The 2019–20 NBA regular season MVP odds are out, so it’s time to place some early bets. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the defending MVP and opens as the favorite for next season, followed by Stephen Curry. After that, it’s a bunch of superstar duos around the league, notably the pairs in Houston and both Los Angeles franchises, plus big men like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. MVP is about numbers, but it’s also about narrative.
So what do we know about MVPs?
- They’re young. Of 20 MVPs this century, all but four fall into the age 24 to 28 range. And the four exceptions are four of the most questionable MVP choices in that range: 2005–06 Nash (30 and 31), 2008 Kobe (29), and 2011 Rose (22).
- But they’re not too young. Every MVP since Moses Malone in 1983 has been at least 24 years old, with the lone exception being Derrick Rose. It takes a while to round into MVP form.
- They play for very good teams. The 20 MVPs this century average 61 wins their MVP season. 15 of those 20 were the 1-seed their MVP year. Four others were the 2-seed, and only 2017 Russell Westbrook fell well outside that range on a 47-win 6-seed.
- They score a lot. The last 12 MVPs have scored at least 25ppg outside of Stephen Curry’s first MVP in 2015 when he scored 23.8ppg. We expect MVPs to score a lot of points.
- They play a lot. In the last 40 seasons, every MVP has missed 11 or fewer games. Only four have even missed more than 6 games. You have to play to be valuable.
So what do we know? MVPs play a lot, score a lot, play for really good teams, and win MVP in their athletic prime between the ages of 24 and 28. That doesn’t seem that restrictive, but even that simple criteria dings a lot more of the likely MVP candidates than you’d think. LeBron is old, but names like Curry, Harden, Westbrook, and Lillard are also on the older side of the usual MVP age range. Embiid, Leonard, and Irving may not play enough. Any number of them may not win enough. A lot of times MVP really does come down to a simple best player / best team criteria.
So who will win the 2019–20 MVP? Let’s break down every realistic candidate, with odds from Bovada.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks +5000
Ben Simmons, 76ers +8000
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz +8000
Zion Williamson, Pelicans +10000
We’re grouping this young quartet together. Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell will be 23 this season, Luka Doncic only 20, and Zion Williamson just turned 19 this month. These guys could all be MVP candidates in the future, but history tells us it’s a little too soon for now. All but one MVP (Derrick Rose) in the last 35 years was at least age 24 when they won the MVP and the only guys that age to win it in that range were generational talents: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And again… these guys might be generational talents! But even generational talent takes time. Zion and Luka probably won’t even make the playoffs. Spida and Simmons will but probably aren’t the best candidates on their own team and still need to round out their games. Mitchell needs to be more efficient and will get fewer shots with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic around this year. Simmons needs to learn how to shoot, and he’s readjusting too, with yet another revamped Philadelphia starting lineup.
These guys will have their day in the sun, but it ain’t yet. Best case scenario this year is for one of them to take the next step and get onto the MVP ballot, but this thing doesn’t all happen at once.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz +12500
If you want a Utah candidate, Rudy Gobert might be the better long shot. Gobert is the defending back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, and now he’s got a lot of extra help with Conley and Bojan around. The Jazz could well have the best regular-season record in the NBA this season. Defense travels and Gobert virtually guarantees them a top-five defense, and the offense is much more rounded now. Gobert could get more easy looks at the rim with Mike Conley around, too.
There’s a scenario out there where the Jazz win something like 65 games and no other team even hits 60. In that scenario, the best player / best team voters might give Rudy Gobert a long look and finally give him his due. But… Gobert probably won’t score 20 points a game, and the media would probably be just as happy giving him a third DPOY award. Gobert might have to settle for finally making his first All-Star team instead.
Kemba Walker, Celtics +5000
Kemba is juuust on the wrong side of some of the criteria, but close enough to consider. He’s a year too old for the 24–28 age range and the Celtics probably won’t quite be good enough to justify a real MVP candidate. But what if they’re not? The Celtics were the East 2-seed two years ago, with 55 wins and the league’s best defense. Now Kemba steps into Kyrie Irving’s role and there’s no Al Horford replacement, but these Celtics are deeper and younger with a bunch of talented rookies. Most importantly, the young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are two years older and better than they were that 55-win season. Those three and Walker could all play together for Team USA, and we’ve seen players make a leap after playing international ball. The Celtics could be much better than you think this year.
