NBA MVP futures: Sizing up the contenders

February 23, 2022 10:24 PM
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With seven weeks left in the regular season, this year’s MVP race is as deep as ever. Two centers, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, lead the way, but a plethora of candidates have a case for winning the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. In this column, I’ll make the case for and against each MVP candidate as we head into the homestretch. For those hoping to find Chris Paul’s name, his thumb injury will keep him out for the rest of the regular season and almost surely knocks him out of the running.

Odds listed are the best prices available.

Joel Embiid (+ 150, William Hill)

The case for: The league’s scoring leader at the All-Star break, Embiid is the rightful favorite to win this award. Embiid not only scores more than anyone in the league, he’s also the league leader in usage rate (37.2%) and made free throws (421). He has also improved his game to elevate the players around him, as he’s currently averaging career-highs in assists per game (4.5) and assist rate (26.1%). He is lethal out of the post, as Philadelphia averages 1.08 points per possession when he posts up, by far the most efficient mark when you factor in frequency. And as with any MVP candidate, his team is a shell of itself without him on the floor. With Embiid on the floor, the 76ers have a + 6.9 net rating, which would be the second-best net rating in the league if a team averaged that for a season. Without him on the floor, the 76ers are being outscored by 2.9 points every 100 possessions, a net rating on par with the Wizards. Yet, Philadelphia is 35-23 and just 2.5 games out of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The statistical argument alone is strong enough for Embiid to win the award, but he also has the narrative in his favor. It’s rare that a team loses an All-Defensive team player such as Ben Simmons and doesn’t miss a beat, but that’s what the 76ers have done. Embiid has led them through all of this drama by performing like one of the best players in the world. Voters are a sucker for narrative, both positive and negative, and Embiid has one of the best ones on his side.

The case against: Any case against Embiid is more of a case for Jokic, but we will get to that. Any other reasoning for not giving Embiid this award holds little water. Some will point to his team’s record and current seed as a deterrent, but the next two players on this list are on teams with either a worse record or seed. Others will say his availability is a problem, but since missing nine games with COVID-19, he has played in 37 of 39 games. In a season that was hit by the pandemic again, missing only 12 games doesn’t mean much.

Nikola Jokic (+ 300, PointsBet)

The case for: In a literal sense, no player in the league is more valuable to his team than Jokic. Of the players on this list, not one comes close to the incredible + 25.2 net differential Jokic has posted this season. Denver outscores opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with Jokic in the game. For comparison’s sake, that + 10.5 net rating is better than the Suns’ net rating for the season. When he rests, the Nuggets are outscored by 14.6 points per 100 possessions, which is 4.2 points worse than the Pistons this season. Despite having one of the worst supporting casts in the league, Jokic has this team at 33-25 and 2.5 games ahead of Minnesota in the race for the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Jokic checks the statistical boxes as well. He is averaging an insane 26.0 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists, which put him eighth or better in all of those categories. He leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating (32.66), win shares (10.6), offensive win shares (7.5), win shares per 48 minutes (.296), box plus/minus (14.0) and more, but you get the point. Jokic’s play has been statistically dominant and has led the Nuggets to a place in the standings they otherwise would not be. When it comes to pure value, there is no player that can surpass Jokic this season.

The case against: There isn’t one. Jokic is my personal MVP leader right now, and I believe he should be the favorite. Most who want to make a case against Jokic as MVP begin their argument with his team’s record, which is ridiculous. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on a team that is currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, with just three more wins than Denver. Philadelphia only has two more wins than Denver. Jokic is playing on a team that is worse than the worst team when he doesn’t play. Right now, I can find no hole in his resume and he has my vote for a second consecutive MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+ 400, DraftKings)

The case for: The second-leading scorer in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is arguably better this season than when he won his first MVP award in 2018-19. He improves Milwaukee’s net rating by 11.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and his 32.36 PER is decimal points lower than Jokic’s, which leads the league. It’s nearly impossible to contain Antetokounmpo once he goes downhill, and that’s why he has the most free-throw attempts and the second-most made free throws (393). When he’s on the floor, the Bucks are one of the best offensive teams in the league, putting up 116.8 points per 100 possessions, putting those lineups in the 88th percentile of qualified groups, according to Cleaning The Glass. His impact on the defensive end is even more pronounced. When Antetokounmpo rests, the Bucks allow 112.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 107.8 when he’s on the floor. In the small-ball lineups where he plays center, opponents are shooting just 60.3% within four feet of the basket, and Milwaukee is giving up a miniscule 1.089 points per play in transition. In short, the Bucks are a tried-and-true NBA Finals contender when Giannis is on the floor, and that’s enough to make him a contender to win a third MVP award.

