NBA awards are fairly fickle. Sometimes the winner is determined almost immediately, as was the case with Ja Morant for last season's Most Improved Player. Whether or not he was a deserving winner, voters had seemingly disregarded every other candidate by the time the Grizzlies were going 20-5 in games he missed. Yet in that same season, Scottie Barnes managed to overcome a seemingly insurmountable Evan Mobley lead to surprisingly win Rookie of the Year. Awards are usually decided pretty quickly. They can also be stolen quickly.
That's what makes this season's awards races so interesting. Until recently, Paolo Banchero was the only favorite to move into minus-money territory. Another has recently joined him, but almost two months into the season, all five major player awards are still very much up for grabs. So let's go through each one and try to find where there is still value. In some cases, that value might be on the favorite. In others, it will be on more surprising picks. What you need to know for now is that nobody has built the sort of lead that Morant did a season ago. If any of these candidates misses 25 games, they're going to lose their trophy. So let's start with MVP and work our way down from there.
All odds via Caesars Sportsbook.
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Most Valuable Player
Before we get into specific players, let's go through the typical MVP criteria. Three traits tend to define MVPs:
- Points. Every winner since Kobe Bryant in 2008 has averaged at least 25 points per game except for Stephen Curry in 2015, who only missed out because the Warriors were blowing opponents out so often that he didn't play enough minutes.
- Availability. No 21st century MVP has missed more than 11 games, and 17 of the 23 played at least 75 (or the shortened season equivalent).
- Winning. Nikola Jokic last season was only the third player since 2000 to win MVP without being a top-three seed.
So let's work backward from there.
- The standings are a bit congested, but right now, the top three seeds in each conference are the Celtics, Bucks, Cavaliers, Suns, Pelicans and Grizzlies.
- Those six teams have six 25-point scorers among them: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker and Morant.
- Morant is on pace to miss more than 11 games for the season, making him an unlikely winner.
This is an inexact science, of course, but that leaves us with five players fitting the immediate profile. Brown, by virtue of playing on Tatum's team, is out. Tatum and Antetokounmpo have the lowest odds of that group at the moment, with Tatum (plus-250) holding a slim edge over Antetokounmpo (plus-270). Among those two, Tatum is the better bet. Boston's superior point-differential suggests that there is a bigger gap between the Celtics and Bucks than the lone loss separating them in the standings. Voters absolutely love 60-win teams. In fact, 38 percent of 61-win teams this century have produced that season's MVP, and remember, many others could have, but won 61 or more games in the same season as another team. If you expect the Celtics to run away with the NBA's best record, as their point-differential suggests they could, Tatum is your man.
Mitchell's primary obstacle right now is the return of Darius Garland. Lineups featuring the two of them have struggled to a meager plus-0.9 net rating. That's going to sort itself out, but the "your turn, my turn" component of their offense is likely going to drag Mitchell's numbers down a bit. Devin Booker shared that problem with Chris Paul in recent seasons, but has largely shed that co-candidacy now that Paul is seemingly well past his prime. He's an interesting bet at plus-2500, but struggles in comparison to Tatum, who has been the superior scorer, defender and rebounder this season on a better overall team. I'd lean against taking Booker for now, but if his case remains stable in a month, it's worth reconsidering.
Two players outside of our perfect candidates stand out here. The first is Stephen Curry, whose scoring numbers are maybe 98 percent as good as they were when he won the 2016 award unanimously.
Points Per Game
Field Goal Percentage
True Shooting Percentage
Effective Field Goal Percentage
So why isn't Curry the favorite? He lost nine games in 2016 and had lost his ninth game by Thanksgiving this season. That wasn't remotely his fault. Golden State's starting five has outscored opponents by 132 points thus far this season. No other five-man unit is within less than 49 points of that figure, and lineups featuring Curry have been 20.5 points better per 100 possessions than those without him. The Warriors are losing games when Curry goes to the bench. The same thing happened to Nikola Jokic a year ago. If Golden State can solve its bench enough to get to the 49 wins Denver eked out last season, Curry will be a candidate. There's already evidence suggesting this will happen. Over Golden State's last seven games, it has actually won the no-Curry minutes by over nine points per 100 possessions. At plus-650, he deserves to be right up there with Tatum and Antetokounmpo.