If they are, it’ll surely be in part because of Kemba stepping into the scoring point guard role Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas filled the last few years. Kyrie scored 24ppg the last two years, and It lept to almost 29ppg his final season in Boston. Both players were in the MVP hunt early in Boston before burning out late. Kemba was already at 25.6ppg last year. If he takes another mini jump and the Celtics do too, the Kemba-replaced-Kyrie-and-look-at-them-now narratives will pretty much write themselves. If you like this Celtics narrative, the over 48.5 wins might be the safer bet. But Kemba is an intriguing long shot to make the ballot, and that makes those +5000 odds very interesting indeed.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics +3300
Kemba’s odds are almost 50% higher than Kyrie’s, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Irving is a little more talented, but the best ability is availability, and Kyrie always seems to struggle with some injury or another each season. He’s missed at least 10 games all but one season as a pro and averages only 65 games. The narrative also doesn’t really work.
If the Nets are good enough to have an MVP candidate, it’ll probably be at least in part because Kevin Durant came back for some of the season, in which case he’ll be the one getting the narrative boost. Really, it feels a year early for the Nets, and that means it’s a year early for Irving too. This year is about acclimation and getting healthy. Come back next year.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves +3000
There are all sorts of reasons to think Karl-Anthony Towns could bust out in a huge way this season. The truth is he may have already started last spring. Towns missed the first two games of his career with a life-threatening car accident. When he returned, he played like a man on fire, averaging 28 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists with 53/43/81 shooting splits. Towns finally found his way with the Butler and Thibs problems behind the team, and he really blossomed under new head coach Ryan Saunders.
Now, finally, this is KAT’s team. Minnesota added some intriguing pieces around Towns this summer and modernized the front office and the offense. Towns could put up huge numbers, and he could certainly be a threat for First Team All-NBA. But the Wolves will struggle to stay in the playoff picture, let alone contend for a top seed. Towns might be the best player on an average or bad team, but that’s just not who we give MVP to in the NBA.
Damian Lillard, Blazers +2800
Lillard is another intriguing dark horse MVP candidate. Dame finished 6th in this year’s race and was as high as 3rd on some ballots. He is the game’s forgotten superstar, posting 26.5 points and 6.5 assists a game over the last three seasons. Could Dame take it a step further and lead the league in scoring? No Jusuf Nurkic or Enes Kanter means more scoring load for Lillard, and no Evan Turner may mean more handling. Dame could get the numbers. But will it matter if Portland isn’t good enough to get voters’ attention?
The West is a wide open race at the top. Portland has been the 3-seed two seasons in a row and just made the Conference Finals without arguably their second-best player. And this team may still have a big in-season trade to make. Once Nurkic returns, they could flip Whiteside and a young piece or two for a player like Kevin Love or Danilo Gallinari and have one of the league’s best offenses, maybe even contending for the best record in the West. If that happens, Lillard will get a long MVP look – but you might prefer the easier money on Portland’s 46.5 over/under in that case.
Paul George, Clippers +1600
Paul George is a Clipper now, but he just had a dream season for the Thunder, averaging 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists and finishing 3rd in the MVP race. PG had an especially huge winter, exploding for 31.4ppg from December to February, including a monster 35ppg February that caught the media’s attention just as they were getting bored of the Giannis-Harden MVP race.
But could that be the high-water mark for George? He averaged only 24.7ppg the rest of the season, a fine number but not exactly MVP level, and he’ll now be a clear number two on Kawhi Leonard’s team. He’s also still dealing with a shoulder injury that threatens to carry into the season and could cost him some time as the Clippers look to get him healthy with an eye toward May and June. Last season, Paul George’s dream outcome was an MVP trophy. This year he’s got bigger goals in mind.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets +1500
It’s a bit shocking to see Nikola Jokic outside the eight MVP favorites. Denver was the best team in the West much of this past season before finishing second behind only the Warriors, who don’t exist in that form anymore. Jokic was brilliant, averaging 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists over the season before taking it to another level altogether in the playoffs, where he detonated for 25 points, 13 boards, and 8 dimes a game.
If Jokic continues to take a step forward, the Nuggets will too. They’re the one contender that returns basically everyone, but young players like Jamal Murray and Gary Harris (and Jokic!) are set to take another step forward. The Nuggets have a good a shot as anyone at the 1-seed, and Jokic is one of the few true MVP candidates with no clear second banana. If the Nuggets are the best regular-season team, Jokic will be a pretty easy best player / best team MVP candidate. If all the superstar duos are good but Jokic’s Nuggets are best, he’ll be the MVP, just like Giannis Antetokounmpo was this year.
