Those three letters alone are enough to send any internet debate into a frenzy, and Most Valuable Player might be the most fun but difficult NBA awards market to handicap because of the nuance and complexity.
What makes the Most Valuable Player discussion so delectable is that the entire conversation is deliciously opaque. There are no rules, no clear definition of what exactly makes someone “valuable.”
Voters are simply told to vote for the best performing player in the regular season — whatever that means.
But while there aren’t specific MVP voting rules, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to predict who will win it. Voters reveal their criteria and answers to those questions above with their ballots each year. So what have voters told us?
We can learn a lot about predicting future awards by looking back at the past. Let’s build a historical MVP profile by looking at past winners, then follow our patterns to choose who to bet on in 2023-24.
Who Wins NBA MVP?
Here are the past 10 MVPs:
- 2023: Joel Embiid, 76ers
- 2022: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
- 2021: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
- 2020: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
- 2019: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
- 2018: James Harden, Rockets
- 2017: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
- 2016: Steph Curry, Warriors
- 2015: Steph Curry, Warriors
- 2014: Kevin Durant, Thunder
Looking at the list of recent winners, I see four key traits true of almost every MVP.
1. MVPs score a lot of points.
Even in the era of advanced metrics, voters are still suckers for raw numbers — and points remain king.
Fourteen of the past 15 MVPs scored at least 25 points per game. That’s a 93% hit rate, with 2015 Curry the lone exception and by just one PPG. We expect our MVPs to score, and score a lot.
That 25 PPG might not seem like a high bar, but only 20 players fit that criteria last season — and only 11 of them played the new 65-game minimum. Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Edwards, James Harden, Jalen Brunson, and Jimmy Butler all fell short of 25 PPG. We had 57 guys at 20 PPG, but 25 is a much steeper ask.
The average MVP the past decade scored 29.1 PPG.
2. MVPs win a lot of games.
Yes, voters really are that basic. Much of the time, it really is just the best player on the best team.
We’ve had 24 MVPs this century. Sixteen of them — two of every three — played on a 1-seed. Four more were 2-seeds, which means 83% played for a top-2 seed.
The outliers were Joel Embiid last year as a 3-seed, Nikola Jokic the two years before that as 3- and 6-seeds, and Russell Westbrook as a 6-seed. Those are the only MVPs since Michael Jordan in 1988 to win the award outside the top-2 seeds, but that also means three straight exceptions.
Even including those recent outliers, winning is still king. MVPs this century average over a 60-win pace and a 1.5-seed. Even narrowing the scope to just the last seven years still means a 56-win pace, and that includes all four outliers.
We may not need a 1-seed 60-win team anymore, but 33 of the last 35 MVPs (94%) were still top-3 seeds. If you can’t imagine a top-3 seed and a win total in the mid-50s, you probably shouldn’t bet MVP.
3. MVPs play a lot of basketball.
The best ability is availability. You can’t be the most valuable player from the bench — or the injury report.
Over the last 45 seasons, no MVP missed more than 11 games — until Embiid. That means at least 71 games played, an increasingly difficult bar. Jokic and Antetokounmpo didn’t play 71 games last year either. Only four guys played 71 and scored 25 PPG: Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, Julius Randle, and De’Aaron Fox.
In fact, only seven MVPs the last four decades even missed more than six games!
Now the NBA has set a 65-game minimum requirement for MVP and other awards. The bar had been trending down here, with four of the last six MVPs at a 72-to-74 game pace. Will that bar drop all the way to 65 now? It could, but there’s still value in playing those extra seven to 10 games.
This should still be an immediate red flag for guys like Embiid, Curry, Durant, Leonard, and James.
4. MVPs are young — but not too young.
All but four MVPs this century were age 24-to-28 their winning season. Makes sense, right? Younger players are still trying to win over the voters, and older players are on the wrong side of their primes, which means increased injury risk and deteriorating skills.
The only four MVPs outside that age range this century were Derrick Rose (age 22), Kobe Bryant (29), and Steve Nash twice (30-31). All four MVPs are considered questionable choices looking back, and Rose is the only MVP since 1983 under age 24.
That’s a pretty narrow age range — and an especially interesting one this year. Embiid is 29, which means he’s now aged out of this 24-to-28 window. Antetokounmpo turns 29 on December 6th, and Jokic turns 29 on February 19th.
