NBA MVP Rankings: Latest odds say Giannis Antetokounmpo the favorite, but surging Paul George is the best value bet

Barring something completely unforeseen, the NBA MVP race is down to three names: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George. After that, there isn’t a single player on the board with better than a 100-to-1 chance of winning the award, according to the Westgate Superbook. If you want to take a get-rich-quick shot on Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic or LeBron James — all registering at +10000 entering Tuesday — go for it. For the purposes of this list, we’re keeping things realistic. 

Here are this week’s NBA MVP Rankings:

The argument for Giannis begins and perhaps ends, pretty simply: He’s the best player on the best team, record-wise, in the NBA. From an efficiency standpoint, Giannis has a better true-shooting and effective field goal percentage than both Harden and George. He shoots 58 percent from the field overall to Harden’s 44 percent and George’s 45 percent. Yes, those guys are hoisting up a ton more 3-pointers and that is definitely a factor in these numbers, but Giannis being one of the deadliest imaginable finishers at and around the rim is the driving — pun intended — force behind a Bucks team that registers the best point differential and net rating in the league. 

For his part, Giannis — seventh league-wide in scoring, fifth in rebounds,15th in blocked shots and 25th in assists — has the top individual plus-minus in the league, with the Bucks outscoring opponents by 9.3 points in the minutes he’s on the floor, and the top net rating of any player averaging at least 12 minutes per game. He gets more done, relative to time and opportunity, than anyone else in the league. 

And again, it’s adding up to a lot of wins. Team success factors hugely in this race. More specifically, unexpected team success. Yes, a lot of people predicted the Bucks would be something of a breakout team on the strength of Mike Budenholzer’s spaced-out, more Giannis-friendly system. But the best team in the league? Anyone who says they saw that coming is a liar. Put the numbers, through both a traditional and advanced prism, and the team success together, and Giannis becomes the favorite at this point, as the odds suggest. 

That said, I don’t personally think he’s the smartest bet right now. He’s the favorite, yes, but this is way too close of a race, with way too long to go, to be taking anyone at -250 on a locked-in line. As you’ll see below, as of this minute, there is better value to be had. 

George is not No. 2 in the race based on the odds (that would be Harden), which is what makes him such a great value. He’s a legitimate threat to win this thing, an even better bet than Harden in my book, yet you’re getting five times the payout on George. At this time last week, George was available at +1800. That should’ve been pounced on. His drop to +700 is reflective of the surge he’s making in this race. Like the +1800, this 7-to-1 line won’t last long if George keeps playing the way he has over his last 15 games — where he’s second in the league in scoring at over 34 points a night and has a virtually identical plus-minus as Giannis. 

Giannis does it at an elite level both ends as well, so it’s not fair to say George is the only two-way player in the race, but he’s had the best defensive season of these three. He’ll get a lot of Defensive Player of the Year votes, if he doesn’t just outright win the award. Like Giannis, George also has the unexpected-team-success card in his hand. Just when we thought we knew exactly what the Thunder were, for better or worse, with Russell Westbrook as the lead dog, George has officially supplanted Russ as the clear No. 1 guy and the Thunder have not coincidentally turned into an entirely different, more consistent, and ultimately more dangerous team.

Entering Tuesday, OKC sits in the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference. No longer do they play down to the competition. They beat the teams they are supposed to beat. They are also 16-11 against plus-.500 teams entering Tuesday. You know what you’re going to get from this team on a nightly basis, and that stability is almost entirely about George — an absolutely perfect fit next to Westbrook as a superstar player capable of carrying teams (obviously) who is also, perhaps, equally well suited — from both a skillset and mindset standpoint — as a secondary creator. 

George is starting to put together a lot of MVP games and moments, as well — like this incredible game-winner over Rudy Gobert to defeat the Jazz in double overtime last Friday:

These moments matter in gaining momentum — same as college football players having a late-season “Heisman moment” —  and George has more momentum than Giannis or Harden right now. Again, this is reflected in the dramatic change in odds. He has 45 points or more in three of his last five games entering Tuesday. He also has just three turnovers combined over his last three games. That’s not talked about enough. George is incredibly secure with the ball — just 2.6 turnovers a game this season despite all the offense he creates. This season, George is one of only two players in the entire league averaging at least eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. This is before you even factor in his 28.7 points per game — second in the league. He has just been outrageously awesome this season and if he keeps playing like this, and the Thunder don’t fall off, he’s going to be tough to deny. 

Harden had his streak of 30-point games snapped at 32 with ONLY 28 points in a win over Atlanta on Monday. This just in: His stats continue to be nutty. Harden’s 36.3 points per game not only leads the league by a mile (George is second almost a full eight points a game behind), it would be the highest output since the 37.1 points Michael Jordan averaged in 1986-87. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 36.9 points per game Wilt Chamberlain averaged in 1964 to find a number bigger than Harden’s this season. 

In the end, this is what Harden’s MVP case is almost entirely about. 

Scoring just a ridiculous amount of points. 

Yes, Harden kept the Rockets afloat, and even lifted them considerably, during the prolonged absences of Chris Paul and Clint Capela. The Rockets were 16-15 and outside the top eight in the West when Paul went down for 17 straight games beginning December 22nd. Over that stretch, Harden led the Rockets to a 12-5 record and they are now firmly in the playoffs as the No. 5 seed entering Tuesday, just two games back in the loss column of No. 4 Portland. 

That said, Houston is just one game up on the No. 6 Jazz. That run when Harden took matters almost completely into his own hands and buoyed a sinking team was great, but if the Rockets end up outside the top four in the West, in the end, winning won’t be at the center of Harden’s argument. He’ll be the only one of the three main candidates playing for a team that in the end fell way short of expectations.

Harden’s case is, and will continue to be, the same deal as Russell Westbrook’s case in 2016-17 when he averaged a triple-double. The Thunder were far from a great team. They finished No. 6 in the West with 47 wins. What they were able to accomplish was fully credited to Westbrook, who just hit voters over the head with sheer numbers. Harden is doing the same, but the difference is, with Paul and Capela both back now, and the Rockets coming off a big-time win over the Warriors in which Paul carried the team with Harden not playing, the idea that Harden is a complete lone wolf will fade. 

When the dust settles, you have to have seriously crazy numbers to win MVP — let alone your second straight when you factor in voter fatigue — on a middle-of-the-pack team that fell way short of expectations. Again, Harden’s numbers are crazy. That’s why he’s No. 2 on the board in Vegas. But this feels like a hair-splitting race with three guys who all have an incredible case. When you start splitting hairs on Harden’s numbers, efficiency could be a problem. He’s only shooting 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. Per Synergy, George and Antetokounmpo both register significantly higher in points per possession. 

So there is a bit of a chucker element to the perception of Harden, right or wrong. We have people all over debating just how many players could be putting up these kinds of numbers with this kind of shot freedom. It’s not many, but the fact that the question even has to be asked represents reasonable doubt in Harden’s case. Personally, I think that doubt will grow over the rest of the season. I think this race comes down to George and Giannis. 

Categories: National Sports

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