On Feb. 16, little over a month ago, Tim Bontemps of ESPN published the results of his most recent MVP straw poll. Due to the fact that it only covers potential voters, that poll is the most precise indicator of voter mood in the NBA. Given the circumstances at the time, it was not surprise that Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was the overwhelming favorite with 77 first-place votes.
Like he did in the initial straw vote, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo finished in second place. In both the first-place votes (11 to six) and the second-place votes, he outperformed third-place Joel Embiid (38 to 24). Statistically, each player in the previous month performed as follows, excluding the two contests Antetokounmpo left early due to injury:
|POINTS PER GAME
|REBOUNDS PER GAME
|ASSISTS PER GAME
|EFFECTIVE FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
If there is a significant difference between the two during this time, it won’t be apparent from the raw data. Embiid scored 2.5 more points on average each game, while Antetokounmpo’s assists led to 5.3 more points being generated per game. In that time, the Bucks have played much superior defense than the 76ers, who currently sit in 22nd place in the NBA.
Milwaukee still leads the NBA with a plus-6.9 net rating during that time, but the 76ers have made up for it with an incredible offensive month. Surprisingly, Philly has actually performed far better without Embiid since then, outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions during his bench minutes as opposed to 4.2 points per 100 possessions during Embiid’s on-court minutes. While the Bucks are outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions while Antetokounmpo is on the floor, they are winning 3.3 points for every 100 bench minutes.
Of course, none of this is meant to invalidate Embiid’s argument for MVP. Before the last straw poll, there were solid arguments in his favor, and they have only become stronger during one of the best months of his career. Yet, it’s been a while since we last heard from potential voters, and it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific instance in which Embiid has outperformed Antetokounmpo. Given everything we’ve discussed here, Antetokounmpo has the advantage despite their performance being fairly equal.
So why has Antetokounmpo dropped to third place and Embiid suddenly taken over the race? At Caesars Sportsbook, the star of the 76ers is currently the betting favorite to win MVP with minus-115 odds. Embiid is a tiny favorite over Jokic at even money, despite the fact that Jokic has a recent four-game losing streak that has many analysts questioning him. Although Antetokounmpo isn’t exactly in third place, there is a significant distance between him and the two front-runners at plus-300. It really isn’t clear why Antetokounmpo isn’t neck-and-neck with Jokic and Embiid based on the statistics and what the voters themselves said in the most recent straw poll. He actually fulfills MVP requirements that neither of them do.
For the greatest record in the NBA during the previous month, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have surpassed the Boston Celtics. In the past, having the best record in the NBA has been crucial to winning the award. 18 of the 30 MVPs in the past played for an NBA team that had the best record. It represents a hit rate of 60%. No other statistical measure even comes close, and Antetokounmpo has achieved this despite the fact that Khris Middleton, his best teammate, missed half the season and was restricted to a certain number of minutes for the majority of it.
Embiid’s statistical claim to fame is his scoring advantage, as he presently outscores Luka Doncic by a point and a half. 30 scoring champions in the past have only won the MVP nine times. Jokic is averaging a triple-double, but only one MVP has come from a triple-double season in NBA history, out of the five that have occurred. Despite the small sample size, it is clear that voters value winning. Although that propensity has diminished recently—both Jokic and Russell Westbrook won as No. 6 seeds—it is still a historically valid idea.
Recently, both prizes have faced criticism, notably the second one given to Jokic. There are several causes for this, but if a lack of postseason success is one of them, it’s important to note that of the three, Antetokounmpo is the only champion. Embiid has had the least amount of playoff success because he has never advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Some people feel that the league’s best player should automatically win the MVP award. While some publications (including The Ringer) have since switched to Jokic, CBS Sports, ESPN, and Bleacher Report all picked Antetokounmpo before the season. Voters who use playoff performance to rank players would find it difficult to argue against Antetokounmpo considering his last two postseasons.
Voter weariness has been discussed as it relates to these elections, and past winners like Antetokounmpo frequently face comparisons to earlier versions of themselves. He is, at the very least, living up to his two previous MVP seasons. . It was the the of the. It was the. It was the. It was the. It was the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It is the. It’s debatable if he’s performed better than he did in 2019 or 2020, but there’s no denying that Middleton’s injury forced him to take on a different kind of role. He has met the challenge head-on.
This season, a noteworthy precedent is working against Antetokounmpo. Already, he has missed 15 games. Since Bill Walton, no MVP has missed more than 11 games. But, Embiid has missed 13, so either of them would surpass Walton’s previous record. If durability is what separates the contenders, Jokic, who has missed just eight games, will prevail. It’s also not like the Bucks are doing better than the 76ers when their studs are absent. Even without Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is 9-6. When Embiid is absent, Philadelphia is 9-4. Durability might marginally favor Jokic given that Denver is 3-5 without him, but it doesn’t appear likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of this contest.
In the end, we aren’t evaluating Jokic, Embiid, or Antetokounmpo’s abilities here. Later, there will be lots of time for that. Instead, the perception of their worth is being examined. Vegas is telling us one thing, while the evidence is showing us something another. So why don’t the sports books treat Antetokounmpo with the same regard as they do Jokic and Embiid?
There is a really straightforward solution to this problem, and it means that you should probably wager on Antetokounmpo right away. In sports betting, reality is based on perception. Vegas establishes odds that are intended to distribute money as equitably as possible across all of the contenders. Vegas generates money if the odds on three candidates are equal and the same amount of money is bet on all three because only one of them actually prevails. The amount of money that the bookies would have to pay out on Jokic and Embiid is probably similar to the odds on them. Given that bettors have tended to favor Embiid and Jokic, bigger odds on Antetokounmpo are probably intended to attract more business.
In light of this reasoning, the true question is why bettors are betting against Antetokounmpo. There is no obvious solution. The most glaring example is the dreaded notion of a “narrative” victor. Given that Embiid finished second twice, some supporters might think that the public will eventually favor him. As the lengthy favorite, Jokic probably attracted wagers from inexperienced gamblers when it appeared that he would win. Yet during the entire season, Antetokounmpo has simply maintained his position in the race. Given how early in the season his 9-0 start occurred, he was unable to realistically build MVP momentum, and his most recent 16-game winning run was overshadowed by a boisterous trade deadline and an MVP debate that was largely focused on Jokic. The unsatisfactory and speculative response in this situation is that he was merely forgotten owing to bad timing, which won’t matter as much when voters consider the whole of the candidates’ arguments.
This does not necessarily imply that Antetokounmpo will take home the MVP award. There are still more than three weeks worth of games left to decide that, including an upcoming round-robin featuring matches between the Nuggets, Bucks, and 76ers over a nine-day period. Yet, if you think that all three candidates are roughly comparable to one another, as we have been arguing for the past 1,500 words or so, then the candidate with outlier odds is the one who makes the most sense to bet for. While not being the most secure wager of the three, he has by far the greatest upside.