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Handicapping the Insane 2018 NBA MVP Race

The NBA season is almost here, but it's too early for a serious preview. Here's an early look at the 2018 MVP race, headlined by LeBron, Kawhi, KD and the deepest field in history.

The NBA season is close enough that Las Vegas has started releasing odds for the year to come, but we're also a few weeks too early for any serious previews. So let's stick with odds. It's the second week in September, and I'm ready to talk about the 2018 NBA MVP race.

If last year's MVP contest is any indication, the NBA's currently working with one of the deepest fields in its history. Hopefully this year we'll continue to build on the theme. More personal attacks on media members, more public sniping from league executives, more historic efficiency, more outrageous game-winners, and more drama that carries us right to the final week of the year. That's the dream. Let's do it all over again. 

For now, here are my favorite bets on the board. 


Dirk Nowitzki: 500/1
Dwight Howard: 500/1

Imagine: Dirk enters camp with a bloodstream that's 85% exotic growth hormone, and he has an out-ofbody experience for seven months straight. He turns the league upside down with 27 and 8, 40 minutes per game, and game-winner after game-winner. The Mavs win 58 games and take the No. 2 seed out West. Nobody's arguing about the Warriors, there are no Anthony Davis rumors, nobody cares about this year's Fake Cavs Challenger in the East. By March and April, The Year of Dirk is the only story that matters.

What I'm saying is, the 1-in-500 Dirk MVP season is the greatest possible timeline for the NBA in 2018. Likewise, we don't need to get into it, but the timeline for the 1-in-500 Dwight Howard MVP season in Charlotte is darker than you can possibly imagine.

Ben Simmons: 75/1
Damian Lillard: 75/1

Damian Lillard has been consistently great for a solid three years now, and at 27 years old, he's smack in the middle of his prime. He's on a playoff team with only moderate expectations and real potential to surprise people in the West. He hits big shots as a rule, and he's the sort of magnetic personality who can build a ton of momentum if things break right along the way. So how—how—does he have the same MVP odds as Ben Simmons? 

Simmons hasn't played a competitive game in more than 18 months. He maybe (probably?) shoots like Rajon Rondo. He's fought to be announced as the point guard for some reason, even though Markelle Fultz is also on the team. As for magnetism, I'm not sure I've heard him speak since the draft 14 months ago. 

Between this and the Sixers over/under number—opened at 42.5, bet down to do 40.5, still at least five wins too high—Vegas Sixers hype is one of the more inexplicable phenomenons of the summer. It's one thing to like the what the Sixers are building, it's another to expect a real, functional basketball team for the next eight months. This is out of hand. Ben Simmons should have Dwight odds, not Lillard odds. 


James Harden: 10/1

Let's have a moment of silence for the value of winning and the 2017 MVP race...

As for this year, Harden low-key has some of the worst odds on the board. He should probably be closer to 25/1.

First of all, he'll be splitting possessions with Chris Paul. Second, the Rockets have some of the highest expectations in the league. In light of those two factors, there's a good chance that Houston will struggle to match preseason hype—currently pegged by Vegas as No. 2 in the West—and Harden's numbers will take a significant step back from last year's "Steve Nash From Outer Space" campaign. The Rockets will be a better team overall and Harden could be as deadly as ever, but the narratives are not working in his favor. 

DeMarcus Cousins: 50/1

OK. Probably a horrible bet. But hear me out: What if Anthony Davis misses a significant amount of time, only the Pels somehow stay afloat? Boogie carries them with something like 30, 12, and 5 while playing the best defense of his career, and they land somewhere in the middle of the West with 50 wins, while the Warriors and Cavs coast, OKC and Houston underwhelm. Granted, this scenario involves both a Brow injury and Boogie turning into a force of stability that he's never, ever been before. But at least one of those things is a genuine possibility. 

Joel Embiid: 50/1

The Process-trusting industrial complex! It's gone too far. 


Russell Westbrook: 9/1

Given how divisive Westbrook was even in the year he won (averaging a triple-double, and regularly breathing fire live on NBA TV and beating teams by himself), it's hard to imagine he wins again. At the end of that Rockets series even people who voted for Westbrook were like, "Alright, cool that was fun. Never again." Plus, like Harden, his numbers will take a step back with a second superstar on hand, and the bar for OKC success is set higher this year. 

