Time to rekindle the fire: The NBA return is fast approaching.
If all goes according to plan, the 2019-20 season will tip off July 30 in the bubble of Orlando, Florida. There, 22 teams will resume play in the quest to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy and earn bragging rights as the NBA Finals champion.
On those rosters, select talent has aspirations for the league’s top awards, ranging from MVP to Rookie of the Year to Defensive Player of the Year to Sixth Man of the Year.
While several of these awards could have gone down to the wire, all voting will be based on performances up until March 11, when the league first shut down.
With the return of the NBA comes an uptick in legalized sports betting. Time to get skin in the game on these player futures.
The only question is: Who ya got?
Who to bet on for MVP
The best MVP races involve balance — a neck-and-neck-and-neck sprint to the finish line. Pundits and talking heads are taking sides, spewing hot takes and berating anyone who disagrees.
But not all races can be like that of 1989-90, when Charles Barkley earned the most first-place votes only to see Magic Johnson win the title during a year when the top three players were separated by a mere 72 voting points.
It would be nice to think this would at least be a two-horse race, like 15 years ago when Steve Nash edged Shaquille O’Neal by 34 points.
The case for: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Really, though, it seems like this season’s MVP already has an engraved plate for Giannis Antetokounmpo, giving the Milwaukee Bucks forward his second straight award.
The Greek Freak is averaging career-best per-game totals of 29.6 points and 13.7 rebounds. He ranks third in the league in scoring and is tied for third in boards while also averaging nearly six assists per game, helping the Bucks to the league’s best record and potentially leading the franchise to its first championship since 1971.
If he won, Antetokounmpo would become the second player in league history to claim a second MVP before turning 26 years old, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
The case for: LeBron James
Speaking of James, he’s won four MVPs and could join Abdul-Jabbar (six) and Bill Russell and Michael Jordan (each with five) as the NBA’s lone five-time or more winners.
Along with 25.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, James is averaging a career-best and league-high 10.6 assists per contest. If it’s enough to earn the MVP, James will join Jordan and Karl Malone as the only players to win the top award after turning 35 years old.
The great Wilt Chamberlain went six years between MVPs in the 1960s. As James’ last came in 2013, another MVP this season (or any season hereafter) would set the mark for longest gap between winning the league’s top individual honor.
Certainly, though, James will find his way high up on voters’ ballots. And no doubt he will at least finish in the top five for the 14th time in 15 seasons.
|Giannis Antetokounmpo -5000
|Giannis Antetokounmpo -2400
|LeBron James +1000
|LeBron James +1100
|Anthony Davis +10000
|James Harden +8000
|Luka Doncic +10000
|Luka Doncic +8000
|James Harden +10000
|Kawhi Leonard +9500
|*Odds before teams reported to Orlando
Who to bet on for Rookie of the Year
The rookie class this season was, ahem, not so great — although few expected it to be. Really, all eyes were on the first two picks of last year’s draft: Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
Granted, several first-year players have performed well. Kendrick Nunn has averaged 15.6 points per game, second-most among rookies, for the Miami Heat while dishing out 3.4 assists. Along with Morant, Brandon Clarke has helped the Memphis Grizzlies get into playoff position by averaging 12 points on 62.3% shooting while pulling down 5.8 boards and totaling 42 blocks.
Still, the Rookie of the Year comes down to two players. And really, it’s only one.
The case for Ja Morant
Of the last 70 ROY awards given, including three years with ties, 49 went to players who led rookies in scoring. That includes eight of the past 10.
In leading Memphis to the eighth seed in the Western Conference, Morant ranks second among first-year players with 17.6 points per game. However, he has played in 40 more games and over 1,200 minutes more than the leader, Williamson.
To boot, Morant ranks first among rooks with 6.9 assists and is in the top 10 with 2.2 rebounds.
While Williamson will likely top rookie scorers, Morant is the heavy favorite to win ROY, especially considering he has the Grizzlies on the threshold of their first playoff appearance in three years and one win shy of tying last year’s total. Consider that last season, obviously, included 82 games, while Memphis has played 16 fewer games to this point.
As such, Morant would join Ben Simmons (2017-18) and Malcolm Brogdon (2016-17) as winners who didn’t lead rookies in scoring in the past four years.
