Getty Images

We've reached the point in the NBA season in which every award has a minus-money favorite. The days of value-hunting at the top of the market are over. While some races are closer to decided than others, all of them now have established favorites.

The benefit of that comes on the other side of the equation. If the favorite has implied odds of greater than 50%, you're likely to see far longer numbers on long shots. The favorites might wind up winning every award, but remember that we have nearly two months of basketball left to play. A sprained ankle here, a cold streak there, and suddenly, those favorites have slipped off of their perch.

So let's look for some awards long shots to target as the calendar prepares to flip from February to March. Obviously, most of these candidates will not win, but at the odds we're getting now, only one of them would need to in order for you to earn a tidy profit. 

Rudy Gobert (Defensive Player of the Year) and Victor Wembanyama (Rookie of the Year) are so well-positioned to win their respective awards that neither race has valuable odds for competitors. But the other five major awards races can at least provide some meaningful competition to their favorites. Here is one worthwhile long shot for each of those five awards.

1. Coach of the Year: JB Bickerstaff

This isn't an award in which I'd necessarily advise betting a long shot. Eight of the past 12 winners have been No. 1 seeds, and our two favorites right now are Chris Finch and Mark Daigneault, who currently lead the top two seeds in the Western Conference and have vastly outperformed expectations. Those are the two criteria that typically decide our winners here. 

But let's say the Nuggets or Clippers earn home-court advantage or potentially even claim both of the top two seeds. Who's the next coach down the list? You'd think it would be Joe Mazzulla, right? Well... not exactly. His Celtics will cruise to home-court advantage, and they are currently on pace to win 65 games. But we've had 11 teams reach that threshold this century, and only two of them (Mike Brown in 2009 and Steve Kerr in 2016) actually won this award. Even if you account for the fact that we had multiple 65-win teams in both of those seasons, it's still only a two-out-of-nine hit rate. This might seem counterintuitive, but at that level of success, voters have tended to credit players more than coaches.

So why don't we move one slot down the Eastern Conference standings? JB Bickerstaff's Cleveland Cavaliers are currently seeded second in the Eastern Conference, and No. 2 seeds have taken home three of the past 12 Coach of the Year victories. Cleveland is on pace to win 54 games, which would comfortably clear their preseason projection of 50.5 wins, but circumstance matters quite a bit here as well. Cleveland ranks 11th in both games lost to injury thus far this season and salary earned by injured players, but even that figure doesn't quite do the Cavaliers justice because Evan Mobley is still on his rookie deal.

Bickerstaff started his season without one of his former All-Stars in Jarrett Allen. Then he lost two of his other core four players at the same time in Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Despite all of that turmoil, he managed to completely change the way his Cavaliers play, jumping from 24th to 10th in 3-point attempts and 30th to 21st in pace compared to last season. Those adjustments launched Cleveland up to the No. 2 slot. That may not make him a likelier winner than Daigneault or Finch, but remember, we're looking at long shot plays here. Bickerstaff is available at +1600 at BetMGM. Daigneault is a minus-money favorite and Finch isn't far behind at +250. If you expect Cleveland to keep up its surge, why not sprinkle a hedge on Bickerstaff and hope the Western Conference parity shakes your way?

2. MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Nikola Jokic is the favorite right now at most books, but he's also a worse candidate this season than he was last year when he didn't win. He played for a runaway No. 1 seed last season. He might fall to No. 4 this year. His raw scoring is up, but his efficiency is down meaningfully. Maybe Jokic remains engaged for the rest of the regular season for the sake of seeding, but it's worth noting that he lost this award last March in part due to apathy. The Nuggets may or may not care about seeding, but he certainly doesn't care about winning MVP.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the next man up at most books. There aren't obvious holes to poke in his candidacy. He's an elite scorer posting elite efficiency while playing elite defense for an elite team. That's a lot of elites. There's just not much value at the +200 or so range you'd find for him at most books. You know what sounds more enticing? Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently sitting at +1500 at Caesars Sportsbook. Just consider how he compares to Gilgeous-Alexander:

  • Their scoring and assist numbers are virtually identical... except Gilgeous-Alexander is a primary ball-handler and Antetokounmpo is not.
  • Antetokounmpo has an obvious edge when it comes to rebounding and a less obvious edge when it comes to efficiency, and while the metrics paint Gilgeous-Alexander as a superior defender this season, it's worth pointing out just how different their roles are. Gilgeous-Alexander is among the least important players on an elite defense. Antetokounmpo is one of the only things holding a bad defense together.
  • Despite the very different tones of coverage surrounding their respective teams, Milwaukee trails Oklahoma City in the standings by just 3.5 games.