The age cutoff on my research at Basketball Reference is February 1, which means technically Jokic still qualifies, but Antetokounmpo doesn’t and Embiid definitely misses out. It does feel like we’ve sort of run our course with that trio of candidates with all the discourse last spring.
Durant, LeBron, Curry, Harden, Kawhi, Dame, and PG are all 32 or older. Each one would be the oldest MVP this century. Anthony Edwards and Zion Williamson are too young. So who hits the sweet spot?
Luka Doncic is now “eligible” at age 24, and Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are other favorites in range. Other names of note include Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson, Trae Young, Domantas Sabonis, and De’Aaron Fox.
Could this be a transitional year for MVP, with the “old guard” of Embiid, Jokic, and Antetokounmpo aging out and a next group aging in?
Our Winning MVP Profile:
History tells us MVPs score at least 25 PPG, win enough to be a top-2 or 3-seed, play almost all their team’s games, and are 24 to 28 years old.
Nine of the last 15 MVPs checked all four of those boxes, a 60% hit rate from just four simple rules. All but Embiid — 93% of them — checked all but one box.
There’s one more half-rule I’m work shopping:
5. MVPs rarely come from out of nowhere.
Everyone loves a long shot — readers know that’s my specialty — but history says the MVP usually comes from among the usual suspects. The data speaks for itself.
Previous year MVP voting has been predictive the following season.
Over the last 15 seasons, 13 MVPs (87%) finished sixth or better in the previous year’s voting. In fact, 11 of the 15 MVPs (73%) finished fourth or better, and over half (8 of 15) finished first or second.
When it’s not one of those top two, it’s often a breakout season. Think Jokic, Giannis, Curry, and Derrick Rose breakouts, and even these guys had received votes in multiple previous years except Jokic and Rose. Every MVP since rookie Wes Unseld in 1969 received at least one previous MVP vote except Rose. That’s bad news for guys like Anthony Edwards and Zion Williamson.
Advanced metrics have also been predictive for MVP.
Using Basketball Reference’s BPM, 13 of our last 15 MVPs (87%) had at least a 7.4 BPM the year before winning. That’s just Jokic, Embiid, Doncic, Butler, Antetokounmpo, and Curry last year.
If you prefer Dunks and Threes’ EPM, every MVP over the past decade finished top-9 in EPM the previous season, and four were top-2. All 10 MVPs finished top-5 in EPM their winning year, with six at No. 1. The top 10 in EPM last season were Jokic, Embiid, Lillard, Butler, Leonard, Doncic, Curry, Antetokounmpo, Durant, and LeBron.
There’s one other place MVPs come from — previous MVP winner lists. Five of the last 15 MVPs went back-to-back. We love consecutive MVPs — just not three in a row, not since Larry Bird in 1984-1986.
Notably, though, we don’t give MVP to guys who won it before, but not last year. The last MVP to win, miss a year of winning MVP, then win again was LeBron James — the year after his Decision — and before that was Michael Jordan, post retirement.
History says unless you’re one of the two greatest players of all time, once you stop winning MVPs, you’re usually done for good. That’s interesting — and potentially terrible news for Jokic and Antetokounmpo.
Okay, let’s dig into the candidates. We’ll start by ruling out some of the candidates with red flags, then get to a couple long shots I’m eyeing, narrow in the five favorites, and grab two picks to start the season.
Odds are the best available as of Oct. 17.
The Young Up and Comers
Anthony Edwards (+4000, BetRivers)
Zion Williamson (+5000, FanDuel)
It’s fun betting the up-and-coming breakout guys, but history says it’s also too early.
Ant just turned 22. Zion is 23. Neither has ever received an MVP vote before. Williamson played 29 games the last two seasons. Edwards didn’t average 25 PPG last year.
Guys like this need the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander year from last season, the year before the year. SGA is a real candidate now — we’ll get back to that — but he needed last season first, the breakout year where he established himself among the league’s elite and finished fifth in MVP voting.
Players typically don’t break out overnight all the way to MVP. It’s too many levels at once. If you must bet one, I prefer Zion. He’s already played at an MVP level for healthy stretches, and he’s such a one-man juggernaut offense that the sky’s the limit if he can ever stay on the/ court long enough.