Russell Westbrook, Rockets +1400
Westbrook seems like a nonsense MVP candidate at first. This will be James Harden’s team, after all, and Harden has played at an MVP level several years running. But so has Westbrook! After all, this is a guy that just averaged a triple-double a third straight season and barely even got an MVP sniff. And while this may ultimately be Harden’s team in the playoffs, the Westbrook trade may be about keeping the Beard healthy for May and letting Russ carry the team in the regular season.
Westbrook has little value off the ball, while Harden’s shooting gravity is valuable, so it ought to be Russ playing point guard for Mike D’Antoni. While we don’t know what that will look like, history tells us to expect an MDA stats bump. Steve Nash jumped from 8.8 to 11.5 assists his first D’Antoni year, Harden from 7.5 to 11.2, Ray Felton from 5.6 to 9.0. Even Kobe had his best assist rates with D’Antoni. What if Westbrook loses a few rebounds and triple-doubles but gets an assists boost? What if he gets to something like 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists a game? Only Magic Johnson ever put up 23 points and 12 assists over a season, and he won MVP. Could Westbrook follow in his footsteps?
Joel Embiid, 76ers +1300
Embiid’s path to MVP is easy enough to see. The 76ers could certainly be the best team in the East, and Embiid is certainly their best player for now. He could anchor the league’s top defense and lead the team in scoring, and he’s obviously an MVP-level talent… when he’s on the court.
Of course, that’s the problem. Embiid has played 158 games in four NBA seasons. To put that in perspective, he’s missed 170. Even in Embiid’s two “healthy’ years, he’s missed 18 and 19 games. Since Bill Walton won MVP in 1978 with 58 games, every MVP has missed 11 games or fewer, and only four MVPs have even missed more than six games. You have to play to be valuable. The Sixers specifically got Al Horford to give Embiid a break sometimes at center, and that will surely mean regular load management. Embiid might want an MVP, but the team mostly wants him fresh and healthy in May. He’s just not going to play enough to be a serious MVP candidate.
Anthony Davis, Lakers +800
Davis might be the most intriguing MVP candidate on the board. He’s the best, most talented player with clear MVP talent that makes the biggest change this season, finally playing on a real contender with a superstar level teammate. Davis has always thrived in settings like All-Star Games where he doesn’t have to do everything, and he’s going to get a lot of help from LeBron James.
But won’t he split any MVP vote with LeBron? Maybe. But don’t underestimate the power of the Klutch hype machine. James has already made a few comments about Davis being the best player in the league, and Davis is young enough that we probably haven’t seen his best yet. What if LeBron takes a step back for the regular season and pushes Davis as the best player all year, feeding him for easy buckets he’s never had? Brow played 75 games the last two years before sitting a bunch this season with the trade talks, so he has proven he can put up a full MVP season. If these Lakers win a lot, Davis is the one key new addition and he’ll be the one playing full speed ahead all season while LeBron load manages for the playoffs. He could be the perfect candidate to take the next step, put it all together on the league’s biggest stage, and ride the built-in Lakers narrative all the way to the finish line.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers +750
There’s a lot of talk now about Kawhi Leonard as one of the best players to never win the MVP, and he was certainly the MVP of this summer’s playoffs. If there’s a chance to give him the regular-season award too, voters will be happy to reward his talent. If Leonard shows up and leads the Clippers to the top of the West, his case will be pretty open and shut.
But like Embiid, Leonard has a games problem. It wasn’t just last season that Kawhi missed a bunch of time. Even throwing out the one 9-game season, Leonard averages just 66 games a season with a max of 74. He also never puts up quite elite numbers that stack up with the best of the best, so a vote for Kawhi has to be entirely on narrative and best player / best team. It would need to be a career MVP award in a year without another clear candidate. Leonard averaged 27 and 7 for 2-seed Toronto just this year and finished 9th in MVP voting. He’s more visible now but he just doesn’t have the usual numbers and playing time for the award. Kawhi is an MVP in the playoffs. He’s already LeBron level in playoffs, just waiting until the games matter most.
James Harden, Rockets +700
Harden is an obvious candidate, having finished top 2 in the MVP race four of the past five seasons. But it’s hard to see anything but a step backward in MVP criteria this year. We’ve already seen the ginormous numbers season from Harden this year. We’ve already seen him put up big numbers and lead the Rockets to the top of the West.
