Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots as Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

NBA FUTURES: BETTING THE MVP

Mike Shara

We’re now approximately halfway through a tumultuous 2021-22 NBA season. Phew – that was a lot. Take a breath and just be glad we made it this far without any significant stoppages. Thinking back over just the past few months, I’ve heard the names of at least 10 players being mentioned as being “MVP candidates” by broadcasters on various platforms showcasing the highlights from games the night before. Some of those names have fallen off (Durant, DeRozan, Trae Young) while some have continued a slow, steady climb towards Mount Olympus. Here are the four names that I like best going into the second half, especially considering their current odds.

JA MORANT, PG, Memphis Grizzlies (best odds: +5,500 at FanDuel)
It is unlikely you even had him among your top ten for MVP candidates to start this season. Don’t misunderstand me – the former #2 overall pick from Murray State (!) has been terrific to start his career (he did win Rookie of the Year in 2020 after all), but averaging 19, 7 and 4 on a non-competitive team isn’t really even noteworthy – every team in the NBA has a guy like that. This year he has blown through the invisible ceiling – averaging 25, 7 and 6 improving his three-point shooting and advanced statistics dramatically. The Grizz are also first in their division and third in the Western Conference and are absolutely rolling now that they’re healthy. Never mind Most Improved Player (though he is), he’s legit among the elite MVP candidates right now and what helps him is that almost everyone else he’s competing with has won the award already before. Except one bad dude…

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JOEL EMBIID, C, Philadelphia 76ers (best odds: +800 at FanDuel)
So, if you ever found yourself asking the question: how good would Shaquille O’Neal have been in his prime if he’d only been able to make his free throws? Well, Embiid is now the living embodiment of the answer to that question. Since returning from a very serious bout of Covid that caused him to miss three weeks, The Process has been on an absolute mission: he’s scored over 30 points in each of his last 13 games, with his plus/minus rating being an absurd over +20 in many of those games. He already was a formidable defensive presence (3x NBA All-Defensive team before this year) but has still improved his defensive rating for 2021-22, decreased his turnovers and upped his assists. The Sixers have won 10 of their last 13 and if he can get them over the hump to a division title and a #1 or #2 seed in the East having played all season without Ben Simmons, he has to be taken VERY seriously.

NIKOLA JOKIC, C, Denver Nuggets, (best odds: +1,600 at FanDuel)
After finally getting the national appreciation, he had deserved for a few years when he was named MVP in 2021, The Joker is already being taken for granted. The Nuggets have played the entire season without Jamal Murray and (basically) Michael Porter Jr., their #2 and #3 options on offense, yet somehow Jokic has actually improved on his numbers from his MVP season and kept Denver above .500 in a very competitive Western Conference. Jeff Green has started 29 games, and someone named Bones Hyland is averaging 18 minutes a game for this team! That shouldn’t happen. Jokic is comfortably leading the field in every advanced statistic, including PER, Win Shares and Box Plus/Minus but he’s not leading in any of the ‘back of the card’ categories like points, assists or rebounds. We’ll see how deep voters dig into the stats and how cognizant they are of the Nuggets’ devastating injury depletion when they vote in April. If they do their homework, it will be tough for them to vote for anyone else, even if he just won it last year.

STEPH CURRY, PG, Golden State Warriors (best odds: +900 at Caesar’s)
Even though Curry appears to still be the house favorite at most places right now, I listed him fourth on this list because even though he made a big game-winning shot vs. Houston last night (those always seem to stick in voters’ minds), his hold on the award feels tenuous at best. Obviously, he is the greatest shooter the NBA has ever seen, but this year his shooting percentages are down significantly. Can you really give a player the MVP award when shooting is his calling card but he’s not even shooting 39% from behind the arc or 50% from inside it? His MVP hype this year began because he’s had to carry so much of the burden with Klay out and Draymond missing time and yet the Warriors have been among the league’s best teams so far – and that’s a legit feather in his cap. Whether it’s playing huge minutes at his relative age or a nagging hand injury, Curry (and the Dubs) seem to be slipping a bit lately while the other three guys here are ramping up. For my money he needs to have one of those crazy 10-15 game scoring spurts he was known (and feared) for five years ago during the second half in order to solidify his case to win his third MVP award this year.  

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