The case against: Having said all that, Antetokounmpo should take the blame for some of Milwaukee’s shortcomings. The Bucks were bad in January, going 7-8 SU and 5-10 ATS while outscoring opponents by just 1.1 points every 100 possessions. Antetokounmpo was on the floor for all but two of those games. There’s no doubt the Bucks have lifted the foot off the pedal now that the championship banner hangs in the rafters, and their MVP candidate is one of the biggest culprits. It’s why this team is fifth in the Eastern Conference and just 2.5 games ahead of the first play-in seed. Milwaukee went into the All-Star break with losses in three of four, and one of those was a 24-point blowout loss in Phoenix. Giannis has the statistical profile to win the award, but a lack of urgency has him squarely in third place.

Stephen Curry (+ 1200, FanDuel)

The case for: Curry ranks second among the players on this list in efficiency differential, improving his team’s net rating by 17.2 points per 100 possessions. Most of his impact comes on the offensive end, where the Warriors score 114.8 points every 100 possessions with him on the floor. Without him on the floor, Golden State is an abysmal offensive team, posting a 105.8 offensive rating. Curry’s efficiency might not be at the same level as in years past, but he does lead the league in made 3-pointers. He is also the best player on a team that has won 42 of its first 59 games despite an injury to its second-best player in Draymond Green. Curry has shown the ability to be a competent defender who is undervalued by the masses. In his time on the court, the Warriors only allow 103.3 points per 100 possessions compared to 111.5 in his time off the floor. The problem with Curry’s candidacy is that most of the damage was done in the early part of the season, which leads us to …

The case against: Curry doesn’t have the best statistical profile for winning another MVP award. He might lead the league in made 3-pointers, but he also leads the league in 3-point attempts. His 37.9% mark from deep would be the lowest of his career, and his 54.6% effective field-goal percentage would be the second-lowest mark. In other words, he has been a volume scorer this season. He also went through a massive slump from Nov. 30 to Jan. 13 in which he shot 37.4% from the floor and 34.3% from beyond the arc on 12.7 attempts per game. The favorite to win the award earlier this season, Curry is now squarely in the double digits at + 1200, which is where he belongs.

Ja Morant (+ 1800, FanDuel)

The case for: Morant’s case is mostly based on narrative. He’s the star of a team that is 41-19 in the Western Conference and just 1.5 games out of the second seed. Morant does average 26.8 points, which is the seventh in the league, and his PER (25.13) is also seventh. He also leads the league in electric highlight plays. Check NBA Twitter on any night that Morant is playing and there’s likely going to be a clip of him slithering through an opposing defense for a ridiculous slam dunk. He’s 11th in clutch time plus/minus, as Memphis is + 39 with him on the floor in those spots. His play and leadership is why the Grizzlies are the third-best team in the West, but outside of narrative there doesn’t seem to be a strong case for Morant.

The case against: The case against Morant is much easier to make. When he missed 12 games with an injury, the Grizzlies went 10-2 SU. They are 12-2 SU overall in games he hasn’t played. When he’s on the floor, Memphis outscores its opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, which is the lowest mark among this list of candidates. When he leaves the floor, the team’s net rating actually improves by 2.3 points. His play on the defensive end is below average, and when he plays the defense gives up 6.6 more points per 100 possessions, which would place him in the 10th percentile among point guards. He doesn’t lead the league in any one category, and his odds are more a reflection of liability than anything else.

DeMar DeRozan (+ 2500, Circa/PointsBet)

The case for: When it comes to the MVP award, some will use the basic standard of best player on the best team. If that’s the case then DeRozan is about to win the first MVP award of his career. He improves the Bulls’ net rating by 10.7 points every 100 possessions when he is on the floor, is the fourth-leading scorer in the league (28.1) and has led Chicago to a first-place tie with Miami in the Eastern Conference despite Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine missing extended time. DeRozan has a litany of game-winners this season already, and he has been downright clutch. His 114 points scored in clutch minutes is second in the NBA behind Embiid, and he has done it on a more efficient 54.1% shooting from the floor with a + 59 plus/minus, which is the best mark of the players on this list. He also made NBA history prior to the All-Star break, scoring 35+ points on better than 50% shooting in seven consecutive games, something that had never been done before. He’s winning games, setting records and scoring in the clutch. What else could an MVP need?

The case against: The advanced metrics don’t really like DeRozan. He is last among the players on this list in Value Over Replacement Player (2.6) and Box Plus-Minus (3.3), and well behind Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo in Win Shares per 48 Minutes (.190). As the voters move more and more toward analytics, those numbers will hold him back, as will the narrative that DeRozan is just not an MVP-caliber player. It might sound dumb, but these factors play into the minds of voters. Never once in his career has DeRozan been viewed as an MVP contender and many will have trouble wrapping their minds around the season he is having.

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