After competing head-to-head for Rookie of the Year honors in 2018, could Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons face off in this year’s MVP race? As dark horse MVP candidates go, it’s a scenario I could see happening.
First, I should establish what I mean when we’re I say dark horse. The term “dark horse” originates in the horse racing world where unknown or little-known horses would enter a race and surprisingly win the race. The term was eventually adopted into the wider world of politics and sports and is now more often used to mean an unlikely winner than an unknown winner.
So, a dark horse for MVP is somebody who doesn’t seem likely to win it. For me that means it’s not anybody in the top-10 odds for MVP or anybody who has won the award before. That eliminates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Jasmes Harden, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and LeBron James as active players who have won MVP (although given Rose’s history he’s the one former winner I’d consider a true dark horse).
Using the odds from online gambling site Betonline, I would also eliminate Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George and Dame Lillard from “dark horse” status. They’re all listed as top-10 favorites for the MVP, even though the odds on some of those players are quite long.
So who remains as true dark horse candidates for MVP?
While it’s not always true, a good rule of thumb is that MVP honors are often bestowed upon the best player from the best team. In the 3-point era (1979-80 to present) the MVP winner’s team average finish in the overall league standings is No. 2. Of the 40 MVP winners in that time, only seven have won the award while their team finished lower than 2nd in the overall standings and of those seven, only 3 MVPs had teams finish outside the top 4. Moses Malone’s Rockets finished 8th in 1982, Michael Jordan’s Bulls were also 8th in 1988 and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder were 10th in 2017.
On the other hand, 92.5% of the time in the 3-point era, the MVP has been the best player from a top-4 team, and 82.5% of the time he has come from a top-2 team. If you’re going to bet on a player being MVP it’s best to bet on somebody who you think is on a top 2-4 team. In the loaded West, that could mean the Clippers, Lakers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets and Blazers. In the East, it looks like the 76ers and Bucks will lead the pack, followed by everybody else.
So back to the discussion of dark-horse candidates, the most interesting picks for a surprising MVP candidate would be a player who hasn’t won and is off the current MVP radar but who comes from one of those nine teams. But under the criteria I’ve established the best player on the Clippers (Kawhi), Lakers (LeBron), Warriors (Steph), Rockets (Harden), Nuggets (Jokic), Blazers (Dame), 76ers (Embiid) and Bucks (Giannis) would not qualify as a truly dark horse MVP candidate.
The Jazz are the only team among that top tier that does not have a former MVP or top-ten MVP candidate right now. But if the Jazz finish as a top-2 team, history has shown they will have an MVP candidate. It could be Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley Jr. or Mitchell who gets the most credit if the Jazz indeed put together that kind of season, and I would rank the three players in that order based on what they’ve already shown us.
But if the Jazz are able to finish as a top-2 team, it is most likely because someone will have performed outside of their established career norms. It’s not hard to imagine Mitchell taking a 3rd-year leap and playing the best basketball of his career to carry the Jazz to a new status, especially coming off his Team USA experience. He already has the star power and charisma. And as much as we like to think otherwise, offense is sexier than defense and narrative also drives MVP races. Among Jazzmen, I think Donovan is the most likely to have narrative support behind him as well.
At +1400, Donovan is tied for the 13th best MVP odds with Kyrie Irving. He’d be my dark horse from the Jazz.
And if he does claw his way into the MVP race, it very well could end up as a rematch from the 2018 Rookie of the Year race. The 76ers appear to be one of the powerhouses in the East, and while Embiid doesn’t fit the dark-horse criteria as a top-10 candidate going in, what if Simmons really does develop a jump shot? Simmons might also take a leap in his 3rd year playing and take the mantle of “best player on the 76ers” away from Embiid.
If he does that and the 76ers season goes as well as they hope I like Ben Simmons at +10000 odds for MVP, an 8-way tie for the 20th best MVP odds. (As an aside, Conley is one of the eight players who share those +10000 MVP odds, while Gobert is not currently on the board at Betonline.)
Could we see a rematch of one of 2018’s most heated awards races in 2020? It would take two true dark horse candidates emerging, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
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