The Old Guard
Steph Curry (+1500, DraftKings)
Kevin Durant (+2000, BetRivers)
LeBron James (+6000, BetRivers)
Curry is 35 and has averaged 51 games across the last six regular seasons. Durant just turned 35 and hasn’t played more than 55 games in the past four seasons. LeBron turns 39 in December and has more mileage than anyone in history. He’s averaged 56 games the past five years and played more than that just once.
Curry finished third in MVP voting in 2021. That’s the only one of this trio to finish top-7 the past three years. These guys just aren’t playing enough — and you have to play to be valuable.
It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s time to admit that the best for these guys is behind them — at least in the regular season. Steph, KD, and LeBron still have MVP ball in their legs occasionally, but they’re saving it for May and June at this stage of their careers.
You can never rule out a legacy award for one of these former MVPs, but history says we’ve moved on.
Damian Lillard (+3600, FanDuel)
Jimmy Butler (+7500, FanDuel)
Kawhi Leonard (+8000, BetRivers)
This trio is slightly younger than the trio above — Dame is 33, Butler 34, Kawhi 32 — but they’d still all be the oldest MVP since Karl Malone in 1999. Health and games played will be an issue for all three, particularly Butler and Leonard, who also fell short of the 25 PPG criterion last season.
Lillard has fewer miles and has been healthier over the years, and he did finish third in EPM last year. He scores plenty, and the media loves him. Could Dame make an MVP run on his new team?
Probably not at this late stage of his career, in part because he has a clearly more talented, more MVP-like teammate — and that brings us to our next two guys.
Devin Booker (+2200, FanDuel)
Anthony Davis (+4000, BetMGM)
Can you really win MVP if we’re not positive you’re even the best player on your own team?
There’s almost no precedent in NBA history. It’s tough to even come up with potential examples. Steve Nash? Moses Malone with Julius Erving’s Sixers? Bob Cousy in Bill Russell’s rookie season?
If anything, there are counter examples. Magic Johnson played at an MVP level for years before winning in 1987, in part due to the presence of then-GOAT Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bryant didn’t win MVP until he got away from Shaq. Russell Westbrook was never a real candidate until Kevin Durant left.
It’s hard to win MVP when your teammate is one of the best players on the planet.
Davis is out for any number of reasons. He’s in his 30s and has never been a beacon of health, he usually doesn’t score enough, and, well, he’s not LeBron.
Booker is a far better candidate. He’s 27, right in our age target, coming off a sizzling playoff run with Durant. He could see a leap in playmaking with no true point guard in Phoenix, and maybe in efficiency in an elite offense. Could Booker put up an efficient 30/5/8 for the top-2-seed Suns?
It’s possible. But are we positive he’d win MVP, since he’d almost certainly need a big season from Durant for Phoenix to win enough to make him a serious candidate? That’s the problem. By nature of having multiple stars, these rosters aren’t deep. So either the star teammate takes a step back and the team isn’t good enough, or they don’t and now the younger star might remain in the shadow.
Booker finished 25th in EPM last season, and he’s never topped 4.2 BPM, far short of the caliber of player that wins MVP. He certainly did on the playoff run, but I’m just going to have to see it before I bet it.
I’m just not sure you can be the Most Valuable Player if you’re not even the best player on your own team.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+1800, FanDuel)
Donovan Mitchell (+3000, FanDuel)
Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Mitchell are in their primes, in our preferred age range. They both topped 28 PPG last year, so production won’t be a problem, and they both typically play plenty of ball.
I’m not convinced Mitchell is quite the level of an MVP. He’s coming off the best year of his career at 28.3 PPG, the leading scorer of a 51-win Cavs team that should be as good or better with its entire core in its prime.
Mitchell finished sixth in MVP voting, a good sign, but I worry it might have been his peak. Even with a career-best year, Mitchell barely cracked top 10 in PPG and the Cavs offense barely finished top 10 in offensive rating. Is there another leap in there? I don’t see it. Mitchell’s career-high 6.3 BPM and No. 19 EPM are also a bit too far down the ranks.
Gilgeous-Alexander is the better MVP candidate. He finished at 7.3 BPM and No. 11 EPM last year, just barely outside our desired range on both, and he was fourth in the NBA in scoring at 31.4 PPG. He finished fifth in MVP voting already a year ago, so the only step left is to win it.
With SGA, winning could be the problem. We need a guy that can push for mid-50s wins and a top-3 seed. Can the Thunder get there?
