We’re a third of the way through the NBA season and will reach the halfway mark in the middle of next month. It’s time to check in on the MVP market.
ESPN recently published its first edition of the annual straw poll. The market was largely in line with the results and didn’t shift much based on those early indicators.
For a historical comparison, LeBron James was No. 1 in the first straw poll of the 2020-21 season, eventual winner Nikola Jokic was third. Last season, Stephen Curry was No. 1 in the first edition, and eventual winner Nikola Jokic was fourth. So, these early straw polls don’t have as strong of a correlation as the later editions, obviously.
Here’s a look at where the market stands going into Christmas Week, which is when many feel the NBA season seriously begins.
Jayson Tatum (+250)
The argument in a nutshell: He’s a 30-point scorer on the league’s best team.
Tatum is overvalued in the market because he has to be. You cannot have a guy with his combination of scoring and good-for-position rebounding for a team on pace for 62 wins and not have him somewhere on the ballot.
In the ESPN straw poll, Tatum led the way with 98 total votes for a point total of 759.
We’ll get to what the vote differentials mean in a bit, but you basically have to have Tatum on the ballot.
Tatum’s advanced metrics don’t match up. Those will really matter to some voters and won’t matter at all to others.
As we’ve discussed before with the Boston Celtics, you basically have to decide if this is sustainable. If you think the Celtics might regress offensively, but also positively regress defensively (which they already are, now top 10 in defensive rating) and will finish with over 60 wins, and Tatum will continue this stretch, then he’s bettable.
If you think the Celtics might slip in terms of winning percentage, then you cannot buy Tatum.
Tatum’s numbers look good as the best player on a 60-plus-win team. They don’t look as good if the Celtics are not the best team in the league. That’s essentially where this bet goes.
The easiest comparison for Tatum is Devin Booker last year — the best player on the best team — but Tatum’s numbers are considerably better:
However, if you notice the per 100 stats, it’s much closer than you might think.
There’s a real chance Tatum and Booker’s cases look similar by season’s end. Booker finished fourth with just 22% of the vote point total.
Maybe the second-best argument for betting Tatum is simple endurance. Tatum has the most games played so far, while Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have already missed games. If Tatum plays 75+ games and averages 30 points with a top-three seed, that might be enough.
I won’t bet on Tatum now. I’ll wait to see if there’s better value later and risk losing the closing line value. He’ll likely finish top three, but I just have a hard time believing this is as low as he will ever get.
Luka Doncic (+350)
The argument in a nutshell: He has the best numbers and does everything on a team where he needs to do everything.
Let’s say Tatum’s numbers regress just slightly, and he’s averaging 29-8-4 on good-not-elite efficiency for a team that wins 56 games, and Doncic is averaging 33-8-9 for a team that wins 47. (We’ll determine whether they can do that in a minute.)
Doncic’s going to get the edge there.
Don’t believe me? Doncic is third in the straw poll and likely stands to benefit from a chunk of Curry voters going for him if Curry is out due to the injury.
So the Mavericks have a horrible record vs. teams under.500, who they will beat more often than not over the course of the season. Dallas is well behind schedule … and Doncic’s third in the straw poll.
Doncic is the “hold your nose and bet it” option.
I’ve written and spoken about EPM, Estimated Plus-Minus, at DunksAndThrees.com before. The No. 1 player in that metric has won the award in six of the past nine seasons, and no player has won the award without being in the top five.
Doncic is No. 1 in that category. Tatum is eighth and Antetokounmpo is 9th.
(As always, a reminder: It’s not that EPM influences the voters; most don’t know it exists. But it’s been highly correlated with whatever the voters are looking for.)
The problem, of course, is the Mavericks.
The Mavericks, as I write this, are 14-14.
The good news is they are 10-7 vs. teams over .500. That’s turning low-probability situations into wins.
The bad news is they are 4-7 vs. teams under .500. That’s almost unsustainably bad. For example, the only teams with a worse record in the West vs. teams under .500 are the Rockets and Spurs.
Honestly, a fairly good argument for betting Doncic is that Dallas won’t continue to lose those games at that clip, and that, plus their banked wins vs. the good teams gets them to about 47 wins.
If Doncic has these numbers, comparable to Jokic last season, and gets credit for dragging what is seen as a poor roster to 47 wins and a playoff berth, does that get him home?
There’s a possibility, maybe a strong one, that voters aren’t going to reward another “good stats on a non-elite team” player the way they did with Jokic two years in a row, especially when Jokic’s advanced metrics were better.
However, if the Mavericks make a trade or just go on an improbable January run in the dog days of the season to get themselves to 50 wins? With these numbers? Doncic will get the nod over Tatum.
Stephen Curry (+2600)
The argument in a nutshell: The best and most impactful player in the league.
I’ve been banging the Curry drum on podcasts and radio appearances for three weeks. It was a great buy-low spot. The Warriors had screwed around for the first two months of the year, but still had a top-5 net rating for starting units. Curry was having a career season, and the Warriors had nothing but runway in front of them, especially after knocking off the Celtics, showing what they were capable of.
And then Curry got hurt.
Curry’s shoulder injury won’t require surgery, and it will be weeks and not months before he returns. Maybe we get lucky, and he comes back in 2-3 weeks, and then, if the other stars (God forbid) also deal with minor injuries, it’s close enough for Curry’s numbers to get him the vote.
But the most likely scenario is Curry and the Warriors will be cautious. The team will slide too far back to reach 45 wins by the playoffs, and Curry will finish with at-best 60 games played.
