A Tale Of Two Centers: Jokic And Embiid Now Among Favorites To Win MVP


Less than two weeks ago, superstar centers Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers boasted double-digit odds to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, lagging well behind the likes of Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant, who’s dropped out of the top tier (for now) due to a knee injury that will keep him sidelined for a month or so.

Well, what a difference a few days can make.

Jokic, the league’s reigning MVP, recently told his coach that he felt “disrespected” by the fact that his odds to repeat hadn’t moved from around 14/1 all season. He then proceeded to reel off four consecutive triple-doubles — including an astonishing 49-point three-bagger on Jan. 19 in an overtime win over the Clippers — before seeing that streak come to an end on Sunday in a win over Detroit. (And all he did in that game was produce 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists in 36 minutes.) So far, he’s averaged 27 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 8.5 assists in January, which are slightly better than his season averages, and his odds to win MVP have shrunk to around 5/1 at most Colorado sportsbooks.

Jan. 19 also proved pivotal for Embiid, who put up 50 points and 12 rebounds in just 27 minutes in a 123-110 win over Orlando — and followed that up with gaudy 40-13-6 and 38-12-6 stat lines against the Clippers (loss) and Spurs (win). Last season’s MVP runner-up, Embiid has only scored less than 30 points once in January, averaging 33.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.9 assists for the month. In turn, his odds to win MVP have shrunk in less than two weeks’ time from a now-unfathomable 50/1 to a consensus of about 5/1, putting him in a dead heat with the Joker.

That 5/1 consensus on both centers can be found at Caesars and WynnBET, with Jokic drawing 5/1 odds to Embiid’s 6/1 at both DraftKings and FanDuel. Curry is the heaviest favorite (+170) to win at BetMGM, which has Embiid at 5/1 and Jokic at +550. That represents the fattest price on Jokic, while Embiid backers should head to Betfred for 7/1 odds.

For its part, PointsBet has Antetokounmpo favored to win the award for a third time at odds of +250, trailed by Curry (+275), Embiid (+350), and Jokic (5/1), while the SuperBook sees the MVP race as a virtual four-way tie featuring Antetokounmpo (3/1), Curry (3/1), Embiid (7/2), and Jokic (7/2). 

“These odds took a completely different form with Durant being out for four to six weeks,” Jeff Sherman, assistant manager of race and sports at the Westgate SuperBook, told CO Bets. “We had to bring these other ones in play and almost take him out of it.”

So, with a little more than half a season in the can, which sensational center has the best opportunity to catch Steph and Giannis? Here’s some criteria sports bettors can use to guide their futures bets in this particular market.

The competition 

Curry and Antetokounmpo have each won the MVP twice, in back-to-back seasons, which counters the perception that the league’s voters don’t like to reward the same player in consecutive years and should bolster Jokic’s candidacy.

Antetokounmpo’s current averages of 28.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6 assists, and over a steal and a block a game are roughly in line with his MVP campaigns in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The defending champion Bucks are really good, but maybe not as good as they were supposed to be (in fairness, injuries and COVID have played a role here), and Giannis has some marquee pieces around him in Olympic gold medalists Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, as well as a deep supporting cast. 

The central case against Giannis is that he’s kept right on being Giannis, playing at such a consistently elite level that even his most jaw-dropping performances fail to drop jaws anymore. This is the same reason why LeBron James has only won four MVP awards (both back-to-backers) instead of eight or more.

But Antetokounmpo’s somewhat spotty injury history is a factor as well.

“He’s got [two]  MVPs under his belt. That’s what you come to expect with him,” said Sherman. “Can he win it again? How many games is he gonna miss? Last year, he missed enough where he didn’t get it. The amount of games he’s gonna play is gonna point to how realistic his chances are gonna be.”

While his averages of 26 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.2 rebounds are impressive, Curry is in the midst of the worst month of his career, averaging just under 21 points on 36% shooting from the floor. That percentage is objectively abysmal, and the 40% he shot in December is not much better. That Curry’s still favored to win the award at most sportsbooks rates somewhere between baffling and an unflinching show of long-game confidence that he’ll find his stroke and the Warriors will make a deep playoff run.

“We had him around even money a while ago,” Sherman said of Curry. “That’s why we’ve eased him out to 3/1. It’s really just brought these other players into play against him. He was a really prohibitive favorite. Just with his struggles lately, his odds have really risen.

“If the Warriors weren’t where they’re at, if they were kind of like what Denver is, you’d have Curry much higher than that,” Sherman added. “It’s not so much of a surprise to us, but a lot of people didn’t expect to see them in the position they’re at right now. We opened them at 8/1 to win the title, which was pretty aggressive.”

The supporting casts 

Let’s not mince words here: Without Jokic and Embiid, the Nuggets and 76ers would be well out of their respective playoff races and jockeying for ping-pong position in June’s draft lottery. If the Most Valuable Player award were based on which player is literally the most critical to their team’s success, then these two would be neck-and-neck at the top of the heap.

Save for a few games featuring an underwhelming Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets have been without the services of their second- (Jamal Murray) and third-best (Porter) offensive players this season, forcing Jokic to carry a heavier load than ever before.

And how’s he fared in light of such unforgiving circumstances?

“He’s having better analytical stats this season than he did last season,” posited Sherman.

As for Embiid, he’s put Philly on his back in the absence of All-Star holdout Ben Simmons, who may or may not be traded before the Feb. 10 deadline. Entering Tuesday’s games, the Sixers were sixth in the Eastern Conference (but only 2.5 games out of first) with a record of 27-19, while the Nuggets were also sixth in the West, 12 games behind the conference-leading Suns with a record of 24-21.

“I’d put Embiid ahead of Jokic,” Sherman said. “Look at what Embiid and the Sixers are doing without Simmons at all. Between [Embiid and Jokic], the [team’s]  record is gonna play a big part of who someone might vote for.”

The one-on-one matchup

If a tendency to get injured is a mark against Antetokounmpo, then it threatens to completely obliterate the candidacy of Embiid, who’s never played more than 64 games in a season. He’s logged 35 of 46 so far this season, while Jokic — the portrait of health throughout his career — has appeared in 40 of the Nuggets’ 45 games.

But — and it’s a big but — if Embiid can stay healthy for the balance of the year and sustain some semblance of his insane January production, he might be the one to beat.

“He’s playing over his head right now,” said Sherman. “The team keeps winning at the pace that they’re doing, if he continues with this sort of production, I think he would come away with it.”

Mike Seely has written about horse racing for The Daily Racing Form and America’s Best Racing, and has contributed pieces on a multitude of topics to The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. He can be reached on Twitter (@mdseely) or via email at mseely@bettercollective.com.

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