The case for: Zion Williamson
In the 67-year history of the Rooke of the Year award, no player has claimed the honor after playing fewer than 50 games.
Due to injuries, recovery and rest, Williamson has played in just 19 games this year. That alone seemingly disqualifies the No. 1 overall pick.
That said, Williamson has shined in his limited action, hauling in 6.8 rebounds per game (second among rookies) while leading first-year players with 23.6 points per game.
As it stands, Williamson’s scoring average ranks as the best since David Robinson put up 24.3 points in 1989-90.
It’s difficult to ignore Williamson’s dominance, something that has helped the New Orleans Pelicans sit within 3.5 games of the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot.
However, while New Orleans is certainly better with him on the floor (10-9 with Zion on the floor, 24-39 without), Williamson owns one of the worst +/- ratings among rookies.
|Ja Morant -10000
|Zion Williamson +1400
Who to bet on for Defensive Player of the Year
If NBA betting odds indicate anything, history will be made this season.
Only Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) and Michael Jordan (1987-88) have won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Currently, Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win the top defensive honor. And if he also claims the MVP, as odds show, the Greek Freak will join that short list. But the man who beat him last season, Rudy Gobert, should not be discounted.
The case for: Giannis Antetokounmpo
As noted above, Antetokoumpo is in the midst of a career year. His 13.7 rebounds per game is tied for third, and he leads the NBA in double-doubles and player efficiency rating.
He has proven to be the catalyst for a Milwaukee defense that has allowed the lowest field goal percentage (41.3) in the league while giving up the fifth-fewest points (107.4) per game.
All told, in the year of the Giannis, it seems as if Antetokounmpo could avenge the 2019 vote, in which he fell short of Gobert for the Defensive Player of the Year.
The case for: Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz center is the two-time defending DPOY. This season, he ranks sixth with two blocks per game and is tied with Antetokounmpo with 13.7 rebounds.
The Stifle Tower no doubt affects opponents’ game plans and certainly has an impact on any shots put up in the lane.
On top of the stats, that last fact also deserves serious consideration. Because while Gobert might be averaging his fewest blocks per game in six years, his effect is apparent, as the Jazz have allowed the third-lowest two-point field goal percentage (54.5%) on nonblocked shots.
Only Dwight Howard has three-peated as Defensive Player of the Year. A win this season would put Gobert in the same category.
|Giannis Antetokounmpo -500
|Anthony Davis +350
|Rudy Gobert +2500
Who to bet on for Sixth Man of the Year
Perhaps the most wide-open race among these categories, the Sixth Man of the Year is perhaps the most underrated award, one dominated by the Western Conference in recent history.
Each of the last four winners came from the West, as have 13 of the past 17 recipients. This year’s four front-runners include just one player from the East: Derrick Rose of the already-eliminated Detroit Pistons.
While the former MVP is averaging his best points and assists since 2011-12 while also shooting a career-best 49% from the field, Rose is likely out of the running here, especially when you consider that only one player in the past 25 years won Sixth Man of the Year playing for a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
That said, should Rose pull off the upset, he’ll join James Harden and Bill Walton as the only players to win a Sixth Man of the Year and MVP in their careers.
The cases for: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder
Only Jamal Crawford has won as many Sixth Man of the Year awards as Williams. The Los Angeles Clippers guard and Crawford have combined for six of the last 10 awards and five of the past six.
This year, Williams is pouring in 18.7 points per game and averaging a career-high 5.7 assists. Among 19 players averaging at least those totals, Williams has started the fewest games. He’s the epitome of the Sixth Man.
Funnily enough, the Clippers have another player in that boat, as Montrezl Harrell has only started twice yet is averaging career highs in points (18.6) and rebounds (7.1). Like Williams, of 19 players posting those marks, Harrell has started the fewest games.
Sportsbooks favor Dennis Schroder, however, as the Oklahoma City Thunder guard is recording 19 points per game while playing behind Chris Paul.
Certainly, Schroder has a chance, but 19 times over the past 25 seasons, the Sixth Man of the Year has gone to a player on a team that finished in the top four of its respective conference. The Clippers are second in the West; the Thunder are fifth.
|Dennis Schroder -335
|Montrezl Harrell +250
|Lou Williams +800
|Derrick Rose +5000