That’s just not enough if Tatum, Jokic, Doncic, Antetokounmpo, or Embiid play 70+.
It’s brutal because Curry was way underpriced. The Warriors, if they put their effort into it, can rattle off a winning streak. This team is not bad, their starters’ net ratings prove that.
I had a lot of confidence that by season’s end, there would be a recognition of what Curry had done, with comparable scoring numbers on way better efficiency.
He was going to finish top-3 at worst, but that’s out the window with the injury. If Curry comes back in 2-3 weeks, and we get a series of favorable outcomes later, those bets we made earlier might be live.
But as of right now, he’s not worth betting.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+300)
The argument in a nutshell: The winning rate of Tatum with the Usage and production of Joel Embiid and Doncic with the best defense of any candidate.
Antetokounmpo isn’t having as good of a season as usual by his standards. He’s averaging a career-high in points, but his assists and rebounds are down and he’s shooting below 60% from two-point range for the first time since 2019, his first MVP season.
The 3-point shot hasn’t come around, either — he’s shooting 26% after a career-high of 30.4% in 2020. He’s also shooting a career-low from the line.
All that, and the Milwaukee Bucks are 20-8.
But the problem there is they also have the weakest strength of schedule so far, with 16 games at home to the Celtics’ 13. The Bucks’ record is likely to get worse when the record is what’s holding up his case (on top of the fact that for long stretches he looks like the most dominant player on Earth).
I don’t know if Antetokounmpo is a buy right now. You have to believe his best performances are ahead of him this season and that he’ll manage to play enough to keep pace as well. Both those things are possible, he’s a tank.
But there might be a better buy-low spot later, even for the guy who’s second in the straw poll.
Nikola Jokic (+1000)
The argument in a nutshell: Once again the most important player to his team with outrageous stats.
The Denver Nuggets win their minutes when Jokic is on the floor. They lose their minutes when Jokic is not on the floor. They can stagger starters, change lineups, go small, go it, it doesn’t matter.
The Nuggets dominate when Jokic is on the floor, outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions. Jokic does everything for them offensively.
The challenge is that his weaknesses on the defensive end have never been more pronounced, with the Nuggets 28th in Defensive Rating and getting worse every game.
Plus, Jokic’s stats aren’t going to be consistent. Some nights he has 41 points and eight assists, other nights he has 19 points and 15 assists.
He’s only averaging 24.6 points per game this season. He’s nearly averaging a triple-double (and him finishing averaging one is not out of the realm of possibility whatsoever).
Jokic is a default option. If Tatum and the Celtics slip, if the Nuggets finish as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, if Curry’s injury takes him out, and if the Mavericks don’t win enough … then there’s the two-time MVP.
As always, it’s important to note no one has won three in a row since Larry Bird in 1984-86. Breaking that norm isn’t impossible, but it’s going to take just the right set of circumstances.
(Note: Jokic was +1900 before his massive game Sunday night)
Joel Embiid (+1100)
I was not expecting Embiid to be 10th in the first straw poll. His numbers (33-10-5) are right there with anyone else in the league.
There’s room for efficiency improvement. His mid-range shot remains top-tier (49% on six attempts per game), but he’s only shooting 34% from 3-point range. He’s at 57% from 3-point range, compared to 70% for Jokic. Those figures are more likely to improve than stabilize.
Embiid is fourth in EPM. The players above him are Doncic (team success may not be enough), Curry (injury) and Jokic (voter fatigue). So if you trust EPM — again, a metric in which the winner has been top-five in each of the past nine seasons — then Embiid is way closer to winning than his price indicates.
Embiid is probably underrated in the market, but the straw poll was surprising. The Sixers aren’t that far out of a top seed (four back of the division lead), Embiid hasn’t missed that many games (yet), and the numbers and impact are there. But for right now, the voting block isn’t considering him a serious candidate.
If you wanted a buy-low spot for Embiid, this is it. If you want a more sure top-three finisher, now is not the time.
Other Top Names With Longshot Odds
Ja Morant (+3000)
The team performance is there, with the Grizzlies now No. 1 in the Western Conference and 8-2 in their past 10. Morant’s impact, efficiency and production just aren’t there.
He’s 13th in EPM and shooting 45% from the field and 35% from beyond the arc. I think the voters would love to vote for him and him picking up 70 points in the straw poll, sixth-most, is proof of that.
It’s hard to say his chances will improve or even stay steady and not fall. You’d be buying high at a low chance right now.
Kevin Durant (+3000)
Durant picked up 61 points in the straw poll, with no first or second votes. He’s seventh in EPM, but if you take out Curry (games missed) and Anthony Davis (games missed and team success), that gets Durant to fifth. The Nets are 12-3 after starting 6-9 and Durant’s odds dropped slightly from 35-1 to 30-1.
Pay close attention to this one.
Zion Williamson (+2100)
If you buy the EPM stat, then he’s a no-buy. He’s 13th in EPM. The Pelicans are legit, but is Williamson doing enough to get that much credit over, say, Willie Green for Coach of the Year?
The other issue is Brandon Ingram likely returns sometime in the next month, and Williamson’s usage and numbers were pitiful when Ingram played.
I can’t get there on Williamson right now (especially after betting him +3600 preseason).
Devin Booker (+2000)
Booker being sixth in odds at FanDuel is nuts.
His numbers just don’t stack up: He’s way low in EPM, the Suns constantly seem to be one long losing streak away from major disruption, and it’s buying him after two 50-plus scoring performances.
Booker is amazing, but doesn’t have the push.