Maybe. Oklahoma City is so young. They get another year of development from Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams and now add Chet Holmgren to the mix. And don’t forget the most obvious path — SGA himself. He’s only 25, has improved every year, and just had an outstanding FIBA World Cup.
What if Gilgeous-Alexander takes another step forward and leads the league in scoring? What if he adds a 3-pointer or gets to the line and converts more often? Could he repeat last year’s performance but see his Thunder teammates improve enough to get him to 52 or 55 wins and a spot near the top of the West?
I don’t quite believe in the Thunder at that level — not yet — but there’s a clear enough path that Gilgeous-Alexander is worth at least a small addition to your MVP portfolio. And if you do believe the Thunder are ready to make the leap, he should be the top play on your board.
The New Old Guard?
Nikola Jokic (+450, BetMGM)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (+600, FanDuel)
Joel Embiid (+1000, BetRivers)
You can probably already tell from the MVP rules discussion above, but I’m tentatively out on all three of our most recent MVPs. I think it’s possible we’ve seen the last of this trio atop the MVP race.
Embiid is the easiest to rule out. He’s aged out of our preferred range and is always a red flag on health and games played. Winning could also be an issue as murky as things look with James Harden.
Embiid certainly has the advanced metrics, and voters love back-to-back MVPs, but Embiid has a serious narrative problem after yet another playoff collapse on top of all the backlash after last year’s MVP win. It would be truly stunning to see him win another MVP this year.
Embiid is a clear no bet this season.
I think Antetokounmpo is a bit further from MVP than we’d like to admit, too.
Giannis technically doesn’t fit our age range, and he’s already struggling to get to the 65-game minimum. He played 63, 61, 67, and 63 games the last four seasons. Some of those were shorter seasons, of course, but his body has not held up for long, grueling seasons — and now it doesn’t have to with Lillard around to carry the load more often.
The Bucks have a great team, but they’re in it for the long haul. It’s hard to see them investing too much chasing the 1-seed, in part because we’ve seen them punt on doing that in recent years. They’re lacking in depth and may also take some lumps adjusting to Lillard and new coach Adrian Griffin.
It’s been three years since Antetokounmpo won MVP. Only Michael Jordan has won MVP after that long of a gap. Giannis enters the year with lingering knee issues that look ongoing at this point and caused him to miss the FIBA World Cup. And again, now he has more reason to play less and take on a smaller role to get his body ready for a playoff run.
Antetokounmpo might have another Finals MVP in his legs, but I think his regular season MVP years are behind him. He’s an absolute no bet at +600.
Jokic is the one name of this trio that feels like he could still win one more.
If anything, the case is almost too obvious. He’s one of the best two or three players on the planet by any real measure, and he’s the reigning Finals MVP. He’s at or near the top of every advanced metric. He fills up the box score. And some voters might feel like they owe Jokic after the way he was perhaps robbed by last year’s outcome.
So why wouldn’t Jokic win a coronation tour MVP?
For starters, he doesn’t seem to want to. Jokic seems over the whole MVP ordeal. If anything, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him sit out an extra game or two specifically so he misses the 65-game minimum. Jokic also turns 29 in-season, a couple weeks after our deadline, so he’s right on the cusp. He scored only 24.5 PPG last year, short of our desired scoring output, and only two guys the past four decades won MVP after an MVP gap year.
I won’t rule Jokic out — that would be crazy — but he’s a no bet right now as the betting favorite.
Jokic is coming off the most grueling stretch of his career after that Finals run, and he’s a notoriously slow starter. October and November are the worst statistical months of his career, the only two months he’s under 20 PPG lifetime.
The Nuggets have been to the top. They know this is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s little reason to push for a huge start, and even if they do, it might be Jamal Murray and the gang making the push, not Jokic.
If you’re building an MVP portfolio, you’d be crazy not to add Jokic at some point, at least as a hedge. But he’s a no bet — for now — as the +450 betting favorite to start the season.
The 2 MVP Bets to Make Right Now
Luka Doncic (+600, BetMGM)
If this is an MVP transition season, maybe it’s a transition to the Luka era.
Doncic is 24 now, his first year in our age criteria, and we know the counting stats and advanced metrics will be there. Doncic didn’t finish top six in MVP voting last season, but he’s done so three times previously.
