How the NBA Player Award Races Look Going into December

By Scott Kacsmar

As the NBA’s 2023-24 season nears December, we wanted to look at where the NBA player award races are among the top contenders in the betting odds. This includes Most Valuable Player (MVP), Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, and Sixth Man of the Year.

Most Valuable Player: Can Anyone Catch Jokic?

We wanted to compare where the MVP odds were in late October before opening night with where they stand today (odds via FanDuel). As you will see, not much has changed as the reigning Finals MVP continues to be a dominant player.

  • Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets, +200 (started +430)
  • Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, +550 (started +550)
  • Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers, +700 (started +850)
  • Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics, +850 (started +750)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, +1000 (started +600)
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder, +1300 (started +1900)
  • Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns, +2300 (started +1900)
  • Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns, +2600 (started +1900)
  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, +2600 (started +1400)

One of the biggest climbers is in fact Nikola Jokic, who has more than cut his odds in half to +200 to win what would be his third MVP award. Through 17 games, Jokic is averaging a career-high 28.8 points and a league-high 13.4 rebounds per game. He is also on pace to lead the NBA for the fourth season in a row in advanced metrics such as PER, Win Shares, and VORP (Value over Replacement Player). The Nuggets are also 12-6, though they did just win their first game without Jokic (back injury) this week.

One of the biggest drops is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has gone from No. 3 in the odds (+600) to No. 5 in the odds (+1000). It’s not like Giannis is underachieving for the Bucks and having a bad season. He just hasn’t been as dominant for the new-look Bucks who fired their coach and traded for Damian Lillard. Giannis is still averaging practically 30 points per game, but his PER (28.0) would be his lowest since 2017-18 and his Wins Shares per 48 Minutes (.179) would be at its lowest since 2015-16. Swapping out Jrue Holiday for Dame has led to Milwaukee declining on defense (dropped from No. 4 in Defensive Rating to No. 20 this year) and the Bucks have dropped from 12th to 24th in assists.

Luka Doncic is playing well as usual for Dallas, and he is one of the few talents who could seriously compete for MVP with Jokic. This will likely be contingent on Dallas continuing to win a lot of games, but at 11-6, the Mavericks are off to a solid start. But Doncic’s MVP odds remain unchanged from the preseason.

Similarly, Jayson Tatum is holding steady as the Celtics continue to crush teams and are 14-4. Tatum is shooting a career-best .494 from the field.

Last year’s MVP Joel Embiid is trending up as he started the year No. 5 in MVP odds (+850) and is now No. 3 (+700). Embiid is averaging 32.0 points per game and could win a third-straight scoring title to boast his case. But he may not be the best choice for a Philadelphia player to win an award this year (see below).

Phoenix’s star duo of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have fallen back as the team has not dazzled out the gate, and that was largely because Booker had an injury that cost him 8 early games. Since Booker returned, the Suns are 7-0. Now it’s Durant who has an injury that has cost him the last 2 games, so these players are likely not going to be in the MVP mix this year.

Steph Curry has also fallen off from +1400 to a +2600 longshot as the Warriors have started 8-10. Curry and the Warriors just blew a 24-point lead in Sacramento in a tournament game, so some of the road woes from last year have kept up, and the team is just not as great as it used to be.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has climbed the odds more than anyone, going from +1900 to +1300. He is the driving force behind this turnaround in Oklahoma City, and the Thunder are 5-0 when he scores at least 34 points this year. He could be a dark horse pick.

But so far, Jokic is holding court in this race. His back injury came as a bit of a surprise Monday night, but it does not sound like something that will keep him out long-term. He has been one of the most durable superstars in this era.

Rookie of the Year: Is Wembanyama No Longer the Favorite?

For the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, many thought Victor Wembanyama had a huge advantage over the field this season. He was +100 or better going into the season. However, with the way the NBA classifies rookies, Chet Holmgren is eligible for the award in Oklahoma City since he missed his entire rookie season with an injury last year.

The sportsbooks clearly see this as a 2-player race between Wembanyama and Holmgren. The other candidates, including Ausar Thompson (+10000) and Brandon Miller (+20000), already have astronomical odds of winning.

Depending on where (and when) you look, some sportsbooks have Holmgren favored over Wemby now. At FanDuel, Holmgren is -145 and Wemby is -110 to win Rookie of the Year. At other sportsbooks, Wemby is still -150 while Holmgren is +100 or -110.

This should be an interesting battle with a lot of variables to untangle. The Thunder (11-5) are going to win more games than the Spurs (3-14), but that was also expected. The Spurs need Wemby to be their best player now, and he is averaging a team-high 19.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, which would be strong numbers for a 20-year-old on a bad team.

Holmgren plays on a team with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an MVP candidate, but there is no denying he has flashed real potential this year too. Holmgren already has a game with 7 blocks, he has a win in Golden State where he scored a season-best 36 points, and he is shooting 43.8% from 3-point territory.

Wemby certainly delivered on the early hype. The Spurs were 3-2 with a pair of upset wins in Phoenix, including the game where he scored 38 points. But the Spurs have lost 12 straight games since that night, and Wemby is averaging 18.6 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 40.4% from the field and a lousy 25.8% from 3.

This race is probably going to fluctuate throughout the season, but Holmgren is trending up in this one. Holmgren also has better odds than Wemby for Defensive Player of the Year, which is our next award.

