I get why he’s currently favored — the Nuggets have the best record in the Western Conference, and Jokić has far and away the best efficiency differential, which Cleaning The Glass has at a wild 23.9, meaning the Nuggets are nearly 24 points better when Jokic is on the floor than when he isn’t.
This could be the first time he’s the first name on my MVP ballot, but that doesn’t mean I expect him to win the award for what would be a third consecutive year. I also wouldn’t wager your or my money on it happening because I don’t expect him to keep this up. Or for the 100-some media members who vote for the award — yes, I’m one — not to consider other factors when they fill out their ballots three months from now.
Let’s jump into the odds, plus my three favorite NBA MVP bets to make right now that present some value.
LeBron James scores season-high 48 points
Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe discuss LeBron James scoring 48 points against the Rockets.
NBA TOP 10 MVP ODDS (at FOX Bet)*
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: +162 (bet $10 to win $26.20 total)
Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks: +225 (bet $10 to win $32.50 total)
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: +500 (bet $10 to win $60 total)
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: +500 (bet $10 to win $60 total)
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: +1100 (bet $10 to win $120 total)
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets: +1600 (bet $10 to win $170 total)
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies: +2500 (bet $10 to win $260 total)
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers: +3500 (bet $10 to win $360 total)
Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors: +5000 (bet $10 to win $510 total)
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans: +6000 (bet $10 to win $610 total)
* Odds as of 1/18/2023
The No. 1 big-picture factor: the award would put the Denver big man next to Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to win the award three years in a row. Maybe that doesn’t sound all that terrible to you because of Jokić’s unique talent, but it would leapfrog him over back-to-back winners Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It would suggest that, from a historical perspective, Jokic has been the league’s most dominant player for the last three years, which is hard to reconcile with his meager postseason results.
This is what all those two-time winners have in common with Wilt, Bill and Larry: they’ve all won multiple rings. Here’s what makes Jokić an outlier among two-time winners: he has yet to come close to winning one.
I’m not going to hold that against him because I didn’t have him at the top of my ballot the previous two years, but I’m not convinced a majority of my fellow media members won’t. Especially if there’s a case to be made that Jokić is not as individually dominant as he was a year ago, and, lo and behold, there is one.
Statistically, he is down in several categories. His field-goal and 3-point shooting percentages are up, as are his assists, but his points, rebounds and blocked shots are all down. And short of an injury to Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. or Aaron Gordon, I don’t expect that to change. All of which would suggest the Nuggets’ conference-leading record has more to do with the return of Murray and Porter, who missed a substantial amount of last season, than Jokić’s improvement.
The other element working against Jokic is that the East appears to be the significantly tougher conference, which is going to add value to finishing on top of it, which is going to add value to the MVP candidate leading that particular team. (Luka Dončić and Ja Morant’s chances at MVP are similarly affected.)
Even if the Nuggets manage to hold on to the Western Conference’s best record, the East is now the greater beast. A 24-21 record in the West as of Tuesday was worth the fifth seed and a guaranteed playoff berth (Dallas); in the East, it’s worth the seventh seed and a spot in the play-in tournament (Miami).
That’s why my top three smart bets to win this year’s MVP at this stage are all with top teams in the East.
The Celtics are threatening to run away with the best record in the league, and while I believe that’s a credit to the overall strength and balance of the roster, there’s no denying Tatum is arguably having his best season. Anyone who goes by the formula, Best player + Best Team = MVP, would be hard-pressed not to vote for him if the status quo holds. FOX Bet seems to agree, having moved his odds from +1300 in the preseason to +500 now.
I recommended Embiid as an MVP betting choice before the season, and I’m sticking with him, especially with the dividends getting larger since then (+1100 now, +500 then). He is neck-and-neck with Dončić battling for this year’s scoring title and after a 9-9 start the Sixers have gone 18-7 and appear to be gaining momentum.
Another preseason pick that remains very much in the running. The Bucks are a threat to win the East largely because of their third-ranked defense and Giannis is far and away their most versatile defensive player — with major contributions from Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday. He also leads them in rebounding and scoring with a career-high average in the latter (31.0 points per game). Jokić won last year, in part, because he kept the Nuggets rolling despite the absence of Porter and Murray; Giannis may have a little of that sentiment working in his favor among voters with All-Star guard Khris Middleton only appearing in seven games so far. At +500, betting on Antetokounmpo to win his third MVP is worth a sprinkle.
With at least one voter announcing he wouldn’t vote for KD no matter what he does this season because of the turmoil he inspired during the offseason that ultimately cost coach Steve Nash his job, I don’t have any reason to believe Durant can win. If we’re talking strictly what he’s doing on the court, though — which I believe should trump all — then he’s certainly in the mix.
Not only do the Nets have the second-best winning percentage in the East, but Durant is shooting career-high percentages from the field and the free-throw line (and significantly better than when he won the 2014 MVP). Even more notable, the Nets have suffered two double-digit losses since Durant sprained a knee ligament after winning 14 of 15. He was my dark horse preseason choice, and at +1600, he remains one now. If Brooklyn continues to falter without him and KD then returns to lead them to the East’s best record, it would make a compelling case that Durant deserves to be among the two-time MVP winners more than Jokić deserves to be among the three-peaters.
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Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds,” the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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