Is Doncic healthy enough? He misses a bunch of games each year and has played just 61, 66, 65, and 66 games the past four years. That’s a bit troubling for a young player, especially one who never seems to stay in peak game shape and who’s already coming into the year nursing a calf injury.
Will the Mavericks win enough? That could be an issue too. Dallas made some terrific offseason additions to round out its roster, but a bet on Doncic is also a bet on Kyrie Irving and Jason Kidd, which isn’t fun. The Mavs didn’t even make the playoffs last year — now they’re going to be a top-3 seed?
Doncic might even have a narrative issue. Do voters want Doncic to win? He’s getting some James Harden heliocentric critiques and there’s real fatigue to his foul hunting and incessant complaining.
Still, Doncic is the obvious leap candidate, and he comes at a slight discount now after entering the last two seasons as the favorite. He’s as good as ever — I had him third on my ballot last season — and pretty much everyone agrees he’s going to win an MVP eventually, maybe several. If there’s not another candidate to love, why not just take the obvious Next Great Player?
Doncic was my favorite MVP pick when we did our Buckets MVP episode a month ago, but I’m a bit less enthusiastic the way the Mavs have looked so tired and discombobulated after this long international preseason tour, and with Luka still dealing with that calf. My faith is wavering.
I’m still making Luka my second best bet, and he’s a must-add to any portfolio — but you’re forgiven if you want to wait for a better price. A slow Mavs start or injured Doncic stretch provides a buy-low opportunity at some point. But at the end of the day, Doncic might still be my outright pick if I had to make one.
Jayson Tatum (+900, BetRivers)
For my money, Tatum is the best MVP bet on the board entering the new season. He checks every box.
Tatum is in his prime and hits our age range, and he’s been an ironman on the court. He topped 30 PPG last season, and he plays for arguably the best team in the league so winning won’t be a problem.
For years, MVP could be summed up nicely as the best player on the best team. Tatum is the most obvious best-player-best-team candidate we’ve had in awhile.
The Celtics look like the clear best team, maybe the only one capable of 60 wins and lapping the field, and they only look better with the addition of Jrue Holiday. Kristaps Porzingis has opened up this offense with his shooting, and the absence of Marcus Smart could leave more time on the ball for Tatum, so he could see an uptick in both assists and rebounding.
Tatum was the MVP favorite at the first straw poll last season and finished fourth in the final voting. If I had to bet on any player in the league staying top-three among MVP ranks all year, Tatum is the easy pick.
The Celtics look like juggernauts, and Tatum is the clear best player on the team. He’s exactly what an MVP usually looks like, with one slight exception: are we sure Tatum is an elite MVP-caliber player?
Tatum has been awesome, but the advanced metrics say he’s just a tick short of that top level. He posted a career-best 5.5 BPM last season, well short of our measuring stick. He also finished 13th in EPM, slightly outside our desired top-9 — though he did finish 8th the previous season, and his excellent defense will help him in these metrics.
Does it feel like Tatum belongs on the level of Jokic, Embiid, and Giannis? I’m not quite there yet. It feels like Tatum is a half step below still. But if the only guys at that level fall short of MVP for one reason or another, then someone has to win it, and Tatum is by far the best default choice on the board.
Whether you’re building an MVP portfolio or just making one bet right now, there’s no question about it. On this Celtics juggernaut, at 30 PPG in his prime, Jayson Tatum checks all the boxes. At +900, he’s priced far too long and is the one MVP bet you simply have to make heading into the new season.
Best Bets Heading into the Season
There’s one MVP bet I’m absolutely making right now: Jayson Tatum at +900.
I’m also looking to add Luka Doncic to my portfolio. I don’t mind waiting for a better number, but let’s go ahead and add him at +600. A full unit on each gives us a Tatum-or-Doncic ticket at +311. That’s an implied 24%, and I’d put the two around 45% combined, nearly preferring them to the field.
I’m keeping an eye on Jokic as a potential portfolio add later, but he’s a no bet right now as the +450 favorite.
I’m also eyeing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as my favorite long shot at +1800. I’m not quite enough a believer in the Thunder to go all-in, but I’ll throw a half-unit on SGA in case I’m wrong and OKC is ready now.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. We can add to our position over the next six months, and there will be plenty of dips in pricing along the way.
But the one name I want leading my portfolio — enough to add multiple units to start the year — is Jayson Tatum at +900. Start your 2024 MVP portfolio the right way with Tatum at the top of your list.
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