This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
It's been less than two weeks since the 2019-20 season (finally) came to an end, but oddsmakers wasted no time looking ahead to 2021. While the league still has plenty of work to do to get next season off the ground, it's never too early to speculate how things might play out.
This week, our friends as the DraftKings Sportsbook posted their initial batch of 2021 NBA MVP odds. Given the depth of elite talent spread throughout the league, the race figures to be as wide open as ever.
Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the way at 6/1, but he's joined at that number by Luka Doncic, who's coming off of one of the more impressive sophomore seasons in recent memory. Antetokounmpo won each of the last two MVPs in a relative landslide, and he'll look to become the first three-peat MVP since Larry Bird in the mid-80s (1984-86).
The best duo in the league, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, each come in at 7/1 – the same number at which they opened prior to last season. James, a four-time MVP, was the runner-up to Antetokounmpo last season, while Davis finished sixth in the voting.
Returning to a rejuvenated Warriors team, Stephen Curry is listed at 10/1, while Kawhi Leonard, last season's fifth-place finisher, sits at 12/1. Kevin Durant, who missed all of last season while recovering from a torn Achilles, comes in at 16/1.
2021 NBA Most Valuable Player
|Giannis Antetokounmpo: +600||Luka Doncic: +600||Anthony Davis: +700||LeBron James: +700|
|Stephen Curry: +1000||Kawhi Leonard: +1200||Kevin Durant: +1600||Jimmy Butler: +2000|
|James Harden: +2000||Nikola Jokic: +2000||Damian Lillard: +2000||Jayson Tatum: +2000|
|Joel Embiid: +4000||Kyrie Irving: +4000||Paul George: +5000||Donovan Mitchell: +5000|
|Devin Booker: +6000||Jamal Murray: +6000||Ben Simmons: +6000||Russell Westbrook: +6000|
|Zion Williamson: +6000||Pascal Siakam: +8000||Trae Young: +8000||Bam Adebayo: +10000|
|Brandon Ingram: +10000||Kyle Lowry: +10000||Ja Morant: +10000||Klay Thompson: +1000|
|Karl-Anthony Towns: +10000|
Click here for full list
Here's a closer look at each of the top candidates with the case for why – or why not – they could contend for the award next season:
Giannis Antetokounmpo (6/1)
He's the two-time winner for a reason, but after another postseason flame-out, Antetokounmpo may be judged a bit more harshly this time around. As with most former winners, he'll also be competing against his own greatness. Antetokounmpo only played 30.4 minutes per game last season, but – fair or not – he'll likely need to boost his numbers fairly significantly to become the 10th three-time MVP in league history.
Luka Doncic (6/1)
He finished fourth in the voting last season, but I'm surprised the oddsmakers were this aggressive with Doncic's number. Dallas is one of the league's up-and-coming teams, and Doncic might be the future face of the league, but the Western Conference will be even tougher next season, and the Mavs' roster still has some major holes. Doncic's production will almost certainly be MVP-caliber, but can he beat out Antetokounmpo, James, Davis or Leonard if his team finishes fifth in the West?
Anthony Davis (7/1)
There were plenty of times throughout the playoffs when Davis was the Lakers' best player. But more often than not, that title still belonged to LeBron James. Even if Davis out-plays James during the regular season – a distinct possibility as James heads into Year 18 – voters will have a difficult time separating him from James' influence. That doesn't mean Davis can't win the award. He just faces an obstacle – playing alongside one of the two best basketball players of all-time – that no other player on this list has to deal with.
LeBron James (7/1)
James hasn't won an MVP since 2013, but it's not difficult to argue that he's been the league's best player for the last seven years. At least three times during that span, James' dominant runs through the postseason have made voters look foolish in retrospect, even if their votes made sense at the time. After issuing yet another reminder to the rest of the league in Orlando, James enters 2021 with some serious momentum. Statistically, he may have a difficult time matching Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Harden, so James' case will once again lie in the narrative that he's 36 years old, 18 years in, and still the most dominant player in the NBA.
Stephen Curry (10/1)
The back-to-back winner in 2015 and 2016, Curry essentially sacrificed his chances at another MVP the day Kevin Durant arrived in Golden State. With Durant leaving for Brooklyn last summer, the road was paved for Curry to re-enter the race – he was 6/1 in June of 2019 – but injuries ultimately knocked him out less than two weeks into the season. Obviously, Curry will need to stay healthy this time around to have a real chance, and that's not a guarantee considering he missed a combined 44 games in 2017-18 and 2018-19. With a field this deep, missing 10 or 15 games is essentially a knockout punch.
