The last thing NBA teams think about when making blockbuster trades is how those deals will affect awards races. Right now, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics likely consider themselves championship favorites. They're not exactly concerned with betting markets, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be. There's money to be made here, but not necessarily in the way that you're thinking.
Before the Bucks landed Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo had either the third- or fourth-shortest MVP odds at most sports books. The highest number available in the immediate period before the trade was +700. Now, he's down to +500 at Caesars Sportsbook, leapfrogging Luka Doncic for the No. 2 slot at most books and breathing down the neck of favorite Nikola Jokic.
There's an easy logic to this. Putting aside how much easier Lillard will make Antetokounmpo's life offensively, the deal made the Bucks an extremely public team. People wanted to bet Antetokounmpo when the Bucks landed Lillard, so the books acted accordingly. Yet MVP history suggests Antetokounmpo is actually less likely to win MVP today than he was prior to the Lillard deal, not more.
Why is that? While super teams frequently produce championships, they tend not to create MVPs, at least not recently. The last player to win MVP with an All-NBA teammate was Stephen Curry in 2016. The last seven winners have been the only All-NBA players on their roster, and that makes sense given the narratives that have built behind these winners. Think of Russell Westbrook's campaign in 2017 or Jokic's in 2022. Voters have increasingly favored players that do more with less in recent years.
There's an argument that Antetokounmpo himself benefitted during his two MVP victories. Khris Middleton had grown into an All-Star by that point, but he was homegrown and not remotely in the running for MVP himself. Antetokounmpo stopped winning MVPs when the Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday. There were a variety of reasons for that, most of which had little to do with Holiday, but it fits our theme of seeking MVPs that do more with less.
Lillard knows quite a bit about that despite never having won MVP. He asked out of Portland because of a lack of support. Despite his broken supporting cast last season, he managed to earn Third-Team All-NBA honors. Had he played for a better team, he likely would've been a First-Team choice. He averaged more points and assists on higher true shooting and effective field goal percentages than First-Team choice Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season. Assuming Lillard is healthy, the boost he'll get from playing with Antetokounmpo makes him an easy preseason All-NBA pick. While this trend is hardly set in stone, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which voters don't want to spread the credit for Milwaukee's success to Lillard in some fashion.
After all, the Bucks are now built slightly more in Lillard's image than Antetokounmpo's. Their success over the past several seasons has been predicated on elite defense. The Bucks had the NBA's No. 1 ranked defense in both of Antetokounmpo's MVP seasons, but ranked fourth (2018-19) and eighth (2019-20) on offense. Milwaukee fell all the way to No. 15 on offense last season, but still had the NBA's best regular-season record thanks to its No. 4 ranked defense and a 27-8 record in games that met the league's official "clutch" criteria of being within five points with five minutes or fewer remaining.
This season, Milwaukee's path to success has almost been reversed. They've swapped an elite defensive guard in Holiday for an elite offensive guard in Lillard. They'll still be quite good on defense—probably somewhere between last season's No. 4 ranking and relative low of their No. 9 ranking in 2021 thanks to their rim-protection alone—but the combination of the Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll combination and this roster's deep group of shooters means that the No. 1 ranked offense is a distinct possibility. If this team's success relies more on offense than defense, its primary ball-handler is probably going to siphon credit away from its two-way monster.
And then of course, it's worth asking how much regular-season success Milwaukee is going to have. That 27-8 clutch record? It's probably going down. The best clutch team in the NBA during the 2021-22 season were the Phoenix Suns at 33-9. Last season, despite the continued presence of the arguable regular-season clutch GOAT Chris Paul and his protege Devin Booker, they went 17-19. What happens in close games is far more random than most fans want to admit. That is especially true in the regular season. The Bucks went 13-15 in clutch games during the 2020-21 regular season. Look at what happened in the playoffs.
They've also traded in Mike Budenholzer—among the NBA's best regular-season coaches—for an unknown in Adrian Griffin. Pair that with the depth issues that arise out of any blockbuster trade and possible age-related decline for Middleton (32 years old), Lillard (33) and Brook Lopez (35) and you get a Bucks team that might be significantly more dangerous in a playoff setting... but appears far less equipped to handle an 82-game slog. The past three MVPs have been seeded No. 3 or lower, but 11 of the previous 14 were No. 1 seeds. Winning counts quite a bit in this race. The older Bucks probably won't feel all that inclined to push for every last regular-season win if it means risking injuries for the playoffs.
That's a big reason why most MVP awards are won at a specific point in a player's career. As The Action Network's Brandon Anderson frequently points out, 14 of the past 15 MVP winners were between the ages of 24 and 28, and the only exception was Derrick Rose, who was younger, not older. Players tend not to win MVPs beyond the age of 28 because they tend not to be invested enough in the regular season to push for the award. Antetokounmpo turns 29 in December.
If that's cutting it a little close for you, consider this: Antetokounmpo has now gone three years without winning an MVP. Only two players in NBA history have ever won an MVP, gone three years without winning, and then ultimately won another. The first was Wilt Chamberlain. His drought came in the 1960s. The second was Michael Jordan. He spent two years out of his three-year drought retired.
This holds up logically. Players tend to win MVPs during the early portions of their prime. At this stretch of their career, they are good enough to win the award, but not old enough to start seriously thinking about load-management yet. Antetokounmpo is still in his prime, but he and his team are old enough not to push for every last regular-season inch. Heck, it's worth noting that Antetokounmpo didn't even reach the new 65-game minimum for eligibility last season. He played only 67 games during the 2021-22 season. Antetokounmpo is fairly durable, but by modern standards, that doesn't exactly mean he'll play 80 games every year.
The irony here is that the Lillard trade might have created a better MVP candidate, but not in Milwaukee. Jayson Tatum has never missed more than eight games in a season. He's just 25—right in the middle of our typical MVP age window—and while Holiday and Horford are nearing the end of their primes, the rest of Boston's core is in its 20's.
Tatum has an All-NBA teammate in Jaylen Brown, but Lillard has reached that plateau seven times. Brown has only done so once, and with Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis in need of shots, it's entirely plausible that Brown's volume numbers on offense fall enough to knock him out. Boston ranked No. 2 in both offense and defense last season, and it's conceivable that they get better on both ends of the floor next season. Their 24-13 clutch record is due for some regression, but not as much as Milwaukee's.
With all of this in mind, the great beneficiary of the shuffling atop the Eastern Conference from an award's standpoint is likelier to be Tatum than Antetokounmpo. Tatum is sitting at +900 to win MVP at Caesar's, so the value gap between him and Antetokounmpo is significant. Antetokounmpo may well lead Milwaukee to another championship this season, but history suggests he is unlikely to earn another MVP award in the process.