Nuggets star Nikola Jokić supplanted 76ers center Joel Embiid as the betting favorite to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award with only a handful of games remaining.
Jokić leapt from having the second-best odds at SI Sportsbook—behind Embiid—to being the clear favorite with -138 odds. Embiid, who was once the favorite while hovering around +140 odds to earn MVP honors for the first time, is +125.
Those two are far and away the betting favorites, with Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting at +1200 odds. It seems no other player has a realistic shot at winning with the regular season ending April 10.
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Jokić won the award for the first time in the 2020-2021 season, and Embiid finished as runner-up. It appears this season’s race may play out similarly, though the voting will likely be much closer than when the seventh-year Serbian ran away with it last season.
So, what may have caused Jokić to become the frontrunner over Embiid?
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps’ third and final MVP straw poll came out Tuesday and Jokić supplanted Embiid as the favorite. The Nuggets star had 62 first-place votes and 860 total points, while Embiid finished with 29 first-place votes and 719 points. Antetokounmpo had a podium finish—nine first-place votes and 593 total points.
Embiid had 45 first-place votes to Jokić’s 43 in the mid-February straw poll. Surprisingly, Jokić was left off a few ballots in that iteration.
For reference, Jokić received 91 first place votes and 971 points in the actual vote last season. Embiid had just one first-place vote and 586 total points.
In terms of team performance, nothing major would have led to the change. Jokić has played in 14 of Denver’s 15 games in March and the team is 8-6 when he plays. He’s having his best scoring month of the year (29.4 ppg) but his rebound (12.7) and assist (7.9) numbers are down from his season averages of 26.3/13.6/8.
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Embiid has similarly played in 14 of Philadelphia’s 15 games this month and the team is 8-6 when he plays. His scoring numbers are up ever so slightly to 30.1 ppg in March and his rebounding numbers are also up (12.4)—Embiid averages 29.9/11.4 on the year.
The Nuggets are 2-5 without Jokić this season, who has been propping up a team without All-Star point guard Jamal Murray and has only had Michael Porter Jr. for a few games. The 76ers are 5-8 without Embiid, who also had been single-handedly propping up a team before the blockbuster James Harden trade.
When the last straw poll came out on Feb. 17, the trade was a week old and Harden had yet to suit up for his new team.
Both Jokić and Embiid are atop the league in several traditional and advanced stats. Jokic is 10th in scoring, second in rebounding and eighth in assists. Embiid is tied for second in scoring, is seventh in rebounding and leads the league in free throws made and attempted.
Jokić is first in player efficiency rating (PER) and Embiid is third. And Jokic has a near clean sweep on basketball-reference’s stats page. He’s first in: win shares, offensive win shares, win shares per 48, box plus/minus, offensive box plus/minus, defensive box plus/minus and value over replacement player.
The way the final standings shake out could have an impact on how the voting goes. The 76ers are in fourth place in the East but just 1.5 games back from first place. The Nuggets are in sixth place in the West and could either move up to fifth or fourth place or risk falling into the play-in game.
At this point, a wager on a player not named Jokić or Embiid seems foolish. If you got Jokić at plus-odds, congratulations. Hold on to that ticket. And if you’re bullish on Embiid, there’s newfound value now that he’s no longer the favorite.
What’s clear is that rather than Embiid loosening his grip on MVP, Jokić appears to have simply leapfrogged him. And who’s to say Embiid can’t snatch back the momentum before the season finale April 10?
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