2017-18 NBA MVP Odds: The Path for Each Top-10 Favorite to Take Home the Trophy
Right now, every NBA player has a chance to win MVP.
Of course, many of the league's lesser contributors will quickly be eliminated from contention. They can only dream about a massive breakout for so long. And ultimately, just one player will hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy while making a tear-jerking speech to celebrate his accomplishments.
But notice we said everyone has "a" chance. Those chances aren't all the same.
Walk into your backyard or the nearest grassy area and try to identify the longest blade. You have about the same chance of picking the right one as Troy Daniels, Malcolm Delaney or Isaiah Whitehead have at winning the league's most prestigious individual honor. On the flip side, OddsShark has pinpointed these 10 stars as the men with the best chance to earn a place in the record books.
For any one of them to burst to the front of the pack, quite a few elements in the 2017-18 season have to go right. Whether they hit on the statistical, narrative or team-success factors of the unofficial voting criteria, they have to travel down the perfect path.
Let's provide some directions to get them started.
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T9. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets, +2500
Chris Paul may go down as one of the best players in NBA history who never won an MVP award—or made the conference finals, though that's a story for another time, as well as one that may change in 2018. And though he's tied with Paul George and Isaiah Thomas* for the ninth-best odds this season, he doesn't have a realistic chance at holding up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Not only would Paul need to overcome the best of the rest of the NBA has to offer, but he'd have to outplay James Harden by a significant margin.
The aptly nicknamed "Point God" has the luxury of narrative; voters tend to reward players whose stories are compelling and can often fall into the "voter fatigue" trap that presumably prevents LeBron James from winning every year, just as it once kept Michael Jordan from racking up even more accolades. But pushing the Rockets to become the second-best team in basketball and making the Golden State Warriors look vulnerable still won't be enough.
To win, Paul would have to prove Houston belongs to him, not Harden.
Good luck with that.
If he averaged 20 points and 10 assists for the Rockets, something he hasn't done since his legendary 2008-09 campaign for the New Orleans Pelicans, that still might not be enough. He'd have to lead the league in dimes by a substantial margin while posting massive scoring figures, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's overcoming Father Time and clearly functioning as Houston's No. 1 option. Even then, he might have to knock down a few clutch buckets to prove he's the ball-handler du jour in crunch time.
Save yourself some money and don't bet on Paul to win MVP. The path to a trophy is murky at best.
*These odds were distributed while Thomas was still a member of the Boston Celtics, hence his omission in this article. He's no longer the No. 1 option on his own team.
T9. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder, +2500
Go back and read what we wrote about Chris Paul.
The same situation applies here. Paul George is fighting an uphill battle to win MVP as he joins the Oklahoma City Thunder; he's just trying to overcome the perception that this is Russell Westbrook's team rather than James Harden's. If anything, George's task might be a bit tougher. Westbrook is the reigning MVP, after all.
But the narrative factor still applies.
Whereas the Rockets were a competitive squad that won 55 games and earned home-court advantage during the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Thunder overcame a lackluster supporting cast to win 47 games. Largely viewed as overachievers riding Westbrook's triple-double habits to success, they weren't really considered much of a postseason threat.
What if that changes? If George is the impetus behind OKC becoming a true thorn in the side of the Rockets, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, pushing them up into the realm of true contenders rather than mere postseason locks, he could get a bit of love from the voters.
He'd need to post absolutely monstrous numbers, and many of them would have to come at Westbrook's expense. Think about an efficient 27 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game—all career highs—while playing lockdown defense against opponents' toughest wings on a nightly basis. Even that might not be enough since the dynamic point guard he's joining in Chesapeake Energy Arena isn't going anywhere.
And it's not like George is rooting for an injury so that he can keep the Thunder in playoff contention by himself and earn the league's top individual honor.
In reality, only eight players truly have a shot at MVP.
8. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, +1600
Anthony Davis has actually finished on the MVP ballot before.
