Handicapping an Intriguing NBA MVP Race

Out of every major North American pro league's top individual award, the NBA MVP undoubtedly has the most prestigious cache.

Unlike MLB, the award isn't diluted by giving two awards each year. The high variance of only 16 games in a season means the NFL MVP winner has a higher chance of being a non-all-time great. Hockey's Hart Trophy often feels like it's second in importance to the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the Stanley Cup Playoffs' best player.

Furthermore, every single eligible NBA MVP is in the Hall of Fame. That fact almost certainly isn't changing until five years after Derrick Rose retires.

Because of how much hype the NBA MVP race usually gets, the field of contenders is often narrowed down to two or three by the time the regular season reaches the midway point in January. Last year, with Russell Westbrook and James Harden each putting up points and triple-doubles galore on a nightly basis, it was beyond clear that one of them would win MVP by this point 365 days ago.

This year, even though the Warriors are once again an obvious favorite for the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June, there's as many as six players who could realistically win the MVP award. I'll go through those six in the order of how I currently have them and list their current odds, according to 5Dimes.

James Harden — current odds: +110

This should be Harden's year, right? His performances in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons were unlucky to go up against Steph Curry's breakout superstar year and Russell Westbrook's triple-double record season, or he could be going for a third MVP right now.

He's unquestionably the best scorer in the game, and he's still managed to be an amazing distributor for his teammates with Chris Paul on the same squad.

Yet this doesn't feel nearly as certain as it did a month ago, when the Rockets were in the midst of a 19-1 stretch. Sure, Harden's been out since the new year, but the Rockets were looking shaky in a 5-game losing streak around Christmas with him. The defense, which was surprisingly good early in the season, now looks pedestrian at best.

I'm not sure if Harden can win MVP if the Rockets finish below second in the West, and that could be the way things are trending now.

Kevin Durant — current odds: +1850

How are the Slim Reaper's odds this low? In general, if you're the most important player on the league's best tea, you should stand better than a 5.1% chance of winning this award, which is what Durant's odds imply.

You may have done a double-take at my calling Durant the Warriors' most important player, but he's put any debate to bed. His offensive stats may not technically be career-bests dating back to his Oklahoma City days, but he still has a shot at a 50-40-90 season, and his defensive impact at multiple positions is beyond what people could have even imagined during his first MVP season. And the days of people questioning K.D.'s big-game performances seem like ages ago after he helped take down Cleveland on Monday night.

Furthermore, when Curry went down for nearly the entire month of December, Durant was still able to guide Golden State to a 9-2 record.

LeBron James — current odds: +150

What more can you say about LeBron's individual level of play on a year-to-year basis? He's putting up 27-8-9 every game and yet it's somehow unsurprising, but only because we know that he's LeBron and LeBron defies logic. If by now you don't think the man is a top-three player of all-time, I question your judgment.

But his odds here — second-favorite behind Harden — would indicate he's a 40% shot to win MVP, playing for a team that's 28th in defensive rating and could be in danger of not having home-court advantage in the first round if they don't turn it around soon. Even though few really question his pre-eminence as the league's best player, you're not winning MVP with this disappointing of a team.

At the same time, we've been in this situation before with Cleveland in 2015, when the Cavs were under .500 in the middle of January with a lot of new characters and rotations to work out, and it ended up okay for them. If the Cavs somehow work out their defensive issues and rally to a top-two finish in the East, maybe LeBron can win MVP for the fifth time.

Giannis Antetokounmpo — current odds: +700

If the Greek Freak is going to win MVP this year, as some thought he might after the first month of the season, Milwaukee is going to have to start winning some games and moving up the standings.

It's a historical aberration for an NBA MVP to come from outside a top-three seed in either conference — such is the importance of a great team in pushing a player to the highest honor. It takes something even more historically aberrational, you know, like registering a triple-double 42 times to win MVP.

While Giannis has been incredible and continued his upward trajectory, he hasn't been great enough to overcome a team that looks destined for 1st round Eastern Conference fodder and about 42-45 wins, and is saddled with a bad defense and the frustrating coaching of Jason Kidd.

Steph Curry — current odds: +1650

The oddsmakers must be counting on enough voters putting both Durant and Curry on their ballots to substantially cancel each other out. This price feels on the long side, too, but it's more understandable.

We've already covered why I think Durant is more important, but Curry is obviously still an elite player. If you're an advanced stats person, Steph has both more Win Shares and a higher PER this season, despite missing those 11 games in December.

But the thing is that you usually get penalized in MVP voting for missing a month, and the ankle that kept him out then was slightly aggravated a week ago. Combining that with his history of ankle injuries, the Warriors' desire to keep everyone healthy for the spring and the fact that Golden State can still be relatively dominant without Curry means that No. 30 will probably sitting out a fair number of games in the back half of the regular season.

Kyrie Irving — current odds: +1200

There's this weird perception I have that I can't help but shake when I watch the Celtics, and that's that it feels more like a 2015 Hawks team as a likely No. 1 seed than a team carried by an unstoppable superstar in his first year. That's why I have him down in the last spot in this column.

Now, the easy thing to do would be to cite how Kyrie's counting stats and clutch stats aren't what Isaiah Thomas' were a year ago, but that would be reductionary and disrespectful to the rest of the team.

The Celtics are No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating, and I put a lot of that on Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, but it's not like they've had to hide Irving every single moment on that end. And, of course, Kyrie has been up to his normal wizardry on the offensive end. But it's not anything we don't expect from him, and it's coming on a very egalitarian team.

Perhaps the only way Irving gets into the conversation is if Boston finishes with the entire league's best record, Houston falters big-time and Curry and Durant can do no better than the other.

Of course, there are more than these six players having great seasons. If you're looking for a long-shot, DeMar DeRozan is at 80/1 odds for the consistent Raptors, and Jimmy Butler is at 100/1 on the surging T-Wolves.

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