And then we have the darkest of dark horses. Sitting at a staggering plus-8,000 is Zion Williamson. He meets the winning criteria. He's only 1.4 points per game below the 25 points per game marker, but he's above 26 on an impossible 65 percent shooting in his last five games. Injuries are the question mark here, and Williamson could easily miss a month and withdraw from the race. But if nothing else, the Pelicans are set to play the Suns for control of the No. 1 seed in the standings on Friday. If the Pelicans win that game, there is going to be a narrative push for Williamson, and you can at least potentially get some cashout value here. Don't take out a second mortgage here, but by all means, hedge your pre-existing Tatum or Giannis bets.
Rookie of the Year
Look, you either have a Banchero ticket or you don't at this point. Ibefore the season when he was sitting at 2-to-1. There isn't a shred of value in taking him at minus-550 now. But if you do have that Banchero ticket handy, I implore you to consider a Benedict Mathurin hedge at plus-320.
Right now, Banchero has the edge in counting stats while Mathurin has been slightly more efficient. However, Mathurin has played roughly six fewer minutes per game as a reserve. That could change at any moment. If the Pacers ever decide to trade Buddy Hield, Mathurin's odds look much more appealing. If the Pacers are out of the playoff race after the trade deadline, they'll likely do what most young teams do with their top prospects and lavish Mathurin with shot attempts and minutes. If they're still in the playoff hunt? Mathurin gets to make an impression on voters late in the season once they've likely stopped watching Banchero's games.
Rookie of the Year is a counting stat award. Winning and defense are rarely considered, nor should they be. But do you really want to be sitting on a hefty Banchero ticket with no hedges when he inevitably sprains an ankle in January? Do you want to be biting your nails as the Pacers surge into the playoffs? Don't bet Mathurin if you haven't already taken Banchero. Paolo is probably going to win. But at the prices currently available, a Mathurin insurance policy would be wise.
Defensive Player of the Year
A single team producing multiple Defensive Player of the Year candidates used to be relatively common. From 2009 through 2013, three different teams had multiple top-five finishers: the 2009 Rockets (Shane Battier and Metta World Peace), the 2011 Celtics (Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo) and the 2013 Grizzlies (Marc Gasol and Tony Allen). The 1996 Bulls had three of the top seven with Scottie Pippen finishing as the runner-up while Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman came in sixth and seventh, respectively. In other words, there is a precedent for a single team producing multiple candidates, but nothing especially recent.
This is relevant because right now, the odds-on favorite (Brook Lopez at minus-105) and the No. 3 candidate (Giannis Antetokounmpo at plus-500) both play for the Milwaukee Bucks. That made sense when the Bucks were lapping the field defensively. On Nov. 10, their defense was more than three points better per 100 possessions than any other in basketball. Since then? They rank eighth in the NBA, and the Cavs have overtaken them as the NBA's best defense for the season as a whole. That's not going to knock any Bucks out of the race, but they are no longer so dominant that they are likely to attract multiple top spots on ballots. Voters are probably going to wind up picking between Lopez and Antetokounmpo. When Antetokounmpo won this award in 2020, Lopez finished 10th.
Two of the next best candidates have this same problem. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley both have credible arguments as Cleveland's catalysts. They're going to cancel one another out. Anthony Davis would be the favorite if the Lakers were above .500, but they aren't and that may never change. The metrics aren't as kind to OG Anunoby as the eye test, and Nick Nurse has already called out one of his starters for his defense this season. It doesn't seem like the Raptors are going to be the sort of defensive juggernaut it takes to produce a winner.
That leaves us with few long-shot options. Herb Jones is sitting there at plus-4,000 quietly leading the Pelicans to the No. 3 defensive ranking in the league ... but he only plays 28 minutes per game. Voters have showed some flexibility in this respect with All-Defense. Matisse Thybulle has made it twice playing less. But Defensive Player of the Year is another beast entirely. If you're looking for this sort of candidate, Mikal Bridges at plus-3,000 is your choice. Both of them have to overcome a frustrating misconception if they're going to contend for the award. The Suns and Pelicans both play better defensively when their stoppers are on the bench. Uninformed voters hold that against them. The truth is that they sit when the best opposing scorer sits, so of course the opposing offense is worse when they rest. This was held against Bridges last season. It will be held against both this season.