So Westbrook cracks the top 10 for two reasons. First, because adding George really does give him a killer weapon to run with, and arguably the exact player you would design in a lab to be Westbrook's sidekick. If they click early, it's possible they finish with one of the two or three best records in the league, in which case Westbrook has gotta be in the MVP mix. The second reason is style of play. Westbrook went so nuts last year—he took eighteen threes in Game 5 against Houston—that there's room to improve, at least in the eyes of voters. Could he tone down his game to fit with George, win big, and win over a bunch of critics along the way? 

Probably not. But the possibility at least gives him a better shot than Harden.

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Anthony Davis: 20/1

Now we're getting into the contenders. If Davis is healthy for the entire year, the Pelicans fit a similar profile to the Houston and OKC teams that surprised everyone last year. Right now they are a fringe playoff team, but suppose AD puts together a 30-12-5 line and they land in the middle of the West. Basically, the same story as Boogie's hypothetical MVP year, but... we know that Anthony Davis is actually capable of putting those numbers together. He already put up 29 and 12 last year, and he's been weirdly under-the-radar for the past two years. It sets up nicely for a "Whoa... Remember Anthony Davis?!" season if things break right.

I don't have faith in the Pelicans' health, and even if they do stay above water, the West is murder. We still don't really know what the Pelicans are with Boogie on board, so there's room to make some noise. In that case, Davis is a decent long shot. 

Giannis Antetokuonmpo: 10/1

At first, this seemed a little optimistic. Giannis was fantastic last year and I'm sure he'll be even better this season, but the Bucks were still 42-40 in a terrible conference, and barely squeaked into the playoffs. Jabari Parker's health this year is an unknown, Khris Middleton isn't a a convincing enough sidekick, and ... Yeah. That's it. There's not much else unless you're banking on a breakout year from Malcolm Brogdon. 

But then, that might be why Giannis has a chance. The Bucks have no business winning 50 games, but with Giannis there, you can't totally count them out, right? The East is even worse than it was last year. Boston has depth issues, and the Cavs may not have a reason to care until March. If Giannis somehow carries this Bucks roster to a top-two seed in the East, he will have as good of a case as anyone. And that scenario's not quite as crazy as it sounds.


John Wall: 50/1

Everything that's possible for Giannis in the East is also possible for John Wall. Right? We have no idea how Cleveland will manage this season, Boston's working with an entirely new roster, and the Wizards—who played at a 55-win pace after a disastrous first month of last season—are bringing everyone back.

Wall is 27 years old and should be at the peak of his powers this year, and he'll have more help with Bradley Beal coming into his own and Otto Porter looking to prove he's worth (gulp) $130 million. If anything, the scenario for a Wizards No. 1seed and a Wall MVP run is more realistic than Giannis—except your odds are 500% better. 

Will any of this actually happen? Probably not, because earnest optimism is the first red flag for any DC sports team. I'm terrified even mentioning the possibility. But in September, at least, Wall's one of the best long shots on the board.

Kyrie Irving: 25/1

The case against Kyrie: the NBA already rewarded a deeply polarizing point guard who plays no defense, and it's unlikely that Kyrie will be as dominant individually as Westbrook was last year, nor as valuable. There's a much better chance we spend the entire season yelling about his flaws and whether he can truly be the best player on a contender, because that's how Kyrie's career has always been. 

The second you think he's overrated, he'll go off and drop an effortless 45 and look like the most unstoppable scorer on earth. Then you start talking about him like he's better than Steph, and he'll go 7-of-20 from the floor and dribble for 45 minutes straight in a double-digit loss. I don't think this will change on a new team. Kyrie could average 30 points per game in Boston, be more efficient than he's ever been, and continue to be the most inscrutable player in the NBA. That's not an MVP.

The case for Kyrie: He'll be a dominant scorer as he's weaponized under Brad Stevens. And then let's say he has the best passing numbers of his career, his defense improves to league-average, and the Celtics overcome the offseason attrition to win 57 games and the top seed in the East. That's not the most likely scenario, but it's not at all impossible. And at 25/1? Probably worth a shot!

