Joel Embiid fending off Nikola Jokic, injury to be MVP betting favorite

ByDoug Greenberg ESPN logo
Saturday, January 27, 2024

Last season, it took a career- and league-high 33.1 points per game, and perhaps a bout of voter fatigue, for Joel Embiid to dethrone Nikola Jokic as the NBA's Most Valuable Player.

This season, the two superstar big men are the front-runners for the honor yet again, with Embiid taking a lead in the betting odds -- +140 on ESPN BET as of Saturday morning -- after a historic 70-point performance Monday pushed him to 36.0 PPG on the season.

Embiid and Jokic will go head-to-head for the second and final time this season when the 76ers face the Nuggets in Denver on Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET, ABC), a game that will presumably be another pivotal moment in the heated race.

But there's an added twist in this season's MVP competition that affects Embiid more than any other player vying for the NBA's top individual honor -- and that bookmakers have had to reckon with more and more as the season unfolds.

"Joel Embiid's main competition for NBA MVP at this point in the season is playing 65 games," BetMGM senior trader Halvor Egeland told ESPN. "In previous years, Embiid would have a minus in front of the [140] instead of a plus. It's an added wrinkle to the awards this year that we're closely monitoring."

Ahead of the 2023-24 campaign, the NBA instituted a new rule stating that a player must play at least 65 games to be eligible for any major individual award or an All-NBA team. The development is already having serious financial implications, and it's forcing sportsbooks to do more mental gymnastics when creating lines for awards futures, particularly as it pertains to the historically injury-prone Embiid.

It would explain why, despite being the reigning MVP, the 29-year-old opened the season at +650 to repeat at DraftKings -- behind Jokic (+450), Luka Doncic (+500) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+550).

As the season has progressed, however, the books have had to balance Embiid's undeniable excellence on the court with his ability to stay on it at all. His astonishing performances have only gotten more frequent and spectacular, culminating in his setting Philadelphia's franchise record for points in a game this week.

As such, the books have had to achieve a "balancing act," according to Caesars pro basketball lead David Lieberman, that involves constantly moving the lines to attract bets across the board. Lieberman said that during Monday's contest his team moved quickly to shorten Embiid's MVP future lines and capture some less "price sensitive" bettors.

"These awards are hard to win for the books, so anything we can do to stay ahead of the curve helps in the end," Lieberman said. "The whole market is based on narratives, what people see that night and 'What have you done for me lately?' stuff like that. So it can shift the odds tremendously in the blink of an eye."

Since Monday, many books saw a deluge of Embiid futures tickets, evening the full season betting splits; at ESPN BET, Jokic has attracted 14.7% of the bets, while Embiid has garnered 14.5%.

"The price that's posted right now is a 'don't get injured' price," said DraftKings director of race and sports operations Johnny Avello. "If [Embiid] stays healthy for the rest of the year and he plays the allocated games, I think it's his, but that's a big if."

Indeed, because he has already missed 10 games, the Sixers center can afford to sit out only seven of the 76ers' 39 remaining games if he wants any chance to repeat as MVP -- and there may be more important things on his mind.

"The goal is to be ready for the playoffs," Embiid told reporters earlier in January. "If I can't meet the criteria of 65 games ... as long as I'm ready to be dominant in that time in April, that's all I care about."

Should Embiid fail to hit the 65-game mark, it would initially appear to be Jokic's award to lose, to the benefit of his backers. But the inherent volatility and subjectivity of the award process could throw a wrench in all of that.

On Friday, Doncic dropped a 73-point game to vault himself into fourth place at +600 odds on ESPN BET. Perennial MVP contenders Antetokounmpo (11-1) and Jayson Tatum (40-1) hold significant sportsbook liability. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's breakout season has seen him fly up the ranks to be third in MVP odds at most books (+450 at ESPN BET).

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