NBA MVP race: Oddsmakers treating Giannis Antetokounmpo like the clear No. 3 and it's not really clear why
Roughly one month ago, on Feb. 16, ESPN's Tim Bontemps released his most recent MVP straw poll. That poll is the single most accurate measure of voter sentiment in the NBA, as it includes only likely voters. Unsurprisingly, given the climate at the time, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was the runaway favorite with 77 first-place votes.
In second place, just as he was in the first straw poll, was Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. He outpaced third-place Joel Embiid in both first-place votes (11 to six) and second-place votes (38 to 24). Here's what each has done in the past month, statistically, ignoring the two games Antetokounmpo left early due to injuries:
|Points per game||Rebounds per game||Assists per game||Effective field goal percentage||Record|
If there's a meaningful gap between the two in this period, you're not going to spot it in the raw numbers. Embiid averaged 2.5 more points, but Antetokounmpo created 5.3 more points per game through his assists. The Bucks have been far better defensively in that period, ranking fourth in the NBA while the 76ers have languished at 22nd.
The 76ers have made up for that with a monster offensive month, but Milwaukee still leads the NBA with a plus-6.9 net rating in that period. Strangely, Philadelphia has actually been significantly better with Embiid out since then, winning his bench minutes by 11.7 points per 100 possessions compared to the 4.2 they're winning Embiid's on-court minutes by. The Bucks are winning Antetokounmpo's bench minutes by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, but have dominated opponents by 10.2 points per 100 with him on the floor.
None of this is meant to dismiss Embiid's MVP case, of course. There were cogent arguments in his favor before the last straw poll and they've only grown stronger during one of the best months of his career. However, since the last time we heard from likely voters, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single definitive way in which Embiid has outplayed Antetokounmpo. Their performance has been fairly even, and if someone has the edge based on what we've covered here, it's Antetokounmpo.
Why, then, has Embiid suddenly taken over the race and relegated Antetokounmpo to third place? As of this writing, The 76ers star is the betting favorite to win MVP at Caesars Sportsbook with minus-115 odds. Jokic is a very, very slight underdog to Embiid at even money despite a recent four-game losing streak casting doubt in the minds of many pundits. Antetokounmpo isn't exactly a distant third, but at plus-300, there is a meaningful gap between him and the two frontrunners. Given the numbers and what the voters themselves told us in the last straw poll, it just isn't clear why Antetokounmpo isn't neck-and-neck with Jokic and Embiid. In fact, he checks MVP boxes that neither of them do.
In the past month, Antetokounmpo's Bucks have overtaken the Boston Celtics for the NBA's best record. Historically speaking, having the best record in the NBA is tremendously valuable to an MVP pursuit. Oh the past 30 MVPs, 18 have played for the team with the NBA's best record. That's a 60 percent hit rate. No other statistical criterion comes close, and Antetokounmpo has done it with his best teammate, Khris Middleton, missing half of the season and remaining on a minutes limit for most of it.
Embiid's claim to statistical fame is the scoring title, as he currently leads Luka Doncic by half of a point. Only nine of the past 30 scoring champions have won MVP. Jokic is averaging a triple-double, but of the five triple-double seasons in NBA History, only one has produced the MVP. That's a tiny sample size, but you get the idea: voters value winning. That tendency has subsided in recent years, with both Jokic and Russell Westbrook winning as No. 6 seeds, but it's a historically sound principle.
There has been pushback against both awards recently, especially Jokic's second one. There are a variety of reasons for that, but if a lack of playoff success is one of them, it's worth noting that Antetokounmpo is the only champion of the trio. Embiid, having never made the Eastern Conference Finals, has enjoyed the least playoff success. There are voters who believe that the MVP award should simply go to the best player in the league. CBS Sports, ESPN and Bleacher Report all chose Antetokounmpo before the season, and while some outlets (like The Ringer) have since pivoted to Jokic, voters who rely on playoff performance to rank players would have a hard time arguing against Antetokounmpo given his past two postseasons.
We've covered the role voter fatigue plays in these races, and previous winners, like Antetokounmpo, tend to get judged against their past selves. At a bare minimum, he is living up to his two prior MVP seasons. His efficiency has dipped slightly, but that has come with a corresponding increase in scoring volume, as he is averaging a career-high 31.4 points per game. Whether he's been better than he was in 2019 or 2020 is debatable, but he's inarguably had to play a different sort of role with Middleton so hobbled. He's risen to the challenge.
There is a notable precedent working against Antetokounmpo this season. He's already missed 15 games. No MVP since Bill Walton has missed more than 11. Yet Embiid has missed 13, so either one of them would set a new post-Walton high. If durability is our deciding factor, the winner will be Jokic, who has missed just eight games. It's not as though the Bucks are outperforming the 76ers in the games their stars miss, either. Milwaukee is 9-6 without Antetokounmpo. Philadelphia is 9-4 without Embiid. Durability might work in Jokic's favor slightly, especially since Denver is 3-5 without him, but it doesn't seem likely to play a major role in this race.
We ultimately aren't judging the merits of Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo here. There will be plenty of time for that later. Rather, this is an examination of the perception of their merits. The evidence is telling us one thing, and Vegas is telling us another. So, why aren't the Sports books giving Antetokounmpo the respect Jokic and Embiid are getting?
There's a relatively simple answer here, and it suggests that you should probably bet on Antetokounmpo right now. In sports betting, perception is reality. Vegas sets odds that are designed to spread money out evenly among as many candidates as possible. If the odds on three candidates are even and the same money comes in all three, Vegas makes a profit because only one of them actually wins. The odds on Jokic and Embiid are likely similar because the amount of money that the books would have to pay out on them is likely similar. If Vegas is setting higher odds on Antetokounmpo, it is likely meant to encourage more action on him because bettors have leaned towards Embiid and Jokic.
So the real question, following this line of logic, is why bettors are leaning against Antetokounmpo. There's no clear answer. The obvious one is the dreaded idea of a "narrative" winner. Embiid is the two-time runner up, so there might be a belief among fans that voters will finally reward him. Jokic, as the longtime favorite, likely drew bets from casual bettors when his victory looked like a certainty. But Antetokounmpo has just steadily remained in the race for the entirety of the season. His 9-0 start came so early in the season that he couldn't realistically garner MVP momentum, and his recent 16-Game winning streak was overshadowed by a raucous trade deadline and an MVP discourse that centered far more around Jokic. In short, the unsatisfying and unverifiable answer here is that he has simply been overlooked due to poor timing, which isn't going to matter as much when voters weigh the totality of their cases.
This doesn't actually mean that Antetokounmpo is going to win the MVP. We still have more than three weeks of games left to settle that, including a round-robin coming up in which the Nuggets, Bucks and 76ers all play one another in a nine-day span. But if you believe that all three candidates are relatively close to one another, which we've spent the past 1,500 words or so arguing, then the logical bet among the three is the one with outlier odds. He may not be the safest bet of the three, but he offers by far the most upside.
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