What’s the MVP narrative left here? If Houston makes a leap this season, it will be Westbrook’s arrival that gets the narrative attention. Harden is going to concede shots and assists to Westbrook. There’s just no way around it. Moreover, Westbrook’s arrival is at least in part specifically to take some of the heavy regular season load off Harden’s plate. Westbrook played almost 50% more minutes than Chris Paul the past two seasons, and he’ll be the one going full speed while Harden finally gets to breathe a bit and save his MVP stuff for May when he usually runs out of gas.
LeBron James, Lakers +650
Like Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, we already know LeBron will save his best stuff for the playoffs. James hasn’t won MVP since 2013, and he’s a long ways from that ideal 24–28 age window. In fact, LeBron would tie Karl Malone as the oldest MVP winner at age 35, were he to win this season.
No one needs to make the case for LeBron’s talent. Maybe he comes back rested and motivated after a summer off and puts up one more monster season with a superstar talent next to him in Anthony Davis. There will be easy narratives. If the Lakers are great in the regular season and if LeBron decides to push for MVP, he can absolutely win it. But will he? Part of the reason LeBron hasn’t won since 2013 is that he saves it for the playoffs, and now with Davis around, he has an easy way to do that. Why not take some games off, let Davis get the regular season shine, and save it for when it matters?
Stephen Curry, Warriors +500
In the immediate aftermath of Kevin Durant leaving the Warriors, the attention immediately shifted to Stephen Curry and a potential MVP season. But these are not the pre-KD Warriors, in more ways than one. For one, the core is much older and worn down, including Curry. He played only 120 games the last two regular seasons and looks like a guy that won’t have enough games in him to win another MVP. But perhaps this season he’ll have to, with Durant gone and Klay Thompson out injured.
What if Curry cranks it up a notch and plays 75 games at the MVP level we know, dragging these Warriors to another 55 wins and keeping them atop the West even without KD and Klay? The MVP case would be pretty clean cut. It’s an easy path to see. But is it realistic? Curry and Draymond Green are absolutely exhausted after five years of Finals runs. Maybe pride pushes them to crank it up for a regular-season run, but doesn’t it make more sense to do just enough to get back to the playoffs with Klay and actually have something left to give once they get there? Curry is older and wiser now. He doesn’t need to win another MVP. He just needs to get this team to April and May healthy. If he has to put in an MVP effort in the regular season, he might win the award but lose the war when it gets to the playoffs.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks +280
And finally, we come to Antetokounmpo, who is the MVP favorite – and he should be. In a league full of championship contenders with superstar duos, there’s only one title contender with just one superstar. The Milwaukee Bucks look likely to finish at or near the top of the East, right where they left off this season. If they do that, Giannis is basically a lock to be on every MVP ballot, and he could well win it again. But what can he do to improve on this MVP campaign?
Plenty, actually. For one thing, Giannis might be learning how to shoot. The Greek Freak shot 32% on threes after the All-Star Break, making more than one per game. He then shot 33% in the playoffs, again making more than one per game. If that continues to nudge upward toward 35%, teams will have to start defending the three – and Giannis will have more room than ever to drive and score. He can also carry a bigger load this year. The Bucks were actually so good last year that Antetokounmpo didn’t even have to play a ton. He played only 31.7 minutes a game and rested 10 games, his fewest overall minutes since his rookie year. What if he plays 75 games and 36 minutes a game and adds a moderately reliable three?
The facts don’t lie: Giannis Antetokounmpo has increased his scoring and rebounding averages every season of his career, and his assists in all but one. He’s young. He’s stayed healthy. He should play plenty of minutes. Last year he put up 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists a game. If he clears 28/13/6 and leads the Bucks to the 1-seed again, what in the world will someone have to do to beat that? And we haven’t even mentioned his defense, among the best in the league. Giannis himself says he’s only reached 60% of his capacity. He’s still getting better. He’s the favorite for a reason. Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one, in the end.
So is Giannis Antetokounmpo the best bet for MVP? Yes… eventually. For now, you may want to grab your favorite long shot. The narrative is never in the incumbent’s favor. The media will hype a few others early, and Antetokounmpo’s odds may move in your favor. But he’s the horse you want to be riding next June when the MVP is announced.
(written by Brandon Anderson)