Centers don't have that problem to the same extent because they typically aren't guarding one elite scorer, which brings us to our surprising choice. The Philadelphia 76ers have quietly jumped up to fourth in the NBA in defense thus far this season. Joel Embiid has missed some time this season, but Defensive Player of the Year voters tend to be fairly flexible. Rudy Gobert won this award missing 26 games in 2018. Philadelphia's defense dies whenever Embiid rests. The metrics absolutely love him, with FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR ranking him the NBA's best defender this season (an honor Gobert has held since seemingly the dawn of time). If any voters have ever felt bad about not giving him an MVP award, they'll have a chance to make it up here.
At plus-1,600, Embiid is enticing under the logic that someone that does not play for the Milwaukee Bucks is probably going to compete for this award. Remember, Embiid typically comes on strong in December and January when it comes to awards odds. You're probably not getting a better number on him than you can right now.
Most Improved Player
As we discussed with Morant, Most Improved Player tends to be decided fairly quickly. Most of the momentum thus far has been behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He fits the typical profile of a winner, which most often comes down to picking the most impressive first-time All-Star on the ballot. Here's where I get a bit dubious of Gilgeous-Alexander: There are at least three viable first-time All-Star candidates when you factor in Lauri Markkanen and Tyrese Haliburton as well. Anfernee Simons is making a statistical argument, though the depth of the Western Conference at the guard positions likely keeps him out. Desmond Bane would have been a serious candidate had he not gotten hurt.
In other words, we have a mountain of candidates who stand out for similar reasons. Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best of them, but with so many similar players bunched up behind him, the advisable hedge here would be someone with a distinct candidate. And so, may I present Bol Bol at plus-2,500.
Bol will not be an All-Star this season, but his jump has been far greater than anyone who will be. He went from nearly out of the league to solid NBA starter in one year. He's scoring 10.1 more points per game than he did a season ago to go along with 6.1 more rebounds and 1.7 more blocks. He's done this while shooting over 65 percent on 2-pointers and over 41 percent on 3s. Gilgeous-Alexander has not improved more than Bol. He's improved in a specific way that voters tend to reward. Bol is a nice ticket to have if you're looking for a well-rounded portfolio, but this award's history suggests that Gilgeous-Alexander is almost certainly going to win.
Sixth Man of the Year
This is where you're going to find true value on the board. Voters are remarkably consistent with this award: 10 of the past 17 winners have led the NBA in bench scoring, 19 of the past 20 have made the playoffs. Very straightforward. We're looking for the leading benching scorer. If he's not on a great team, we just keep going down the list until we find a contender.
Well, the current favorite is ... Russell Westbrook at plus-140. Westbrook is neither the NBA's leading bench scorer (at present he ranks fourth among full-time reserves) nor does he play for a contender (the Lakers are 10-14). Yes, his acceptance of a bench role is a great story. Yes, his playmaking and energy has powered a slight Lakers resurgence. But what if he gets traded in a month? What if the Lakers lose enough games to fall out of the playoff race entirely? Heck ... what if the 34-year-old whose game is based on athleticism gets hurt? There are far too many variables to credibly make Westbrook the favorite.
Coming in behind him is Jordan Poole at plus-250. He is averaging a remarkable 27.4 points in his seven starts and a pedestrian 14.1 as a reserve. He's fighting against not only a poor team record but the narrative that Golden State's bench lineups, of which he is the primary creator, are holding the team back. So Poole isn't a great candidate either.
So where does that leave us? With two great candidates who aren't the favorites. The actual leading bench scorer this season has been Mathurin at 18.3 points per game. Fears over a possible tank are likely holding back his odds, but he's available at plus-750. Macolm Brogdon isn't quite as tempting at plus-425, but he's a far better player on a much better team. He's leading the NBA in 3-point shooting, scores roughly as many points per game as Poole does when he doesn't start and is the best defender we've listed thus far. If you trust history, just grab Mathurin and Brogdon and let them duke it out. That's where the value lies in this race.