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Nikola Jokic leapfrogs LeBron James in latest NBA MVP odds

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March 22nd, 2021

LeBron James’ NBA MVP campaign came to a grinding halt on Saturday when the 17-time All-Star sprained his right ankle in the second quarter of a 99-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

The 36-year-old James was averaging 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game at the time of his injury, and is now expected to be sidelined for a minimum of six-to-eight weeks. That timeline could cause him to miss up to 25 games, a fact not lost upon bookmakers.

Within hours of hobbling off the court, James’ odds of winning the 2021 NBA MVP award dropped dramatically from +175 to +600. The Los Angeles Lakers star now has the third shortest odds to win the trophy behind Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid.

MVP Winner 2020/2021

Sun, May 16 2021, 11:00 PM

Jokic, Nikola

-110

Embiid, Joel

+500

James, LeBron

+600

Antetokounmpo, Giannis

+800

Harden, James

+900

Lillard, Damian

+1400

Doncic, Luka

+1400

Curry, Stephen

+2000

Leonard, Kawhi

+5000

Mitchell, Donovan

+10000

It’s a precipitous fall from grace for a player who had been firmly atop the odds board for all but two weeks of the 2020-21 NBA season, but it's backed by plenty of historical data. With the exception of Bill Walton in 1978, no player has won league MVP honors while appearing in fewer than 86% of his team’s games. Simply put, durability matters to voters.

A groin injury cost LeBron a shot at a fifth MVP award during his first season in Los Angeles in 2018-19, and his latest injury will almost certainly deprive him of another.

On the positive side, James’ injury opens the door for Jokic to take home the hardware for the first time in his career. Let’s dive into the numbers and examine whether "The Joker" will become the NBA’s first Serbian-born MVP.

The case for Nikola Jokic

Jokic has made the leap from All-Star to superstar this season. The 26-year-old center is posting career highs in points (27.1), rebounds (11.2), assists (8.6), and steals (1.6) per game, and leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating (31.7). As impressive as those numbers are, they only tell half the story.

To truly appreciate Jokic’s magnificence you have to watch him in action. The Nuggets star is one of the most gifted passers in the game, and routinely sets up teammates with gorgeous no-look passes, crisp alley-oops, and deft pocket passes that most players of his size wouldn’t even dream of trying. He’s a walking triple-double and is, without question, the most valuable player on his team.

The case against Nikola Jokic

As great as Jokic has been this season, history isn’t working in his favor. A center hasn’t won MVP honors since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, and only three different pivots have won the award at all in the past 38 years. "Big Honey" will need to win over a lot of voters who view centers as something of a hindrance in today’s space and pace game.

Jokic also has to overcome the fact that the Nuggets simply aren’t an elite team. Denver is presently fifth in the Western Conference, which is noteworthy, because MVPs generally come from the best or second best teams in the league.

Since 1956, only four players have been named the NBA’s most valuable player while playing for a team that won fewer than 60% of its games. The list includes Bob Petit (1956), Bob McAdoo (1975), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1976), and Moses Malone (1979 and 1982). In each case, those players were head and shoulders above their competition, which is not necessarily the case with Jokic in 2020-21.

Jokic's MVP candidacy is no joke

More so than most seasons, the key to winning the NBA MVP award in 2021 appears to be good health, and that’s something Jokic has in spades. The dependable center has only missed two games over the past three seasons, and is among the most durable players in the league.

If Jokic remains healthy and the Nuggets improve upon their first-half winning percentage, then the MVP award is as good as his.

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