Early Tuesday afternoon, I floated a theory with some colleagues and close personal friends.
Many met it with pushback, others saw the place I was coming from.
The theory? There is a path for Jalen Brunson to win MVP this season.
I know, crazy. But all I ask is you hear me out. New York Knicks bias aside.
I bet him at +20000 odds at DraftKings Sportsbook to win the award on Tuesday night after the Knicks thrashed the Utah Jazz for their 14th win this month and second straight without Julius Randle (dislocated shoulder). I believe that Brunson's excelllence can push the Knicks far enough up in the standings that he can warrant MVP consideration.
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I’m currently holding Nikola Jokic and Jayson Tatum MVP tickets, and I feel great about Jokic, who is +115 to win his third league MVP.
Still, having a long shot like Brunson in the portfolio is something that I believe is necessary. I’m not saying he’s going to – or even should – win this award at this point in the season. Instead, this is more of an investment on odds that I believe are mispriced. Maybe all we get out of it is a cash out option, but it is worth the investment.
After New York’s win on Tuesday, the team pulled into sole possession of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks just put together their most wins in a month since the 1993-94 season. The team is 31-17 through 48 games. To put this in perspective, New York was 32-18 at the All-Star break when it earned the No. 2 seed in the East behind an MVP-caliber season from Carmelo Anthony.
The top two seeds in the East are almost certainly going to Milwaukee and Boston, but the No. 3 seed is where things matter.
Well, Since 1983, only Russell Westbrook (2016-17) and Nikola Jokic (2021-22) have won an MVP without being a top-three seed. They were both the No. 6 seed.
That’s right, of the last 40 NBA MVPs, 38 of them have come from a top-three seed.
Is that a fool-proof way to bet the MVP? No, but there is a reason why the award has been primarily given to teams with good records.
This may be an individual award, but a player’s impact on winning is also highly valued by the voters.
Remember, a huge reason why Jokic is a yearly MVP candidate is because of his crazy on/off numbers. This season, that’s the case again, as Denver is +10.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and -8.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s off.
Now, back to Brunson.
There is a path for New York to earn a top-three seed in the East, and it’s going to take Brunson’s best basketball.
Similar to when Jokic lost Jamal Murray a few season ago to a turn ACL and still went on to win MVP, Brunson has now lost his co-star (Randle) for what looks like it will be a significant chunk of the season.
Yet, if the Knicks can outplay the Philadelphia 76ers and earn the No. 3 spot, how can Brunson not be considered as one of the game’s most valuable players?
The MVP — based on the current odds — is a five, maybe six, player race.
- Nikola Jokic
- Joel Embiid
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Luka Doncic
- Jayson Tatum
There’s no doubt Jokic will be in the running.
Embiid’s case is in serious jeopardy, as he can only miss five more games the rest of the season or he won’t meet the 65-game threshold for the award (implemented in the new collective bargaining agreement).
While Joel may be the MVP right now, I wrote earlier this month why he isn’t worth betting on. With a bad knee and the Sixers holding playoff aspirations, it would be shocking to see Embiid meet the threshold he needs to win the MVP.
Gilgeous-Alexander is a curious case — as he has a similar argument to Brunson. SGA is the clear leader on a team many didn’t view as a contender, that has suddenly jumped into a top-three spot in the West.
Can OKC hold off surging Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns squads for a top-three spot. As someone who is holding another longshot ticket on OKC to win the Finals (+8500), I’d hope so. But that is far from guaranteed.
SGA is all the way down to +350 to win the league’s MVP, and it’s warranted, but his numbers aren’t so much better than Brunson’s to consider Brunson completely out of his league.
While SGA is averaging more points per game (31.3 to Brunson’s 26.7), the Knicks point guard currently averages more assists per game and shoots over eight percent better from 3. Gilgeous-Alexander clearly bests Brunson in Player Impact Estimate and Box Plus/Minus this season (again, that’s why he’s +350 to Brunson’s +20000), but these players are in similar situations.
SGA has taken an OKC team that had lower expectations than the Knicks to a top-three seed, but I also think this young OKC team could be in greater jeopardy of giving up said spot in the standings come the end of the season.
The path for SGA is very similar to Brunson in terms of their team situations. That's all I'm saying.
I also mentioned that I already have a Tatum ticket, but I find it hard to see him winning MVP when his numbers have taken a step back this season – due to the improved team around him.
Tatum is averaging 3.2 fewer points to go with less rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game this season. He’s still putting up great numbers, but what if I told you Jalen Brunson entered Tuesday averaging 0.2 less points per game than Tatum while shooting better from the field and from 3?
Kinda wild, huh?
Tatum’s MVP simply may not be there because of how great the surrounding parts are for him.
The same may go for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who I am much lower on than the market right now. Giannis has MVP-caliber numbers, but he’s playing on an elevated cast from last season (the team added Damian Lillard) and the Milwaukee Bucks are currently behind Boston in the standings.
Unlike Brunson and SGA, Giannis’ team isn't elevating above preseason expectations. In some people’s eyes, the team may be falling short at this point in the season. I think that hurts his MVP case.
Remember, people vote on these awards, and naturally there are narratives crafted. So, we have to consider that when talking about these candidates. There is a way to poke holes in Antetokounmpo’s case with the narrative above. It may not be fair, but it’s reality when the voting comes in on these markets.
Lastly there is Doncic, who no doubt has the best numbers of any candidate (34.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 9.6 APG).
The problem? His team is seventh in the Western Conference and tied with the team that has the No. 8 seed (New Orleans). If Doncic doesn’t meet the top-three seed threshold, history tells us that it is extremely unlikely he wins the award.
It’s also worth noting that Jokic and Westbrook led teams to 48 and 47 wins in their MVP seasons. If Doncic gets there, he’ll certainly have more of a chance to break the trend.
There’s also the question of the on/off numbers (although Doncic is third in the NBA in Player Impact Estimate).
Here’s how the six contenders stack up in terms of their cumulative net rating in on/off splits this season:
- Jokic: +18.2
- Giannis: +12.3
- SGA: +11.9
- Embiid: +8.5
- Tatum: +3.3
- Doncic: +0.5
That’s a huge drop off.
As for Brunson, he entered Tuesday night’s game at +4.2. The Knicks won by 15 against Utah, and he posted a plus/minus of +19 in that game.
The Final Case for Jalen Brunson to Win MVP
Summing up my Brunson argument is simple.
There are only going to be six teams with a top-three seed in the NBA this season, and there’s a real chance the Knicks get there playing a large chunk of the second half of the season without their second best player – the only player on the team to this point who has ever been named an All-Star (Randle). It's also worth noting that with Emiid's lingering knee injury, the Sixers play may continue to fall off, making it that much easier for the Knicks to secure a top three seed.
When you solely look at how valuable a player is to their team, Brunson has taken the Knicks to heights that nobody expected he would when the team signed him prior to the 2022-23 season.
While I will admit that some of his numbers pale in comparison to these other candidates, there is a way to craft an MVP conversation around his impact of taking a team viewed as a non-title contender into a position to contend for one this season.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with this bet or take, but it’s more about betting him at a number I think is incorrect.
As of Tuesday night, Brunson is behind Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Tyrese Haliburton, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Edwards, Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox in the latest MVP odds.
If Tyrese Haliburton – who has missed several games at this point in the season – is +10000 to win the MVP on a team that is sixth in the East and on the verge of being in the play-in conversation, then Jalen Brunson should at least be there as well.
If the Knicks can continue to thrive without Randle, the Brunson narrative is only going to grow stronger.
Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.