NBA Awards: Through One-Fifth of the Season, Several Races Wide Open

There is an old saying that is kind of a dirty little secret when it comes to the NBA and the way the league does business internally: The season starts on Christmas Day, because that is when people start paying attention.

Gamblers know better, specially those who play the futures markets.

In New York, that requires a cross-border trip, because anything that is voted on by humans is verboten under New York’s gambling laws. But those who operate in the futures markets get around this by opening accounts in the border states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, where they can make player award futures bets. The $16 toll at the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel will be worth it for a few savvy folks.

While the futures markets can often appear to be a guessing game for the sportsbooks, the sharpest of gamblers are seeing opportunities throughout Adam Silver’s laissez-faire league. That’s where taking a night off to rest has become more common than dropping a 50-spot on someone. And he wonders why everyone is talking NFL and World Cup.

Today, with the NBA season now roughly one-fifth complete, we are going to take a look at the player and coaching award futures markets and see where things stand, and where there may be sleeper picks. As we are learning with the Zach Wilson drama surrounding the Jets and the injury troubles impacting the Giants, everything is day-to-day in professional sports. That applies to the NBA, too. The Golden State Warriors may have lost by 45 last night in New Orleans, but they are still the +700 third choice to emerge as the last team standing.

The next big day on the NBA calendar (aside from Ben Simmons’ return to Philadelphia tonight) is Dec. 15, when players who signed contracts over the summer become trade eligible. The Lakers have a bunch of those types of players, and at 5-10 despite a three-game winning streak, they should be looking to make moves. And you never know what might become of the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose Twin Towers lineup is not working. Rudy Gobert shot 0-for-0 and got booed last night.

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So let’s have a look at each individual award race and see where things stand, and where the sportsbooks may be missing someone.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER:

In a league where the very best team has a 13-4 record, shouldn’t the best player on that Boston Celtics be the favorite? Well, Jayson Tatum begins Tuesday at +450, trailing Luka Dončić of the 9th place (we use conference standings as the standard) Dallas Mavericks, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the second place Milwaukee Bucks at +290. Nobody else is under +1000, which just so happens to be the number assigned to Steph Curry, who sat out in New Orleans for the second time this season as the Warriors dropped to 1-9 on the road.

Analysis: Tatum should be the favorite. And Donovan Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers would be shorter than +1800 had the Cavs not lost five in a row following their 8-1 start. Tatum is among seven players averaging at least 30 points, and Mitchell is just shy at 29.8. It says here this looks like a three-man race between Tatum, Mitchell, and Antetokounmpo, and Dončić is a false favorite only because he leads the league in triple doubles with 4. If Cleveland wins the East, Mitchell may be a lock. And Cleveland trails Boston by just two games in the East and is 2-0 vs. Boston this season.

Longshot with a chance: Shai-Gilgeous Alexander is +5500 for Oklahoma City, which is 12th in the West. He is the league leader in buckets with 180.

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ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:

Paolo Banchero of the Orlando Magic was at -900 earlier this month and looking like a runaway winner. But an ankle injury has sidelined him since Nov. 7, and there has been no firm word from the Magic on when he is expected back. He was averaging 23.5 points per game, and the only other rookie near that number is Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin at 19.3 points per game coming off the bench, which is why he is listed as the +370 second choice. Detroit’s Jaden Ivey, the fifth overall pick out of Purdue, just had a 4-for-4 night from 3-point range against Sacramento and is worth watching. He is the third choice at +2400, and nobody else is lower than +8000.

Analysis: Injuries can ruin everything for gamblers who lock in on a hot rookie at a short price, as New York Jets fans learned when running back Breece Hall went down for the season when he seemed like a lock for the NFL’s rookie award. Mathurin is a solid player who is worthy of the second spot right now, but Ivey leads all rookies in buckets (101) and assists (4.1 per game) and is second in minutes (32.1) and steals (1.2). His odds would be shorter if he did not play for the team with the NBA’s worst record.

Longshot with a chance: There really isn’t one, but if Walker Kessler ever took over the starting spot in Utah from Jarred Vanderbilt, he might have a puncher’s chance. He is shooting nearly 70% and is priced at +50000.

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MOST IMPROVED PLAYER:

Gilgeous-Alexander is a worthy +110 favorite ahead of Utah’s Lauri Markannen (+440), and is as close to a lock as you can get as this juncture of the season. If the Thunder ever started winning with any consistency and he gets into the MVP debate, that is about the only thing that would keep him from handing this award off to Markannen, whose averages have gone from 14.8 ppg on 44.5% shooting with the Cavs last season to 22.4 ppg on 53.9% shooting for the Jazz this season. Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 52.6%, which is ridiculous for a volume shooting guard.

Analysis: This is a two-man race. Tyrese Maxey was making it a three-man race until he went down with a fractured left foot.

Longshot with a chance: It would take injuries to the two leaders to allow Bol Bol of Orlando (+4200) or Anfernee Simons of Portland (+5500) to get into the discussion. And multiple triple-doubles for Josh Giddey (+24000) to join them.

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SIXTH MAN AWARD:

This one is usually wide-open throughout the year, offering great value even into the month of March — although last year was different, when Tyler Herro ran away with the award before December was over. This year, with so many starters taking nights off to rest, it is slightly questionable whether Jordan Poole of Golden State, currently the +440 second choice behind the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook (+150), will qualify. To be eligible, players must come off the bench in more games than they start. Poole has started four of 18 games and is averaging 16.1 points for a coach, Steve Kerr, who is unafraid to shake things up.

Analysis: Voters do not like to reward failure in this category, which is why the opinion here is that Westbrook is an unworthy favorite for the 5-10 Lakers despite the three-game winning streak they take into tonight’s TNT game against Phoenix. Poole at his current price is enticing because he seems like the winner by default. But it is early. This is the most wide-open race out there.

Longshot with a chance: Coaches and general managers have been asleep a the wheel when it comes to Bruce Brown, the ultimate glue guy. He left Brooklyn for Denver, and he is a sneaky good +8000 pick who will need to have more of the double-doubles he had in back-to-back games a week and a half ago in order to get on voters’ radars.

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COACH OF THE YEAR: It says here that Will Hardy of the Utah Jazz is running away with this award, even though he is priced at +400 where you can find this market, which ain’t all that easy. Bet365 has him at that price, trailing Joe Mazzulla of the Boston Celtics (+350), with nobody else in single figures. The Celtics were in the NBA Finals last year, so their success is not a surprise. The Jazz traded away their best player, and they are in first place in the West.

Analysis: Hardy should have a minus line, and J.B. Bickerstaff of the Cleveland Cavaliers should not be at +1200 along with Chauncey Billups (Portland) and Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), who all have longer odds than Indiana’s Rick Carlisle (+1000).

Longshot with a chance: Is there any good team more off the radar than the Washington Wizards? Coach Wes Unseld Jr. has them at 10-7, one loss behind Carlisle’s Pacers (10-6). Yet Carlisle is +1000 and Unseld is +2200. Go figure that one. If not for Shai, they’d be 11-6.

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