During his breakout campaign in 2014-15, he trailed only Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Two years later, he finished in a dead tie with Kevin Durant for the No. 9 spot in the award hierarchy. But he didn't receive a single first-place vote either time.
A couple steps could change that.
First, and most importantly, the New Orleans Pelicans have to make the playoffs. They're employing the stars-and-scrubs strategy this year—last seen in your local fantasy football league—by top-loading the roster with Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Jrue Holiday, and no one has more pressure on him to make it work.
If Cousins doesn't fit, NOLA can chalk it up to a failed experiment and move him before the deadline. If Holiday gets injured again, no one will be surprised. But if Davis can't play like a superstar, that'll be an unmitigated disaster.
On the flip side, Davis can also carry his troops into the postseason by thriving on both ends of the floor. And that's the second step.
The unibrowed big man needs to gain traction in the Defensive Player of the Year race by continuing to improve his positioning on the interior. Swatting away shots isn't enough unless he's piling up rejections while making New Orleans one of the league's best defensive bunches—while he's on the floor, at least.
But that's still not enough.
With Solomon Hill's injury hamstringing the Pelicans even further on the wings, Cousins, Holiday and Davis are the only legitimate scoring threats. If this particular Kentucky product—one of four on the roster—isn't competing for the league lead in points per game, his MVP candidacy will be doomed before it ever gets started.
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, +1100
What can Stephen Curry do that he hasn't already achieved?
He's led the Golden State Warriors to the best record in NBA history and been rewarded with an MVP in unanimous fashion. He's shattered the record for single-season three-pointers and been granted the league's top individual honor.
Whether unfairly or not, the bar is set at an astronomically high level. Earning individual supremacy was tough enough when Curry was only teamed up with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But with Kevin Durant in the mix for the second consecutive season and coming off an NBA Finals in which it appeared the small forward was the most impactful player, he has to do something special to regain his crown.
Well, something even more special.
Bear with me. This is going to be a little out there. We have to clear that impossibly high bar that allows Curry to distinguish himself as the best player on the league's best team when it's perceived (rightfully) as more stacked than ever.
If the Dubs don't win at least 70 games, he has no chance. Golden State has to submit a historically impressive season for a team with so many stars to have one player separating himself from the pack. And as an individual, Curry has to set another record.
Yep, we're talking about triples.
The record currently stands at 402, thanks to his ridiculous work during the 2015-16 campaign. He fell 78 shy last year, but he has to move past the all-time mark to hold up the trophy once more. That leaderboard chase needs to be fresh in voters' minds as they're making their selections.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, +850
Giannis Antetokounmpo has officially been challenged by Kobe Bryant to win MVP. He also told Milwaukee Bucks play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke, via CBS Sports' Colin Ward-Henninger, "I might be the MVP this year."
The stage is set.
Antetokounmpo is coming off a breakout season in which he won Most Improved Player behind his soaring per-game averages. He became the first player in NBA history to finish in the league's top 20 for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and he's still just 22 years old—he won't celebrate his 23rd birthday until the 2017-18 campaign is nearly two months old.
It's that stat-stuffing nature that gives him a legitimate chance to ascend to the top of this hierarchy, just as Russell Westbrook did last year by averaging a triple-double. The Oklahoma City Thunder proved that a dominant player doesn't need to finish at the top of the conference standings to win MVP anymore, and Antetokounmpo can capitalize if he keeps the Milwaukee Bucks in the hunt for home-court advantage (not the No. 1 seed) and becomes even more statistically dumbfounding.
What if he ranks in the top 10 for each of the major categories—and not just the total versions, but the per-contest ones? It's certainly possible, so long as the Bucks keep using him in a positionless role that allows him to thrive as a primary ball-handler. Even after Malcolm Brogdon was named Rookie of the Year, they have no reason to deviate from that strategy with a largely similar roster.
Averaging just 0.1 more steals per game would put him in the top 10 for both defensive categories. But the others would require a bit more work. Antetokounmpo averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists last year, and he'd have needed to up those respective numbers to 25.3, 10.7 and 7.0 to qualify last year.
