Big men are en vogue in the NBA’s MVP race.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic captured the league’s most prestigious individual honor last season. Jokic was the first true center to win the award since 2003, when Tim Duncan won it in back-to-back seasons.
Before Jokic, 6-foot-11 Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo won consecutive MVPs in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. That interrupted a four-year reign for guards winning the award (Steph Curry twice, Russell Westbrook and James Harden).
This season, the MVP favorite at SI Sportsbook is a would-be first timer and, once again, a true center: Joel Embiid. The 76ers' star is having a career year and—most importantly-is healthy in his quest to carry Philadelphia back to the postseason.
Embiid is my pick to win the award, and I’ll get into why in just a moment. But where’s the value in simply telling you to bet the favorite?
In this NBA futures series I’ll be making the case for the favorite, a value bet and a dark horse to claim each of the association's individual honors.
76ers center Joel Embiid +150
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo +333
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic +350
Warriors guard Stephen Curry +850
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant +1300
(All stats updated entering Feb. 16)
The Favorite: Joel Embiid (+150)
I’ll be interested to see how the recent addition of James Harden, a historically high-usage player, works in Philadelphia alongside Embiid.
On one hand, it will take pressure off Embiid, who’s been forced to essentially go at it alone this season. But at the same time, the best season of Embiid’s career so far has been a product of him setting a career-high and league-leading usage percentage (37.2%). There will likely be an adjustment period for Harden and Embiid playing alongside one another on the other side of the All-Star break. That’s natural, but it’s also irrelevant to what Embiid has done to this point.
He’s second in the league in scoring (29.3 PPG), which is also a career-high, and he’s playing his most minutes per game (32.8) since the 2018-19 season. Despite playing without any other All-Stars, Embiid has the 76ers 2.5 games out of first place in the East. Philadelphia is 4-8 without him this season. His 4.5 assists per game are a career-high mark by a wide margin and he’s averaging a career-low 2.9 turnovers per game.
First place is very much within reach for the 76ers, but they don’t need the top spot for Embiid to earn MVP honors. He’s third in Box Plus/Minus, an estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above an average player, trailing only the past two MVP winners. Embiid’s offensive and defensive contributions make him the favorite to win the award for the first time a year after he finished as the runner-up, and his sensational season makes him a great bet while he’s still at plus-odds.
Value Bet: Giannis Antetokounmpo (+333)
Voter fatigue is real. That’s not why Antetokonmpo didn’t win MVP last season, though. Jokic was more than deserving.
Antetokounmpo finished fourth, falling in line behind Jokic, Embiid and Curry. Antetokounmpo did take Finals MVP in the end, though, and with his 50-point closeout performance against the Suns he claimed the unofficial “best player in the world” title from Kevin Durant. He just went for 50 points again. His season-high outing propelled him to the league lead in scoring, ousting Embiid from the top spot.
Antetokounmpo averages 29.4 PPG, the second-highest mark of his career and most since he won his second MVP award in the 2019-20 season (29.5). His assist numbers are also a career-best (6.0) and he’s played without Brook Lopez virtually all season. The advanced numbers really make the case for Antetokounmpo, even more so than for Embiid. Antetokounmpo is second in the NBA in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and third in both Offensive and Defensive Box Plus/Minus. His usage rate also ranks fourth behind Embiid, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as his playmaking has improved.
The Bucks won the East both times Antetokounmpo won MVP. That could happen again this year—Milwaukee is 1.5 games out of first place. If it’s a toss-up at the end of the season between Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Jokic and the Bucks finish with the best record of their three teams, it’s not hard to imagine Milwaukee’s star capturing his third MVP award in four seasons, something not done since James (2010-2013).
Sleeper: Ja Morant (+1200)
The hype around the Grizzlies and Morant has died down a bit. There was a point in January where I wasn’t sure if they’d ever lose again.
Morant is the offensive engine for a team that went from darling of the play-in tournament (remember, they beat the Warriors on the road just to get into the playoffs) to a top-three team in the West in just a few months’ time.
Memphis is well ahead of schedule and that’s thanks to Morant, and some excellent drafting that included Morant at No. 2. The leap he made is reminiscent of Curry and Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rises that earned them their first MVP awards. As Chris Vernon remarked a few weeks ago on The Ringer NBA Show, Morant bypassed the “star” tier and went from a good sophomore season to full on superstardom.
The Most Improved Player betting favorite is averaging 26.4 PPG, the seventh-most in the NBA and a 7.3-point increase from last season. For context, Curry’s scoring average leapt from 23.8 to 30.1 (which led the league) in his first MVP season.
Most amazing about Morant’s scoring bump is that the bulk of his points come in the paint. He shoots just 33% from three, but averages an NBA-best 16.3 points in the paint per game. Naturally, he’s the only guard in the top 10 by that metric. Morant is also getting to the line more often and rebounding better. His assists took a hit with his scoring leap, but he’s still in the top 15 in the league in assists per game (6.8).
When the season ends, the Grizzlies could very well be pushing Phoenix for the top spot in the West. If that’s the case, who deserves more credit than Morant? It’s not out of the question for him to win Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player (he’s the odds-on favorite) and MVP in his first three seasons in the league.
What a start that would be to his already illustrious career.
More Betting, Fantasy and NBA:
• NBA Championship Future Odds and Analysis
• NBA Defensive Player of the Year Future Odds and Analysis
• NBA Sixth Man of the Year Future Odds and Analysis
• NBA Most Improved Player Future Odds and Analysis
• NBA Rookie of the Year Future Odds and Analysis
• Betting Advice: NBA MVP
• Betting Advice: NBA Championship
• Betting Advice: NBA Western Conference
• Betting Advice: NBA Eastern Conference
• Five 2022 Fantasy Football Questions
• The DPOY Race is Wide-Open