Final NBA MVP Ladder: Should James Harden Runaway With Hardware?
All NBA Most Valuable Player odds come courtesy of BetFair and are accurate leading into Wednesday, April 11. While the regular season is technically ending, these awards are not released until later in the spring—usually sometime in May. Some sportsbooks will still allow you to place bets during the time between the regular season’s conclusion and the announcement, so be sure to triple-check these lines before submitting a wager.
Please also remember that, for this final installment, we’re ranking these players based on the likelihood that they’ll win the award. This takes into account voter preferences and tendencies, rather than just merit and late-season odds. If you want to take a look at last month’s MVP ladder, you can do so here.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (+300)
Last Month’s Rank: 4
How Giannis Antetokounmpo’s odds have essentially been cut by 400 percent since we last met is beyond me.
Yes, he’s tallying per-game lines that haven’t been amassed by anyone since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And sure, you can easily envision a scenario in which he belongs slightly higher than sixth on this list.
But seriously? A +300? Last-minute odds are always inherently lower, but damn. Antetokounmpo is being treated as a borderline favorite. And he’s just not that. The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t good enough. They’re the NBA’s most disappointing team of the year, by far, after finishing with the Eastern Conference’s No. 7 seed.
It helps that their slide down the standings isn’t on Antetokounmpo specifically. They have, roughly, the net rating of the Boston Celtics when he’s on the floor. But it doesn’t help that Eric Bledsoe officially has the Bucks’ highest net rating on the season. And while that doesn’t mean everything, it does torpedo Antetokounmpo’s sportsbook appeal.
5. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves (+480)
Last Month’s Rank: Unranked
Jimmy Butler should be lower, if removed entirely from this list, after appearing in under 60 games. But, well, screw it.
It’s not his fault he needed meniscus surgery. Besides, he returned from the injury quick enough. And thanks to Minnesota Timberwolves coach-president Tom Thibodeau overworking his starters, he still finishes the year having played well north of 2,000 minutes.
Most critically, though, Butler deserves to be an exception. He carried the Wolves all season. They don’t clinch their first playoff berth since 2004 without him. And his value was never more evident than when they actually needed to play without him.
In the 2,100-plus minutes he’s spent on the court this season, the Timberwolves are a plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions. In the almost 1,800 minutes they’ve played with him off the court, they’re a minus-4.5 per 100 possessions. That’s a 12.8-point swing in the wrong direction, which also just so happens to be the difference between playing like the Golden State Warriors and faring like the Orlando Magic.
4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (+1600)
Last Month’s Rank: 5
Damian Lillard just put a bow on the best season of his career.
He’s never finished with a higher true shooting percentage. He’s never accounted for a larger share of the Portland Trail Blazers’ offense. He’s never played better defense. He has posted a higher assist rate only once.
His reward for these efforts? The third-best record in the Western Conference (and a first-round date with the New Orleans Pelicans).
No one saw this coming. Not from a cash-strapped Blazers team that underwent very few personnel changes following their 41-win 2016-17 campaign. For him to lead them to almost 50 victories one year later is an incredible feat that has thrust him onto the peripherals of the MVP discourse.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (+1240)
Last Month’s Rank: 3
Anthony Davis’ case is based on the same thing it was founded upon in the first place: his performance without DeMarcus Cousins.
Through the 32 games he’s played without him, Davis is averaging 30.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.1 blocks while shooting 51.6 percent overall and a tidy 34.1 percent on modest volume from deep. And the Pelicans, on average, have been a plus-6.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game.
Partial-season cases are always risky business. End-to-end dominance carries more weight in these discussions. But Davis wasn’t some scrub for this explosive stint. More importantly, his post-Cousins detonation lasted almost an entire half-hear.
That’s a large enough sample size to give him top-three placement.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (+190)
Last Month’s Rank: 2
There will be people who vote for LeBron James on the MVP ballot. Yours truly sure did. And his case is stronger than you think, despite the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles.
Everyone tends to focus on his complete absence of consistent defensive effort. That’s more than fair. James takes not only plays, but quarters and entire games off. He’s slow to close out on shooters, if he contests them at all, and he possesses little to no interest in walling off shots at the rim.
But this isn’t so much lethargy as it is self-preservation. James just played out his 15th season. He appeared in all 82 games for the first time of his career. He’s trying to make a ninth-straight NBA Finals appearance. It makes sense that he would try to avoid exerting himself.
This, of course, doesn’t excuse the context of his non-effort. At the same time, it’s not like James Harden is some premier stopper either. He’s been fine and dandy in the post and generally all one-on-one situations this season, but the Houston Rockets have the resources to move him around and force matchups that favor even him.
James’ workload, in that sense, remains heavier. He’s still tasked with guarding the other team’s best player, even if it’s a point guard, down the stretch of close games. And you can tell he’s locked in during those moments.
There’s also the matter of James’ offense. He’s been a monster. Bake in the points he’s generated from his assists, and he accounts for more than 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ total offense—the highest share of any player in the league. That’s straight-out absurd. Someone his age shouldn’t be able to do that, let alone actually have to do it.
Again: LeBron’s case is imperfect. But so, too, is Harden’s. If for some reason the Rockets’ superstar doesn’t end up with the MVP hardware, it’ll be because LeBron did.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets (-2000)
Last Month’s Rank: 2
But not really.
Even as someone who voted for James, I have no qualms with Harden winding up here. He’s been immaculate basically wire to wire. He’s posting a watermark true shooting percentage amid career-high usage, and he’s had little trouble adapting to life beside Chris Paul.
As noted before, he isn’t suddenly some lockdown defender. He does, however, deserve major ups for improving under favorable circumstances. He looks truly engaged when charged with using his strength and girth to wage battle in the post.
Harden’s case becomes airtight when looking at the catch-all numbers. His average rank in Total Points Added, Real Plus-Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and Value Over Replacement Player is approximately 1.8. Seriously.
Meanwhile, the next closest player to him is James. His average rank in those kitchen-sink categories? Around 4.7—nearly three full spots lower than the NBA’s soon-to-be-MVP.
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