Defensive Player of the Year

This figures to be one of the more competitive awards, which it often is in the NBA. Here are the current odds leaders for Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) for everyone better than +2000 at FanDuel:

  • Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves (+400)
  • Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (+550)
  • Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers (+900)
  • Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat (+900)
  • Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies (+1300)
  • Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (+1300)
  • Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder (+1800)

Rudy Gobert has won this award three times in Utah, and he was a runner-up last year, his first season with Minnesota. He would tie Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace for the most DPOY awards with a fourth.

What goes into winning DPOY? A variety of things, but having a lot of blocks can usually get you in the conversation. Brook Lopez has the best block metrics this year, and players like Anthony Davis, Holmgren, and Gobert are all in the top five with at least 2.2 blocks per game this year.

But leading the league in Defensive Rating, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, is an even better metric to win this award. That’s what Jaren Jackson Jr. led the league in last year when he won the award, and Gobert has the best Defensive Rating right now for a Minnesota team that is 13-4 and doing very well.

Anthony Davis’ season has been disappointing offensively, but he may have a more consistent effort on defense. Still, he feels like an odd choice for the current runner-up to Gobert. The Lakers may not be good enough defensively for Davis to win the award. Los Angeles is only No. 11 in Net Rating. Most DPOY winners play on teams that rank No. 1 or No. 2 in Defensive Rating. The last player to win DPOY on a team ranked outside the top 5 in Defensive Rating was Marcus Camby for the 2006-07 Nuggets, who ranked No. 11 on defense. Camby led the NBA with 3.3 blocks per game that season. Davis has the second-highest block average (2.8 per game) of his career so far this season, but right now he doesn’t fit the profile of a DPOY winning season.

This should be Gobert’s award to lose. He has the pedigree, the consistency on defense, and is doing big things for Minnesota’s defense to fuel this strong start.

Most Improved Player of the Year

The NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year race has a clear favorite according to the odds at FanDuel:

  • Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers (+100)
  • Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors (+550)
  • Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets (+600)
  • Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets (+1800)
  • Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons (+2500)

A big reason why the 76ers are 12-5 and thriving after the James Harden trade is because point guard Tyrese Maxey has become a big-time player in his fourth season. He has answered the bell after the Harden trade and is averaging a career-high 26.6 points and 6.9 assists per game. He’s already had a 50-point game against Indiana this season, and the 76ers are 10-1 when he shoots better than 40%.

It will be hard for the field to catch up now that Maxey is the clear No. 2 player in Philly behind Joel Embiid. But center Alperen Sengun is having a nice season for Houston. He is averaging 20.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, a solid jump in offensive efficiency from his first two seasons. He is still only 21 years old.

Scottie Barnes already won Rookie of the Year in 2021-22. He’s had to do more for Toronto this year after the team let Fred VanVleet go to Houston. Barnes is up to 19.0 points per game and shooting the 3 better than ever and at a higher volume. He’s really the kind of player you’d only bet to win as insurance if Maxey had a serious injury and missed significant time.

But almost a quarter of the way through the season, this award is Maxey’s to lose.

Sixth Man of the Year

Finally, here are the current odds leaders from FanDuel for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, awarded to the best player who comes off the bench:

  • Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks (+300)
  • Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (+380)
  • Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers (+380)
  • Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets (+950)
  • Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Clippers (+1400)
  • Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings (+1600)
  • Caris LeVert, Cleveland Cavaliers (+1600)
  • Chris Paul, Golden State Warriors (+2300)

Had to throw in Chris Paul for amusement purposes. He actually hasn’t won any NBA awards since he was named the 2013 All-Star Game MVP.

But with three players having under +400 odds, this is our most competitive award of the season so far.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is 31 years old and probably wouldn’t mind a trophy to go along with having the lowest career turnover rate (7.5%) in NBA history. That can happen when you are Luka Doncic’s prominent catch-and-shoot guy, but Hardaway Jr. is doing well for Dallas with 17.1 points per game off the bench. He averages more 3-point attempts per game (8.9) than Kyrie Irving (7.2) does in this offense, so he has a clear role and plays it well for a team that looks like a contender again.

Immanuel Quickley fills a similar role for the Knicks as their No. 4 leading scorer (15.9 points per game), and one of their best 3-point shooters (37.5% on 5.5 attempts per game). He handles the ball a bit more than Hardaway Jr. as Quickley is averaging 3.1 assists.

Austin Reaves got paid by the Lakers for his strong playoff showing last spring, but it is hard to say he is living up to the hype to start this season. Compare his 16 playoff games to his first 18 regular season games in 2023-24 for the Lakers:

  • 2023 Playoffs: .464 FG%, .443 3P%, .895 FT%, 16.9 PTS, 4.4 REB, 4.6 AST, 15.4 PER
  • 2023-24 Regular Season: .460 FG%, .338 3P%, .844 FT%, 13.9 PTS, 4.9 REB, 5.1 AST, 14.8 PER

Not saying the Lakers have buyer’s remorse already, but Reaves has not had many big moments for a team that is trying to find help for an older LeBron James. At least Reaves is outplaying Russell Westbrook, but the old triple-double king has found himself a better role in Los Angeles with the Clippers where he has played more respectable basketball. But he is not likely to win this award.

The inclusion of Cam Thomas is interesting. He came off the bench to score 36 points against Cleveland on opening night, then started the next 7 games before an injury knocked him out of action and he hasn’t returned since. Shouldn’t moving to a starting role disqualify him from the Sixth Man award? He seems to be misplaced in this category.

Hardaway Jr. and Quickley could be the battle here as we see who stays more consistent and the most productive for their team.

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