Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year draw the most attention in the NBA awards betting market, for obvious reasons. And Luka Doncic and James Wiseman/LaMelo Ball are the favorites in those categories for obvious reasons.
But there are markets for Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year – and that is where we are focusing our attention today in our never-ending quest to highlight wagering opportunities that are available in the legalized US sports gambling market.
Coach of the Year
Steve Clifford has the Orlando Magic in second place in the Eastern Conference, and Monty Williams has the Phoenix Suns tied for first place in the West. So you’d think the sportsbooks would be giving those two coaches the same respect they are giving Lloyd Pierce of the Atlanta Hawks, who is the +700 favorite to be named NBA Coach of the Year, according to BetMGM.
But that is not the case.
Williams is on the board at +1000, which seems reasonable – the same odds as Doc Rivers of the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers. But Clifford is sitting at +5000 at the same book, which is one of many headscratchers we are going to look at today in assessing the NBA futures market for individual awards.
“Less than 1% of bets are on Steve Clifford to win the award,” said John Ewing, a spokesman for BetMGM.
Clifford at +5000 is astonishing because the Magic are having this much success despite being without Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL), Evan Fournier (knee), James Ennis (hamstring), Al Farouq Aminu (knee) and now Markelle Fultz (torn ACL). Those players represent a significant amount of experience for a team led by Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross.
Most Improved Player
Keldon Johnson of the San Antonio Spurs went for 22 points Sunday night on 10-for-16 shooting after going for 26 two nights earlier against the Lakers. Tuesday night, he had nine points and 11 rebounds in a road victory over the Clippers. He is shooting 55% from the field this month and is averaging 15.1 points as a starter after playing only 17 games last season for coach Gregg Popovich.
Johnson’s scoring average is the third-highest on the team – 2.6 points better than LaMarcus Aldridge’s. Pop has said of him: “I think he’s been extraordinary. He’s 100% aggressive and physical. He’s got a great motor. He’s willing to learn. He’s been our brightest spot in that regard.”
Yet Johnson is practically a non-factor in the sports gambling world when it comes to top candidates for the Most Improved Player award. BetMGM had him listed at odds of +25000 on Wednesday before dropping him to +10000 today. DraftKings Sportsbook has him at +5000, and FanDuel has him at +4200.
That is quite a disparity for a second year player who is a key member of San Antonio’s starting five just a year after he was the 29th pick of the first round out of Kentucky.
Much of this disparity comes because Christian Wood of the Houston Rockets has taken the league by storm this season after coming over from the Detroit Pistons, averaging 23.8 points and 12.8 rebounds as he plays for his sixth team in six seasons. Wood has overtaken Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder – the preseason favorite – and is now the heavy favorite to win the award at most books.
“We have not taken much action on either Steve Clifford to win Coach of the Year or Keldon Johnson for Most Improved,” PointsBet spokesman Michael Korn said. “For reference though we opened Steve Clifford at +4000 to win (COY) and now his price has moved to +1600. Keldon Johnson opened at +10000 (for MIP) and is now +4500. Some pretty significant moves.”
It is worth mentioning that the season is not even three weeks old, and what looks like a lock in early January can look like a foolish bet come May. There is a lot of basketball left to be played, and the player who sustains his success over the course of the season will be the one who gets the award. Making the playoffs is a factor, too, and we do not know if that is going to happen with the Rockets until we learn what they are going to do with James Harden.
Other top contenders for Most Improved Player include Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets), Jaylen Brown (Celtics) and Collin Sexton (Cavs). But each of them was a known commodity to a certain degree, whereas Johnson has come out of nowhere.
That is the tricky thing about wagering in the NBA futures market. Before Klay Thompson got hurt again, the Golden State Warriors were right there with the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers as favorites to come out of the West. Now? Barring a trade for Harden, they will be lucky to see the second round.
Rookie of the Year is another category that takes a while to develop. Right now, Ball of Charlotte is the co-favorite with Wiseman of Golden State at most books. But since it is early in the season, every single NBA coach is going with the veteran players he believes will give his team a chance to finish Top 10 in the conference (for a shot at either a top seed or at least a spot in the new Play-In Tournament). But by the time February rolls around and we know who the contenders and the pretenders are, a bunch of rookies now riding the pine will get a chance to blossom. So an especially clear crystal ball is needed there.
Defensive Player of the Year
Defensive Player of the Year is another tricky one to figure, because voters often pick the one player they believe had the most impact defensively, often by leading the league in blocked shots. Right now, that player is Myles Turner of Indiana, but a terrific on-the-ball defender such as a Jrue Holiday or Eric Bledsoe or Patrick Beverley may turn some heads if they can lock down a couple of great opponents in marquee games. Right now, Anthony Davis is favored to win Defensive Player of the Year while Rudy Gobert, Giannis, Bam Adebayo and Ben Simmons are getting consideration.
But again, it’s early. And Turner, averaging a whopping 4.1 blocks, is +2000 at PointsBet, +4000 at BetMGM, +3000 at DraftKings Sportsbook and +1900 at FanDuel. And with Indiana one of the states that permits sports gambling, there are opportunities for the savvy shopper.
Doncic of Dallas remains the top MVP candidate despite getting off to a sub-par start to the season. He is followed by Giannis – whose team is not exactly off to the kind of start they got off to last year.
Trae Young of Atlanta has seen his odds shrink from 100-1 to 40-1 and an argument can be made that Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George of the Clippers may be worthy candidates when all is said and done. George can be found as high at +8000 at DraftKings Sportbook.
Wagers made in January that will not pay off for several months are not for everyone, but those gamblers who are both patient and prescient can get paid handsomely.