NBA Futures: Why LeBron James Is a Great MVP Bet
In our personal lives, we can sometimes take our significant others, parents or friends for granted. But in the same way, we as sports fans often fail to appreciate athletes' greatness while we have them.
Exhibit A: LeBron James.
Some people just aren't LeBron fans while others simply dismiss him as a living legend in favor of Michael Jordan and (at least at one time) Kobe Bryant. Now, the sports world is ready to bash him for his style of parenting, hate on his love of Taco Tuesday, or write The King off for a number of reasons, including a one-year playoff drought.
It would appear the oddsmakers are somewhat over James' dominance as well. Over at FanDuel Sportsbook he has just the fourth-best odds to win the NBA MVP in 2020. At +750, he trails favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo (+270), as well former winners Stephen Curry (+550) and James Harden (+600). And not far off is new teammate Anthony Davis and now in-arena rival Kawhi Leonard, who both check in with +950 odds at the award.
Has the lack of respect gone too far though? Has it gone so far as to create betting value in a 34-year-old MVP candidate? Yes -- yes, it has.
Bulletin Board Material
Something we can't really quantify is James' drive. We know he's an ultra-competitive athlete looking to add to his title count, but there might be a little more fuel to the fire with all that's transpired since he put on a Laker uniform.
Not only did his Los Angeles Lakers miss out on the playoffs this past year, but the franchise has spiraled into chaos. Luke Walton was fired, Magic Johnson stepped down and the Lakers paid a high price to put a young star at LeBron's side.
To only add to the underdog, comeback, whatever-you-want-to-call-it narrative, a recent ESPN survey suggests that a small chunk of the NBA thinks James' age has caught up to his on-court dominance. Of 20 coaches, executives and scouts, not one picked him as the best player in the NBA. Kawhi topped the list with 12 votes, followed by Giannis at six and Harden at two.
There is a lot to be said for the rise of the Claw and the Greek Freak, but it's amazing what one down season can do. In last year's GM survey, it was LeBron leading the way with 30% of the available preseason MVP votes. The year before he garnered 50% of the vote with no other player higher than 29% (Kevin Durant) and only Russell Westbrook edging him out to ultimately win the award.
There is such a thing as voter's fatigue, but that doesn't really apply here. James hasn't captured an MVP since 2012-13, and his 11th-place finish in voting a year ago is the lowest of his career. That is saying something.
What that hints at is LeBron's permanent place in the MVP conversation. Prior to 2018-19, he finished in the top 10 in MVP shares in every single season, which included a 13-year run in the top five, 10 top-three finishes and four wins. Altogether, he took 61.2% of the maximum MVP votes in that span of time.
His numbers were as mind-blowing as you might think.
This past year he experienced a bit of a dropoff in the form of 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists along with 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks. He accomplished the feat in a career-low 35.2 minutes per game, and if taken over 36 minutes that amounts to a 28.0, 8.6 and 8.4 line.
In comparison, the previously mentioned 13-year run comes to 25.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists per 36 minutes of work. His 2018-19 production jumped by 8.0%, 22.1% and 23.0% in those areas.
Back in 2016-17, Westbrook eclipsed 28, 8 and 8 per 36 to take home the hardware. Harden did it the same year and received the second-most votes at 74.6% of the max. To discount James repeating last year's production and getting MVP consideration would be a mistake.
Just Another Number
At 34-going-on-35, LeBron will need some help to both put up big numbers and compete in a loaded Western Conference, but that's why Davis was brought on board. The efficiency and smoothness of his game should help do the same for James', and it might even allow him to take nights off and play at max form (read: put up the best numbers he can) when he does take to the floor.
In last year's 37-win season, James was held to only 7.2 win shares, but he was limited to 55 games and was forced to shoulder a 31.6% usage rate. Davis, in his own short season, used 29.5% of his team's offensive possessions and chipped in 9.5 win shares over 56 appearances. For the third straight year he improved his player efficiency rating, with his 30.3 mark third in all the league.
More directly, Davis' ability to both catch and shoot and finish up top at the rim should help James rack up the easy assists. According to NBA Stats, the big man knocked down 76 of 186 (40.9%) catch-and-shoot attempts last year in addition to 70 of 85 (82.4%) alley-oop attempts, while 346 of his 530 (65.3%) total makes were assisted on. As a team, Los Angeles (outside of James) shot 34.0% on catch-and-shoots and converted a not-so-bad 81.7% of their oop attempts but also saw only 60% of their makes on assists, 21.7% of which came from LeBron (an assist percentage of 39.4% while on the floor).
Brow will definitely play into James' strengths, but it's also not unprecedented to see an elder statesman of his caliber win the MVP. Back in 1998-99, Karl Malone won it at the age of 35 with 23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists for a 37-13 Utah Jazz squad. Jordan is the only other player to win it past the age of 33, doing so in the year before that, having averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists across 38.8 minutes per game.
Sound familiar? James logged over 35 minutes a year ago and averaged 36-plus in the two years prior. Being an older player, playing big minutes and producing at an MVP level is not without precedent. We're talking once-in-a-generation players, but James is not only that -- he's one that's put millions of dollars toward taking care of his body.
James is fighting an uphill battle in a few ways, however, of anyone's track record and preparation his should help to propel him to the top.
Return of the King
At +750, LeBron carries implied odds of 11.76% to win this year's MVP. That's 15.3% short of Giannis' implied odds, which seem a bit high for what would be a repeat winner. Only the elite of elite players have managed to be crowned MVP two years in a row, and while there's an opportunity for Antetokounmpo to play to that level he still has some things to prove for such an overwhelming favorite.
In looking elsewhere, we see that there's even more value in betting James' odds at FanDuel Sportsbook. According to OddsFire, The King is +550 on DraftKings Sportsbook, where he's tied for the second-shortest odds and commands implied odds of 15.38% -- the same as Curry and within 10% of Giannis (+300). He's also +700 at Caesars, slotting him in a three-way tie for fourth and leaving room for a little more return over at FanDuel.
When you're getting a discount on a living legend with something (seemingly) still to prove, why not take a shot and hope for history to play out once again.