NBA MVP 2021: Betting value on James Harden to win Most Valuable Player
There is still time to get on 'The Beard'
Back in late February I wrote about the NBA MVP picture.
At the time, LeBron James was running away with the award while Joel Embiid lurked as the second choice.
Since then, the Los Angeles Lakers have regressed heavily with Anthony Davis sidelined and James sprained his ankle. Around the same time, the new favorite Embiid injured his knee.
With those injuries, the MVP race opened up, and it brings me back to February and a name I mentioned: James Harden.
The 2017-2018 league MVP had fallen out of public favor with his public trade request from Houston early in the season to Brooklyn. But, Harden now sits as the second betting favorite to take home the hardware at FanDuel Sportsbook.
In 32 games since arriving in Brooklyn, Harden is averaging over 26 points, a career high 11.4 assists, and nearly nine rebounds per game.
The Nets are 25-7 when Harden plays and are tied for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
I mentioned during my first piece that super teams such as the Nets tend to cancel out MVP candidates. This Nets roster has overwhelming talent on hand and Harden’s usage rate has been on the decline due to playing alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
However, Durant has missed 22 of Brooklyn's last 23 games with COVID-19 protocols and a hamstring strain. The Nets, despite their dominant play, have been shorthanded and Harden has been nothing short of excellent.
The Beard’s usage rate has spiked month over month, going from 25.3% in January, to 28.9% in February, all the way up to 33% in March. For reference, Luka Doncic leads the NBA in usage percentage with over 35%.
Harden is functioning as a high usage player once again, but it’s not the same offense that he was part of in Houston. The Nets have moved Kyrie Irving into a secondary creator role and have surrounded Harden with some of the best shooters he's ever had. Yes, the talent is an upgrade, but the ball is still revolving around Harden.
The Nets have the third best offense on a points per possession basis, per Cleaning the Glass, and the best effective field goal percentage in the league.
Brooklyn is the betting favorite to win the NBA title and Harden's play has shot down any concerns of the 'one ball' theory since he's arrived.
For the MVP race, there is going to be some voter backlash towards 'The Beard'
He forced his way out of a crumbling situation in Houston in a public and messy matter. There will be voters who can’t look past that and don’t see him worthy of being the MVP.
On the flip side, after the Harden trade, the Rockets had a 20-game losing streak and are currently tied for the second worst record in the league at 13-33. The loss of Harden has been devastating to Houston so much so, that if you look through another lens, the trade should bolster his case.
Harden is second to Nikola Jokic at all shops. The Denver big man has put together a fantastic season, but the Nuggets have been inconsistent this season and currently sit 5th in a crowded Western Conference at 29-18.
It’s tough to not stare in awe of Jokic’s stat line this season. The numbers are similar to Harden’s, yet with much more efficiency. He’s averaging 26/11/8 on 57/42/86 shooting splits and is leading the league in a bevy of offensive advanced metrics such as offensive win shares and offensive box plus minus.
In terms of betting value, Jokic is not worth the bet. At -130, I wouldn’t call him the overwhelming favorite to justify betting him at this number.
Denver improved the roster at the trade deadline by acquiring Aaron Gordon, but the Nuggets are going to need to put together a strong final stretch for Jokic to justify winning the award or be bet at this number.
The path for Harden is going to revolve around how the Nets finish the season. Durant has missed a ton of time and may miss another week as Brooklyn takes it easy on him to prepare for a Finals run.
Tied with Philadelphia for the No. 1 seed and four games back of the Jazz for the best record, the Nets are going to need to grab the top seed and close the gap with Utah behind Harden’s fantastic play.
+500 is equal to around 17% implied probability. With the Nuggets still needing to improve their overall play and the ability for the Nets to take the top seed in the conference, I see some value in still betting Harden.
Of course, the value is not where it was a month ago, when Harden was closer to +5000. Even so, I think this number should be closer to +350 and there is too much credit for Jokic and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference in the market right now.