That seems like a tall task, but don't count the "Greek Freak" out. He's improved upon each of those five per-game marks during every single season of his NBA career so far.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets, +800
James Harden trailed only Russell Westbrook in last year's MVP voting, but he now has to deal with the presence of a superstar teammate. The addition of Chris Paul will be tough to overcome in this race for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, but the arrival isn't necessarily a death knell on the bearded guard's hopes.
Emotion could make him a popular choice, as Melissa Rohlin explained for the San Antonio Express-News:
"Some think Harden should have won the award last season, and people like to make things fair...There’s a camp that thinks because Harden led his team to a better seed than the Thunder, he should have taken home the hardware since basketball is a team sport. Now that Chris Paul has joined forces with Harden, he will have to do much less in the assist category, so his numbers might not be as impressive next season. But the Rockets could be legitimate title contenders. Don’t be surprised if voters reward the guy who successfully helped lure one of the top point guards in the league to the Rockets."
Makeup votes are legitimate. They still count just as much as selections occurring for any other reasons.
Of course, Harden still has to play at a remarkably high level.
This point from Rohlin is legitimate and indisputable: The shooting guard-turned-point guard-turned-shooting guard will average fewer assists. But Paul has always preferred passing to calling his own number, and that should help Harden, who thrived in spot-up situations throughout the 2016-17 campaign.
Though the Arizona State product was tremendously adept at creating shots off the bounce, he also scored 1.2 points per possession as a spot-up marksman, leaving him in the 90.6 percentile. Now, he'll have even more open looks since he's joined by another offensive threat who demands constant attention.
If the Rockets run away with one of the West's top two seeds and Harden wins the scoring title while averaging at least 30 points, the MVP could be his to lose.
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, +750
In the interest of full disclosure, these odds were set before the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas swap was announced. The blockbuster move has officially processed, and LeBron James' MVP odds should rise even higher.
Everything about the transaction works in his favor.
Now that Irving is playing for a rival squad in the Eastern Conference, James might be more motivated than ever to earn the top seed during the regular season, as opposed to taking games off and waiting to flip the switch in the playoffs. It just so happens that a report, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, already pegs him as "obsessed" with getting better this offseason.
But this isn't just a mental adjustment. Jae Crowder is in town to take away some of the defensive pressure he faces on a nightly basis. Isaiah Thomas is still working his way back from the hip injury that delayed completion of the league-altering trade, and James would have to assume more scoring responsibilities in his absence.
MVP doesn't always go to the league's best player. But all James has to do is convince the world it should.
He remains top dog in this league, even if he's coming off a defeat on the sport's biggest stage. Poll any number of intelligent basketball minds, and while a few might support Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, the vast majority will wind up picking James' name to lead off the individual hierarchy.
If he can navigate through this tumultuous offseason, do away with any adjustment periods that might stem from new personnel and lead Cleveland to the East's top record, he'll stand a serious chance in this voting process. It also wouldn't hurt for him to post another jaw-dropping on/off discrepancy; the Cavs outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions when he played last year, but the net rating fell to minus-8.6 when he didn't.
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs, +650
The San Antonio Spurs finally feel a bit vulnerable. They've been a dynastic force in the NBA ever since drafting Tim Duncan with the top pick of the 1997 selection process—winning five titles and making the playoffs every year for a two-decade span certainly qualifies as a dynasty, especially when consistently remaining near the top of the Western Conference—but old age and declining depth make them seem a bit less threatening as we move into 2017-18.
We do need to hit the brakes, though, as Adam Spinella made sure to note while looking at this topic in depth for NBA Math:
"Something about the current iteration feels different, though. The old guard, for all their timeless and shatterproof winning ways, are either gone or finally on the decline. The new guard, built around a fresh face of the franchise, is a strange hodgepodge of ring-chasing veterans, youngsters with few known qualities and the supporting cast from a championship run now four years in the rearview mirror.
