The 2020 NBA MVP Race: Our Value Pick

The value is there, the narrative is there, is it his time?
Jonathan Macri
Wed, August 7, 3:21 PM

Looking back through the course of NBA history, it’s nearly impossible to separate out the MVP award from the regular season standings. For this reason, I recently argued that Kawhi Leonard – currently available at +900 – is the most interesting bet on the board despite the near certainty that he’ll miss more games than all but one MVP winner in history.

There’s a few reasons Kawhi is a good value, but a primary one is that his Clippers are currently the odds-on title favorites, and “best guy on the best team” has often won the day in this race. It’s not a necessity though. Being the best player on a team that nabs one of the conference’s top two seeds, however, almost is.

 

The media has voted on the MVP award for the past 39 years. Only four times during that span has the winner come from a team that finished with a record outside the top two in either the East or West:

  • Julius Erving in 1981, when his Sixers finished tied for the league lead with 62 wins but were the third seed in the East thanks to losing a tiebreaker with the Celtics for the division crown;
  • Moses Malone in 1982, when he finished second in the league in scoring and first in minutes, rebounds and free throws while dragging the Rockets to a sixth seed despite a 36-year-old Elvin Hayes being their second best player;
  • Michael Jordan in 1988, when he averaged 35, 5 & 5 while winning Defensive Player of the Year for a 50-win Bulls team that finished third, and of course…
  • Russell Westbrook in 2017, who averaged a triple double for the sixth seed Thunder while sporting the highest usage rate in NBA history and putting up otherworldly crunch time numbers throughout the year

Looking at the current landscape, it’s tough to imagine something along these lines happening this year. Maybe Steph goes supernova for a middling Warriors squad, but it’s tough to imagine what he’d have to do to separate himself from last year’s runner up performance by James Harden, especially being a two-time winner. Nikola Jokic could mess around and average close to a triple double himself, but if that happens, the Nuggets will likely be a top seed once again. The safe assumption is like 35 of the past 39 wins, the champ is likely to come from a top-two team.

In the West, this doesn’t give us a whole hell of a lot of clarity, where five teams have over/under win totals above 50. For as much as the Clips are the overall favorites for the best record in the conference, their path is fraught with peril.

Not so in the East, where the Bucks (55.5) and Sixers (53.5) are head and shoulders above a field that’s currently led by the Celtics at 48.5. That means that the best players on Milwaukee and Philadelphia, theoretically, should come at a premium in MVP betting.

One certainly is, as last year’s champ is the favorite heading into this season. The other? Not so much, as you can currently grab Joel Embiid at close to 20-to-1 odds at some locations. With a Philly team that’s this heavy of a favorite to grab one of the two best records in the East, Embiid’s candidacy would have to feature multiple red flags for the odds to be this low.

Is it? Well that depends on how you look at it.

For one, MVP’s rarely come out of nowhere. Most of the time, the previous year will give us a good sign of who’s going to win. Of the 39 years of media voting, the winner finished in the previous year’s top two 21 times, and in the previous year’s top four an additional nine times.

Last year, Embiid finished seventh (although he seemed to be running third or fourth on most ballots before injuries caused him to miss 14 of his team’s final 24 games. More on that in a bit…)

Seventh place, oddly enough, is something of a cutoff in previous races. Only four times has a winner finished outside the top seven and gone on to win the award the next year, and three of those featured extenuating circumstances (Steve Nash and Charles Barley getting traded to the Suns the previous summer, and Michael Jordan playing his first full season post-retirement No. 1). Only Derrick Rose stands as a true out-of-nowhere champ.

Five times though, a winner has gone from sixth or seventh position all the way to first, including last season with Antetokounmpo, who trailed five players in the 2018 voting. It also happened with Steph Curry (finished sixth in 2014), Allen Iverson (seventh in 2000) Shaquille O’Neal (sixth in 1999) and Karl Malone (seventh in 1996). This may not count as ample precedent for a jump of this magnitude, but it’s something.

The bigger concern, of course, is health. Whispers about Embiid’s conditioning (or lack thereof) aren’t all that quiet anymore, as this became something of a national story during the postseason. For as much as voters might hold it against a guy like Kawhi Leonard for voluntarily sitting out games to keep himself healthy for the playoffs, they’re really not kind to someone who neglects the one thing he’s supposed to hold paramount.

Ultimately, a bet on Embiid is a bet on Embiid correcting this glaring flaw, but this is both a gift and a curse. We always talk about narratives when it comes down to parsing seemingly equal candidates for these awards. What better narrative could there be than an unstoppable force eliminating the one piece of kryptonite – durability – from his resume?

It’s not like he’ll need to appear in 82 games. As detailed previously in the Kawhi discussion, the rules may be changing in terms of how many games voters will need to see on a candidate’s resume. The last two winners each played in 72 and no one batted an eyelash. Should Embiid appear in roughly the same number of contests, he’s going to be in the conversation.

Besides cleaning up his bill of health, there’s one other thing that might put him over the top. No player has led the NBA in scoring and rebounding in the same season since Wilt Chamberlain did it over a half century ago. Last year, Embiid’s averages in points and rebounds were fourth and second in the league, respectively.

Only Harden was in a class by himself in scoring, and he just got himself a new co-star. Embiid, meanwhile, just lost two teammates in Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick who accounted for over 36 points per game. In their place, the Sixers picked up Al Horford and Josh Richardson, who combined for just 30 a night last year. Those points will need to be made up, and Embiid has jumped from 20.2 to 22.9 to 27.5 in his first three years in the league. 30 a game is within reach, and as we saw with Westbrook two years ago, voters are never fully immune to nice, round numbers.

On the boards, Embiid trailed Andre Drummond by two rebounds per game. It isn’t out of the question he makes up the difference. Even if he doesn’t, pulling off a Moses Malone (first in one, second in the other) would form a fairly compelling argument.

At +1900, you could certainly do worse.

 

By Jonathan Marci

Jonathan Macri
JCMacriNBA
Dean of Knicks Film School, host: KFS Pod, co-host: Pick N Pod. There isn't much about Knicks basketball than Jonathan doesn't know and he's here to break down the big games each and every week.
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