Nikola Jokic has led the NBA in fantasy points per game each of the past three seasons. In two of the past three, he won the NBA MVP award (2020-21, 2021-22) and was the runner-up for MVP last season, with many voters citing historic precedence.
It was believed that if a player won MVP in three straight seasons, they would have to be considered one of the greatest of all time. How could that be Jokic, when he had not won a championship?
Cue logic fail.
Jokic went on to have one of the most dominant playoffs runs in recent memory, leading the Denver Nuggets to a convincing 16-4 postseason record, easily winning the 2023 Finals MVP.
Now, in the early stages of the 2023-24 season, Jokic is leading the NBA in fantasy points per game and the Nuggets have the best record in the NBA as they look to defend their championship.
Should Jokic be the runaway favorite to win this season’s MVP? If he stays healthy, does he already have that third MVP locked up? Let’s discuss.
What the last five MVPs have in common
Jokic currently has the shortest MVP odds (+300) at ESPN BET, followed by Luka Doncic (+375), Joel Embiid (+750), Jayson Tatum (+800) and Stephen Curry (+1100). Giannis Antetokounmpo is also a relative longshot at +2000.
If we look at the past five MVP winners, there are some commonalities that stand out:
In addition to the trend of repeat winners, each of the winners produced great box score numbers. Using fantasy points per game in the ESPN system as a measure of production, the past five MVPs have averaged 57.7 FP/G.
This season, there are six players currently averaging in that range or higher: Jokic (62.6 FP/G), Embiid (61.2 FP/G), Donovan Mitchell (59.2 FP/G), Anthony Davis (58.1 FP/G), Devin Booker (58.0 FP/G) and Doncic (57.6 FP/G).
Another area that MVPs have historically had in common is that they tend to come from the top teams in the league as measured by win percentage and conference seeding. But in recent years, the trend has gone away from using team accomplishments to estimate player impact. Note that the past three winners have come from the third, sixth and third seeds in their respective conferences, not the top seed.
Instead, ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (RPM) has been a better proxy for the player’s impact on their team’s ability to win. Three of the past four MVP winners ranked first in the NBA in RPM. And in the other season (2020-21), Jokic still had a slightly higher RPM score (sixth best in the NBA) than Embiid (seventh best), who was the runner up that year.
A certain number of games need to be played before the RPM scores converge to useful values, so RPM isn’t currently available for this season. But if we look at raw +/- per 100 possessions as a very rough approximation, we see that three of the nine players under consideration have +/- scores over 15 points per 100 possessions: Jokic (16.4 PP100), Embiid (15.5 PP100) and Tatum (20.8 PP100). The other six all have raw on-court +/- scores under 6.0 PP100.
Will it come down to Jokic and Embiid… again?
There are only two players in the NBA with both production and impact scores in the MVP range right now: Jokic and Embiid. The same two players that have finished 1-2 in the MVP vote, in some order, in each of the past three seasons. This would suggest that these two should once again be the MVP frontrunners.
Jokic has some narrative advantages in an early MVP case. For one thing, some feel he had a great case to three-peat as MVP last season, and since he capped that season with a championship there could be sentiment that he’s owed one. But even more-so, if Jokic could average a triple-double for the season (he came 0.2 APG short of that mark last season) it would make him just the third NBA player to do so, and the first two (Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook) both won MVP in their first triple-double seasons.
On the other hand, Embiid also has some narratives working in his favor. He has led the NBA in scoring two straight seasons and is currently the top scorer again this season. But more than that, there was some sentiment that trading away James Harden would weaken the 76ers. But, right now, Philadelphia is still tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference. If they can stay anywhere near that level of success for the season, it would be a huge boon in Embiid’s MVP case.
How to bet the MVP race
From a betting perspective, Jokic has some futures value to win MVP even with the shortest odds in the league at +300. But this exercise would suggest that the best value in the MVP Futures race right now is Embiid at +750.
The metrics that have proven predictive of the past few MVP winners suggest that, at this early stage, the two all-universe centers are almost equally likely to take home this season’s MVP. But Embiid has longer odds, and therefore more juice if he wins, making him the better betting option through the first week of November.