Is Gilgeous-Alexander a better candidate than Antetokounmpo? That's a matter of opinion. They're relatively close. But your profit is going to be seven-and-a-half times bigger if you take Antetokounmpo today. Despite all of the fun Twitter has had at Doc Rivers' expense lately, you could pretty fairly argue that they're moving in the right direction.

The Bucks have allowed just 112.2 points per 100 possessions since Rivers took over as their coach. That's less than a point off of Oklahoma City's season-long pace, and it's better than the Nuggets (113.4) and Mavericks (116.4) have mustered this season. The tradeoff of offensive rebounding for transition defense has largely worked out for Milwaukee. There's reason to believe Milwaukee's defense will get even better, too. Opponents have made 43.3% of their wide-open 3's during the Rivers tenure, which is worse shooting luck than any team has had over the full season. Any fears that Damian Lillard would outshine Antetokounmpo in big moments and, therefore, hurt his candidacy now appear to have faded. There's a pathway here. Keep defending well. Earn the No. 2 seed. Hope the Western Conference shakes out favorably, and suddenly Antetokounmpo's +1500 number starts to slip very, very quickly.

So what about Luka Doncic, hovering around +700 at most books right now? He's a worthwhile play to some extent. His raw numbers outpace our other three candidates, and the Mavericks are playing the best basketball of the four teams involved here at the moment. Their likely cap at the No. 5 seed is a problem, though. We've had winners outside of the top four, like Jokic in 2022 and Russell Westbrook in 2016, but those have largely been solo acts. Neither of them had a teammate like Kyrie Irving or a supporting cast with as much depth. Doncic is very much in the race, but that holds back his value. Antetokounmpo is the upside play right now.

3. Sixth Man of the Year: Bogdan Bogdanovic

This is the award with the most value left on the board. There's nothing remotely resembling an easy pick right now. Typically, the pick here tends to be an elite bench scorer on a playoff team. Such a player doesn't really exist at the moment. The highest-scoring full-time reserve on a top-four seed right now is Norman Powell at 13.5 points per game for the Clippers. He's an interesting pick at +550 (FanDuel), but sharing bench minutes with the higher-usage Russell Westbrook holds him back.

He's definitely a better pick than our two favorites at the moment. Tim Hardaway Jr. led the pack for most of the season, but he's losing minutes in the middle of a horrible cold streak. He's shooting below 34% from the field in his past eight games, and his defense is so bad that Jason Kidd has started to use a quicker hook on him when the shots aren't falling. Malik Monk has replaced him as the favorite across the board, but Sacramento has slipped down into play-in territory in the standings. If voters are comfortable with a play-in winner, the board opens up significantly.

That leads up to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is available at +3400 at FanDuel. He is currently outscoring Monk by 1.7 points per game. Their efficiency numbers are similar, with Monk having a slight edge inside of the arc and Bogdanovic having the edge outside of it. Monk has a meaningful edge in assists, but Bogdanovic has a chance to close that gap. Trae Young is set to miss the next four weeks, and that is going to put the ball in his hands far more. Sacramento is 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Monk on the floor than without him. Atlanta, on the other hand, is 10.7 points per 100 possessions better with Bogdanovic in the game. Maybe there's a reason for their enormous odds gap. It's not immediately evident in the standings.