Kawhi Leonard (12/1)
Leonard may very well be the second-best player in the league, but he's a difficult bet when it comes to the MVP. While he has three top-five finishes to his name – including second in 2015-16 – the narrative around Leonard is that he takes too much time off. With two rings and two Finals MVPs, it's tough to argue that load management hasn't worked for Leonard. But history suggests that to win a regular season MVP, you can only take so many nights off. Since 2001, no MVP has missed more than 10 games and 12 of the 19 have missed five or fewer.
Kevin Durant (16/1)
By the time the season begins, it will have been roughly 20 months since Durant played in an NBA game. That's a very long time. But considering the severity of his injury, the extra time off could play to his benefit. Like Curry, Durant tossed his MVP chances out the window when he signed with Golden State, but in Brooklyn he has a chance to swing things back in his favor. If he comes back healthy and plays like the Durant of old, the comeback narrative will pump some juice into his MVP case.
Jimmy Butler (20/1)
At no point in his career has Butler ever been a serious MVP candidate. He finished 10th in 2018 and 11th last season, but his play in the Orlando bubble completely changed his place in the NBA hierarchy. Suddenly, at age 31, a player who entered last season with worse MVP odds than Draymond Green and DeMar DeRozan is now on the same plane as James Harden. Butler will carry a ton of momentum into the season, but it'll be borderline-impossible for him to replicate his postseason heroics over the course of a full season. Butler ended the 2019-20 regular season with averages of 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals – nowhere near MVP level.
James Harden (20/1)
Following yet another disappointing postseason, Harden's stock is as low as it's been in several years. That's reflected in this number, especially when you consider Harden was +350 to take home the MVP heading into last season. At this price, though, I actually think there's some value to be had. Getting 20-to-1 odds on the three-time defending scoring champ, who's averaged 33.7 points, 7.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals in that span, has to be at least semi-intriguing. The question is whether Houston can do enough as a team to vault Harden back into the conversation.
Nikola Jokic (20/1)
Jokic is on the short list of players who boosted their stock in the bubble, and yet his odds are higher than last season (10/1). The primary issue is the caliber of the players above him, but Jokic's MVP case also suffers from a lack of defensive impact – particularly given his position. Even so, if the Nuggets take another step forward and can contend for the top seed in the West, Jokic will have a chance.
Damian Lillard (20/1)
Numbers-wise, Lillard is coming off of an MVP-caliber season: 30.0 points and 8.0 assists with a 46/40/89 shooting line. But that was only good enough to land him eighth in the voting – one spot behind Chris Paul (17.6 PPG, 6.7 APG). Bottom line: the Blazers have to win more games, and right now it's unclear how they'll achieve that. A healthy Jusuf Nurkic and a healthy Zach Collins will help, but Portland will face an uphill battle navigating the ultra-deep Western Conference.
Jayson Tatum (20/1)
He was essentially a nightly 26-10-5 after the All-Star break, but Tatum will need to become even more efficient, while eliminating the random 5-for-18 and 6-for-19 nights that continued to plague him into the playoffs. Like all of the players in this zone, Tatum probably needs a little luck, and a means of shaping a narrative, to truly make a case for the award. Maybe that comes in the form of the Celtics upgrading the roster and unseating Milwaukee as the prohibitive top team in the East.
After Butler, Jokic, Lillard and Tatum, there's a significant drop-off to the longshot candidates, which begin with Joel Embiid and Kyrie Irving at 40/1. We won't go into a ton of depth, but here's a quick look at a handful of the players listed at 40/1 or higher.
Joel Embiid (40/1): Embiid is probably the last player on this list who could conceivably win the award. But there's a reason he's listed at this price. Health and conditioning remain major concerns.
Donovan Mitchell (50/1): If you force me to pick a longshot, Mitchell is probably the guy. But it would require him to play an entire season at the (wildly unsustainable) level we saw in Round 1 against the Nuggets.
Zion Williamson (60/1): The counting stats look fine, but Williamson's rookie year was extremely concerning from a health and conditioning perspective. Plus, his defensive impact was nowhere near the level most expected.
Karl-Anthony Towns (100/1): Injuries played a role, but looking back it's hard to believe Towns was 10/1 entering last season. He should bounce back in 2021, but Minnesota won't win nearly enough games to push him into contention.
Chris Paul (150/1): Not bad value for last season's seventh-place finisher, but that felt like the absolute best-case scenario given Paul's age and injury history.
T.J. Warren (200/1): Don't even think about it.
Draymond Green (500/1): This is actually an insult to Draymond, who was inexplicably 50/1 entering last season.
Malik Beasley (500/1): Why?
Christian Wood (500/1): WHY?
Derrick Rose (500/1): Always a lock to make these lists, no matter what. People love Derrick Rose.