The 2020 NBA MVP Race: What Statistical Trends Tell Us
As we enter a new age of parity the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen since the 70’s, perhaps it’s fitting that we’re also gearing up for an MVP race unlike any other in just as long.
Call it the result of player empowerment, the bastard child of the most recent CBA, or simply a long-overdue coincidence, but whatever the reason, no one has any clue what lies ahead. Right now, the Clippers are (barely) title favorites, and no site has them at better than + 300 to win it all. You can find a whopping third of the league at + 2000 or less, which is borderline unprecedented. Almost anything is possible.
With so many unknowns because of all the player movement and the lack of a true superteam on the horizon, the MVP odds are similarly wide open. Six players are posted at + 700 or better on at least one site, with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the nominal favorite at + 300 in most places.
In attempting to handicap the field – something we’ll do for MVP and Rookie of the Year over the course of this summer – a good place to start is with the guy currently favored to win it.
According to the site Sports Odds History, the favorite has won five of the last 13 MVP races – LeBron James four times and Russell Westbrook two years ago. There’s certainly a case to made for the Greek Freak to repeat this year, if for no other reason than 27 of the 64 MVP awards handed out have been part of a back to back (or in three cases, back to back to back).
It’s rare that you can get 3-to-1 odds on an MVP favorite, happening only three times in the last 11 years (although two of those have been the last two seasons), so it’s not like there isn’t value in betting on the seven-foot man-child with the moves of a guard. The Bucks are a safe choice to dominate again, and the loss of Brogdon shouldn’t matter nearly as much during the regular season as it will in the playoffs, when Eric Bledsoe goes into his regular hibernation. If the jump shot becomes a thing, it could give voters the “he was already great and got even better!” narrative angle needed to justify a repeat win.
Still, it’s instructive to look back at recent history and see if such a choice wouldn’t be wise. Over the last 13 seasons, James is the only repeat winner, doing it twice. Both of those victories (in 2010 and then again in 2013) came in a much less crowded field, at least at the top. The last favorite to win – Russ in 2017 – was the overwhelming pick from the day Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Giannis is no such thing.
Best player on the best team
This leads us to the far more interesting candidacy of Kawhi Leonard.
If you boil the NBA’s MVP down to its most basic essence, you’ll usually come out with some version of “best player on the best team.” Vegas says the Clippers are that team, and we know from experience that Kawhi is that guy. Yet here he is, available for something close to 10-to-1. What gives?
It’s quite simple, actually: Vegas knows its NBA history. Through 2017, only twice in 62 years did an MVP winner miss double digit games: Bill Walton, whose ’78 Blazers were 48-10 when he played and 10-14 when he didn’t, and Allen Iverson, who missed 11 games in 2001, but dragged an uninspiring Sixers team to 56 wins and the first seed in the East.
For Mr. Load Management himself, that’s not a great sign…except when you consider the last two years, when Antetokounmpo and James Harden each won despite missing exactly 10 games apiece.
Leonard, of course, will almost certainly miss more than 10 games. Last year, he sat for 22, almost all of which were designated as rest days on the injury report. Let’s assume that this season, a full year and a half removed from the hip ailment that caused him to miss all but nine contents during his last go ‘round with the Spurs, Kawhi suits up for a clean 66.
If recent history is any indication, that might just be enough to get voters to look the other way and formally award him the title of Best Player in the Sport, something the 2019 postseason made abundantly clear. That’s where things get really interesting.
MVP Finals Awards
Throughout NBA history, 12 men have won multiple Finals MVP awards. 11 have won a regular season MVP as well. The one who hasn’t? Bingo: Mr. Fun Guy himself.
What about age
Better yet, the average age of the other 11 when they won their first MVP was just over 26. Leonard is 28. The only two men on the list to win their first MVP award later than that age are Kobe Bryant, who took home his during his age-29 season, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who was 31.
Translation: Kawhi is due. Five times a player has won the MVP in the first season after switching teams – Wes Unseld as a rookie, and then Kareem, Moses, Barkley and Nash, so it’s not like that part would be unprecedented.
Think about it…last year, voters ultimately decided on Giannis over Harden because he played both ends of the floor and his team was not only superior but built specifically around Antetokounmpo’s talents.
If Kawhi can play 66-ish games (probable), lead the Clips to the best record in maybe the most brutal conference we’ve ever seen (definitely possible), and simply repeat last year’s performance with the Raptors (not unlikely), what reason would there be for the voters not to finally give him his due? If Giannis essentially duplicates his effort from last year, it’s at least a conversation, and when you’re looking at + 900 vs + 300, well…at the very least, it’s a solid hedge.
It makes Kawhi our most interesting bet of the offseason, but he’s not the only one. Check back over the course of the summer for some other names that at least warrant a conversation based on the current odds, as well as what names to avoid.
Is it October yet?
Dean of Knicks Film School, host: KFS Pod, co-host: Pick N Pod. There isn't much about Knicks basketball that Jonathan doesn't know and he's here to break down the big games each and every week.