But ok, let's say we don't want a play-in winner. That's fine. There are other viable options on the board here, though we'd have to go away from our typical elite scorer archetype. If there is justice in this vote, plus-minus king Isaiah Joe (off the board at most books!) will get a look. He is the only reserve in the NBA currently in the top 20 in the league in plus-minus, as the Thunder have won his limited minutes by 291 points. His individual stats are lacking, but his movement and shooting are a big part of what makes Oklahoma City so dangerous. He is the best shooter on the best shooting team in basketball. Naz Reid (+2500 at DraftKings) is a bit more of a middle-ground choice. His counting stats are below where the favorites sit but ahead of the sleepers like Joe. He's worth a look as well. Minnesota's system relies on having an elite shooting big man to pair with Rudy Gobert at all times and a reliable defensive big to play next to Karl-Anthony Towns when Gobert rests. Reid checks both boxes and keeps the Timberwolves at an elite level, no matter who he plays with.

You could go in several directions here; just do yourself a favor and look beyond the top handful of candidates in most books. This race is wide open.

4. Clutch Player of the Year: Nikola Jokic

This race... isn't wide open. Stephen Curry has scored 165 clutch points this season. Nobody else is even within 50. The only player on a current top-6 playoff team that has 100 is Damian Lillard. Curry is the runaway favorite for a reason, and you could even argue that the -250 number he's available for at the moment sells him short.

But this is an award with very little precedent. It's probably going to eventually settle into a place where the top overall clutch scorer wins it most years, but it has to be pointed out here that Curry's team hasn't played all that well in the clutch. They're 18-15 in clutch games this season, and Curry himself has only a +3 point differential in those moments. Golden State owes all of its clutch success to Curry, but it just hasn't had much of it.

So let's look for a hedge here. Nikola Jokic may not be a great MVP bet, but at +5000 to win this award? He's an interesting low-money hedge. His raw totals aren't especially inspiring, but remember, he's played only 25 clutch games. Jokic is so good that his team tends to avoid close games entirely. Curry averages five points per game in the clutch, but Jokic, at 3.8, isn't far behind. He scores more efficiently. He picks up more rebounds. He dishes out more assists. His team is 16-9 in the clutch. And then, of course, there's the eye test. Is there a player you trust more to generate a good look late in the game than Jokic? That can't be quantified, but neither can the concept of being "clutch."

Curry is probably going to win, and deservedly so. But 50-to-1 on the player most of us would acknowledge as our choice to lead a late-game offense is still pretty darn tempting.

5. Most Improved Player: Jalen Johnson

The books are treating this award like it's a four-man race. I'm just going to compare their improvement in several key statistical indicators to Johnson's this season:

PPG increase

APG increase

RPG increase

FG% increase

3FG% increase

Tyrese Maxey






Coby White






Jonathan Kuminga






Alperen Sengun






Jalen Johnson






... What are we doing here, guys? The award is called Most Improved Player. I'm staring at numbers here that tell me that Jalen Johnson has improved more than any of the top candidates. He improved at basically every NBA skill, and none of those numbers capture how important he's been to an admittedly bad Hawks defense. Right now, Johnson is sitting at +10000 to win Most Improved Player at BetMGM. This is anarchy.

Look, Johnson probably won't win the award. That says more about the award itself than his candidacy. Recent history has more or less treated Most Improved Player as the first-time All-Star award, which points to Maxey. Voters tend not to favor the player who improved the most but the one who improved in specific ways. They like young players ascending from promising to stardom. That might be the most important improvement a player can make, but they consistently give the award to players who were clearly on that path. Did Ja Morant really improve? Or did he just age into the beginning of his prime? Maxey was well on his way to stardom. He just needed James Harden out of his way to get there. We knew these players were great already. Their ascensions, in many cases, were inevitable.

But let's get off the soapbox. We're here to talk about what will happen, not what should. It should be noted that injury is probably part of why Johnson's odds are so low. He's already missed 14 games, so four more knock him below the 65-game threshold for this award. Let's say he gets to 65 games. His counting stats may improve even more with Young injured. Maxey's 76ers are sliding with Joel Embiid out. White and Kuminga also play for play-in teams, and Sengun's Rockets are in the lottery.

Philadelphia presents the easiest narrative case for a candidate. If Maxey can keep the 76ers afloat without Embiid, especially after the Harden trade, he probably wins. Perhaps Golden State's rejuvenation enables a late Kuminga push. But for Johnson to win this award, he'd need the four top candidates to continue playing for middling teams. If that is the case at the end of the season, you're going to want to have a 100-to-1 ticket for the deserving winner.