Important disclaimer: This piece is not declaring that the Spurs and their dynasty are dead, or even dying. To say they are in danger of missing the playoffs hyperbolizes concern. Core pieces return from a 60-win squad that saw its season end in large part due to injuries. San Antonio remains a high-end team—one that will keep building upon its incredible list of postseason appearances. Insinuating otherwise is a misrepresentation of this conversation."
Kawhi Leonard is the one and only reason there's no danger of a lottery finish. He's also the reason the Spurs are still prohibitive favorites to earn home-court advantage during the postseason's opening round, even as the Western Conference grows stronger around them.
And if the two-way superstar leads them to one of the West's top two seeds or throws a serious wrinkle into the Golden State Warriors' quest for superiority, he'll be the league MVP.
Leonard was close enough last year. He trailed only Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the award voting, receiving nine of the 101 possible first-place votes. Now, he just needs to keep asserting himself as a go-to scorer and defensive menace while sparking one victory after another.
Westbrook is playing alongside Paul George this coming season. Harden is working with Chris Paul. Leonard is operating next to a largely similar supporting cast that may actually be a bit worse in 2017-18. The status quo could win him the sport's highest individual honor, which is why it almost feels misleading that he "only" has the third-best odds.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors, +450
During the 2017 NBA Finals, Kevin Durant averaged 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 55.6 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from downtown and 92.7 percent from the charity stripe. If he can keep up that pace for an entire regular season, he'll win MVP. Guaranteed.
Of course, those aren't realistic expectations. If he joined the 50/40/90 club with room to spare while posting 35 points per game and contributing in every other facet, Michael Jordan himself might publicly hand over his G.O.A.T. title in a formal ceremony.
Durant's regular-season averages from his first season with the Dubs are far more attainable: 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.6 blocks while slashing 53.7/37.5/87.5. Had he maintained those while avoiding any major injuries, he might have stood a puncher's chance in the MVP battle that wound up featuring just Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
But we're used to this from Durant now. After the Finals, we might even expect more.
The volume elements are fine. So long as he can replicate those, and maybe push past five dimes per contest in an appeal to the world's round-number-bias subscribers, he'll only need to focus on upping his efficiency levels. Obviously, we're picking at nits here, but a slash line closer to 50/40/90 would go a long way. So long as he hits two of the three qualifiers, he'll be in great shape.
Then, as the final element, he needs to win.
If the Dubs fail to improve upon last year's 67-15 record, impressive as it may already be, Durant and Stephen Curry will split too much of the vote and effectively cancel out each other's candidacy. Only if they get closer to 70 or exceed that magic number will one be able to pull ahead by enough to have a legitimate shot at victory during award season.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, +350
Russell Westbrook may have the top MVP odds at the sportsbooks, but that's largely because Vegas is counting on bettors to recognize his name and the fact that he won the trophy last year. Evaluating from a purely objective standpoint, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard shouldn't be the odds-on favorite to repeat.
But he certainly could. If last season proved anything, it's that betting against a motivated Westbrook is usually a bad idea.
Paul George will be taking away touches and making it tougher for Westbrook to lead the league in scoring for a second consecutive season—and the third time in four years—but his presence will also elevate OKC up the Western Conference hierarchy. Wins help, and the floor general will receive plenty of credit if this new-look bunch goes from 47 victories in 2016-17 to pushing toward 60 in 2017-18.
But then there's the matter of the triple-doubles.
Ultimately, those are arbitrary measures. A triple-double can be unique rather than impactful since a game with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists qualifies as one, but one with 75 points, 32 rebounds and nine assists doesn't. That may be reductio ad absurdum, but logic doesn't always seem to prevail when talking about this concept.
Because Westbrook averaged a trip-dub for an entire year (the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson), he almost has to hit the necessary marks again if he wants to repeat as MVP. Average even 9.9 rebounds or assists, and a large swath of voters might be left so unnecessarily unimpressed that they jettison his chances.
On the flip side, become the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for two consecutive seasons while suiting up next to another bona fide star? That would give voters all the reason they'd need.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.