Monk (+1600) and Bobby Portis (+3600) aren't going anywhere.

    Maybe Westbrook cracks the top three of the ballot by virtue of exposure and his assist totals. I'll be shocked—shocked—if he actually wins.

    Verdict: Sell

Most Improved Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC Thunder (-170)

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 29: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket against the Charlotte Hornets on December 29, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fits the bill of what voters historically look for in the Most Improved Player: an established young (or youngish) talent who has made the leap to full-fledged star, if not superstar.

    More than ever, SGA qualifies as the latter. He isn't just tracking toward his first All-Star appearance, but if the season ended today, he might finish inside the top 10 of MVP voting.

    Laugh if you must. It's not a joke. The Oklahoma City Thunder are under .500, but they're almost a net neutral with SGA on the court (minus-13 overall), and he ranks 12th in estimated win probability added as well as third in clutch win probability added, according to Inpredictable.

    Oh, and his numbers are mythic, too. He's averaging a career-high 30.8 points and 5.8 assists while nudging up his efficiency from just about every level of the floor and delivering his best defensive showing since his rookie season.

    Whether this represents a big enough leap to sway voters is a separate matter. SGA's scoring average has spiked by more than six points, but he's cleared 23 per game in each of the two previous seasons. His other counting stats, meanwhile, are right in line with what he showed during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns.

    This is far from a death knell. Ja Morant took home Most Improved Player honors last year under similar circumstances, using a dramatic scoring uptick and better-rounded game to lap the field. But the 2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies were a quasi-contender. The 2022-23 Thunder are not. That could squeeze SGA's case when pitted against fellow candidates like Tyrese Haliburton (+360), Lauri Markkanen (+550) and Desmond Bane (+6500).

    Really, though, this comes down to whether SGA plays enough. That isn't a problem now. But the Thunder have shut him down in each of the past two seasons as they plan around the bigger picture.

    Those shenanigans might be behind them. Stripping SGA of his chance to win Most Improved Player amid a surefire All-Star campaign just to juice up your lottery odds would be a pretty crappy look—and extremely counterintuitive if you want him to remain happy with the organization.

    Selling these odds are nevertheless tempting, because Thunder general manager Sam Presti is bold as hell, and because Haliburton exists. Yet, for now, both Oklahoma City and SGA look good enough to suggest he'll get a full season's worth of reps under his belt. And if that ends up being the case, this feels like his award to lose.

    Verdict: Buy

Defensive Player of the Year: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies (+155)

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    MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 31:  Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies boxes out during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 31, 2022 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

    Right now, at this very second, Jaren Jackson Jr. would be my pick to win Defensive Player of the Year.

    I just don't think he's actually going to win.

    "Deserve" has nothing to do with it. Jackson is a one-man roving eclipse. His 4.3 stocks per game (steals and blocks) only tell part of the story. His versatility contains multitudes. There isn't a nook, cranny or crevice he can't cover on a single possession. He has the size and strength to serve as the primary back-line stopper; the agility and IQ to provide blanket help from the inside-out; and the screen navigation and lateral chops to erase possessions on the perimeter.

    Opponents are shooting just 39.5 percent at the rim against Jackson—far and away the stingiest mark among 415 players who have contested at least 10 point-blank attempts. Incidentally, the Memphis Grizzlies have the NBA's best defense by a mile since JJJ made his season debut on Nov. 15.

    Still, sample size will come back to bite him. Never mind that he can't appear in more than 66 total games this season. He's currently averaging under 26 minutes per appearance, in part because foul trouble remains a vice. Only two Defensive Player of the Year winners have ever wrapped up the season averaging fewer than 30 minutes, and neither dipped below 26 minutes: Michael Cooper in 1986-87 (27.5) and Dennis Rodman in 1989-90 (29.0).

    It would be one thing if the landscape were barren of worthwhile alternatives. It's not. Brook Lopez (+260), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1200), Bam Adebayo (+1300) and even Draymond Green (+5500) all have very real cases.

    Faced with this many options, it's better to invest in the field.

    Verdict: Sell

MVP: Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks (+280)

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks does a little dance after hitting a three against the San Antonio Spurs in the first half at AT&T Center on December 31, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Luka Dončić is doing his damnedest to ensure voters avoid gravitating toward "Best player on the best team" candidates. He is averaging a league-leading 34.3 points per game to go along with 8.9 assists while shooting a career-best 59.0 percent on twos and tidy 35.9 percent on threes, including a 39.9 percent clip on those trademark step-back triples of him.

    Not surprisingly, Dončić has spent the entire season jockeying between No. 1 and No. 2 spots on yours truly's bi-weekly MVP ladder. He surrendered the top slot to Nikola Jokić (+440) last time around, but that was before Dončić ripped off a four-game stretch in which he's averaged 46.7 points (not a typo) and 10.0 assists while hitting 64.4 percent of his twos and 38.2 percent of his treys.

    Wins-and-losses purists have harped on the Dallas Mavericks' proximity to the play-in tournament. That's an outmoded qualm. It's also fast becoming inaccurate.

    Dallas is comfortably winning the minutes Dončić logs and has climbed its way to fourth in the Western Conference. That's high enough to quash the cries of the record-obsessed sticklers.

    This is not to say Dončić's case is airtight. Jokić, Jayson Tatum (+350), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+420), Kevin Durant (+850) and Joel Embiid (+1300) are all repping squads better suited to finish with one of the NBA's three best records.

    Voters might overlook that in favor of Dončić uplifting what's clearly an inferior supporting cast. Making the most out of the least certainly contributed to Jokić sewing up last year's victory. Personally, I get the sense there may be some push-back on that idealogy this year.

    Even so, Dončić will benefit from Jokić and Antetokounmpo voter fatigue. They've combined to win the past four MVPs. Durant's offseason trade request will no doubt submarine his stock among select voters. Stephen Curry (+5000) or Zion Williamson (+5000) might be the best-value bet, but their most recent injuries torpedo their chances. Tatum will invariably be docked for playing on perhaps the NBA's most complete team, even if unfairly.

    That leaves Embiid as the most serious challenger, and wagering on his long-term health is always a dicey proposition.

    Verdict: Buy

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.


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