From 'Safe' to 'Dart Throw': 3 Ways to Bet 2021 NBA MVP

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2021

From 'Safe' to 'Dart Throw': 3 Ways to Bet 2021 NBA MVP

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    Associated Press

    Most years, the MVP race would be all but decided by now. But this NBA season is unlike any other, on so many levels.

    Nikola Jokic is the heavy betting favorite, but there are cases to be made for Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Damian Lillard—with the possibility that Luka Doncic could make a late run. Even LeBron James isn't fully out of it.

    If you're betting on the race a month out from the end of the regular season, there's still value to be had on a variety of candidates. Let's break them down.


    For our purposes, the top five candidates are ranked by their current betting odds on FanDuel.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (-195)

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Since Embiid went down with a bone bruise in his left knee and missed 10 games, the momentum has swung hard in Jokic's direction. He's put up unprecedented numbers for a center (26.0 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 8.8 APG, 41.8 percent from three) while playing in every game this season, which can't be said of any other candidate.

    The season-ending knee injury to Jamal Murray will hurt Denver's record, but it may only add to Jokic's case if the Nuggets stay around where they are in the standings (currently fourth in the West). He isn't a lock, but this is the safe pick.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (+240)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Through the first two months of the season, the MVP award was Embiid's to lose. He had the Sixers in first place in the Eastern Conference while putting up career numbers and playing the best and most consistent defense of his career.

    A knee injury that caused Embiid to miss 10 games after the All-Star break put an end to his front-runner status, but he's still very much in the mix. Since he's been back in the Sixers' starting lineup, he's been just as good as he was before the injury, and Philly is still first in the East. A strong finish to the season could help him regain some of the momentum he lost with the injury.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (+1200)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    If MVP truly was just a regular-season award based solely on the season in question, Antetokounmpo would have a great shot at winning his third straight trophy. He's been just as good as he was the last two seasons when he ran away with the award—maybe even a little better.

    But everyone knows that many people vote based on more than just the current season, and that's where Antetokounmpo will likely take a hit. Despite being dominant in the regular season, the Bucks have fallen short in the last two postseasons, losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019 and in the second round last summer in the bubble. That's caused people to retroactively view his regular-season accomplishments as less impressive.

    Combine that with voter fatigue—no player has won MVP three years in a row since Larry Bird from 1984-86—and it's hard to see Antetokounmpo getting enough votes to actually win, as deserving as he may be. If the Bucks make a late run to challenge for the top seed, maybe that will be enough, but it's unlikely.

James Harden, Brooklyn Nets (+1600)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Harden is easily the most controversial candidate on this list.

    Just looking at what's happened since he was traded to Brooklyn in mid-January, few would have stronger cases. But the first month of the year, in which he blew off Rockets training camp in an attempt to force a trade, also counts. That's going to be held against him by enough voters to keep him from winning.

    The recent time he's missed with a hamstring injury makes this an even riskier bet. He'll get some votes, but not enough to win.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (+1800)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Heading into the season, Doncic was getting buzz as a possible MVP favorite, but the Mavericks haven't won enough games to keep him in the front of the discussion.

    Still, they're only a game back from sixth in the West and within range of sneaking into the top four with the Lakers' continued star absences and the Nuggets losing Jamal Murray. If they make a run in the final month of the season, Doncic's case gets a lot stronger and could be worth a flier to bet on.

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (+2000)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    James looked like he had a great shot to pick up his fifth career MVP award until early March, when he suffered an ankle injury that's kept him sidelined since then. All indications are that he's still at least a couple of weeks out from returning.

    Still, he's LeBron James, and if he returns for the final stretch of the season and the Lakers keep winning, some voters will be hard-pressed not to put him on their ballots. It may be enough to put him over in a split field, and at these odds it's worth a shot.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (+2400)

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Here's the case for Lillard: the Blazers have stayed in the mix in a tough Western Conference playoff race almost entirely because of his clutch heroics and do-it-all playmaking. CJ McCollum has also missed 25 games this season.

    It also can't be ignored that Lillard has a lot of media support. If voters can find a way to justify giving it to him, they'll give it a long look.

    Realistically, Lillard's chances at winning the award will come down to the Blazers' record (currently sixth in the West), and they're on a skid this week. But at these odds, it's worth a roll of the dice.

The Picks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The safe pick: Jokic still has the edge. He's putting up numbers, Denver is winning, and he's played every game. You won't win much money, but there isn't much downside to putting a bet on him at this stage.

    The value pick: Embiid. The games he missed earlier in the season because of COVID-19 protocols may not be held against him by voters because of the unprecedented nature of the season, which would greatly strengthen his case. He's been good enough when he has been on the court to warrant consideration, and he'll get that from a lot of voters. The odds are still good enough that it's worth a shot.

    The dart throw: LeBron James has missed too many games to be seen as a favorite, but at +2000, it's not a terrible idea to bet on him returning for the stretch run and doing enough to earn some second- and third-place votes that could put him over the top in a split vote. He's not out of it yet.


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