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Steph Curry: 15/1

Steph is one of the three best players in the league, and in a literal sense, he is more valuable to his team than any other player in the league. So, yeah, 15/1 feels insane.

But it may be difficult for Curry to ever win another MVP. Between fatigue after the past two MVPs, both of which have somehow become controversial (one of the dumbest NBA developments of the past 20 years) and the "But He Has Kevin Durant On His Team! excuse, it may be another 5-10 years before people appreciate how incredible this Curry run has been. That's probably how this plays out. Still: If you can get 15/1 odds on the player who's actually the most valuable force on a team that could win 70 games, it's a pretty solid investment. 

Jimmy Butler: 100/1




Jimmy Butler has been phenomenal for two straight years now. He was lost in the dregs of a crumbling Bulls team, but individually he was as dominant as almost anyone. Now he has help. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague are better than any Bulls teammate Butler's had since 2014 and Thibs will probably play Butler 47 minutes-a-game as the centerpiece. 

Given how stacked the West has become, it should be impossible for the Wolves to finish in the top half of the conference. But if they do? It'll be on the back of Jimmy Butler, who will be closing games for them every night. He shouldn't be an MVP favorite, but he should be 20/1, or maybe 15/1. At 100/1, anyone can bet $10 to win $1000, and we should all go do this while there's still time. 


LeBron James: 5/1

This doesn't feel like a LeBron MVP year. That was last season. "But he'll be playing without Kyrie," you say. "The Cavs could still go win 58 games and it'll be one, long coronation for LeBron." Maybe. But do you realize how crazy it is that we've spent three months watching the Cavs endure a regime change in the front office, league-wide speculation about next summer, a franchise-changing trade, and LeBron hasn't said a word on the subject? I'm sure he'll address all this at some point soon, but it's hard to believe that anxiety over his free agency will subside at that point. This year feels like it will be less about appreciating LeBron's greatness and more about decoding his weirdness. What do the Instagram videos mean?

Kevin Durant: 5/1

This feels like KD's year, especially as the Warriors widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the league and the NBA becomes a world that orbits around the Warriors. Durant might've won it last year, too, if not for the injury that derailed the second half of his regular season. He was playing the most efficient basketball of his life, his length and versatility on defense allowed Golden State to make the transition to a new lineup look way too easy, and his presence turned a great Warriors team into what might be the best basketball team ever assembled. 

It's tough to separate his value from Steph Curry—not to mention Draymond—but that may not matter. Sometimes players are so dominant that context and narrative become secondary. For large portions of last season KD was playing basically perfect basketball. That continued in the playoffs, and especially the Finals, and look how that ended. This season could be a continuation on that theme. Except...  

Kawhi Leonard: 6/1

Kawhi had an excellent case for winning MVP last year. His team won more games than James "Winning Used To Matter" Harden, he was dominant on both ends of the floor, and he closed games as effectively for San Antonio as Westbrook did for OKC.

As the season unfolded, not everyone noticed how dominant his offense had become. Calling him a "two-way superstar" was almost misleading; he played defense, yeah, but he was also carrying the Spurs offense with some of the most clinical iso-scoring we've seen since Jordan and Kobe. The problem was that when the race began to heat up down the stretch, Kawhi slowed down, while Westbrook continued to go nuts. Then the playoffs happened—27.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and a Conference Finals trip—and everyone realized how incredible Kawhi had become. 

Now it's a new year. New race. And I need you to look at the rest of this list and see that almost every other MVP candidate has more help. I need you think about it—really think about it—and ask yourself whether you trust anyone outside of Golden State to finish with a better record than San Antonio. I need you to realize that Tony Parker will miss half the year, LaMarcus Aldridge is fading, Pau Gasol is pushing 40, and it won't matter. I need you to look at this picture of Kawhi Leonard walking through the summer in his Spurs game shorts, waiting for an opportunity to kill again. I need you to go back and watch these highlights of Game 4 of Spurs-Grizzlies. I need you to understand that Kawhi Leonard is winning MVP in 2018.