This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
We're now two full weeks into the 2020-21 NBA season, and while the standings in both conferences remain muddled, we're starting to get enough of a sample from which to draw some conclusions. As is the case every year, a ton will change between now and June, but it's never too early to take a glance at the books and start mapping out some futures bets.
Here's a look at some of my favorite plays at the DraftKings Sportsbook as of Tuesday, Jan. 6.
LA Lakers to win the NBA title (+230)
You're not getting a ton of value at this number, but I like the Lakers to win the title more than I did before the season began. Entering Wednesday, the Lakers are 6-2 and sit atop the Western Conference. They're off to a fine start, but it's the lack of another true juggernaut that makes this bet so appealing. I still think the Clippers are still the team that could give LA the most trouble in the West, but secondary challengers like the Jazz, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Rockets, and Mavericks are all off to shaky starts. The West is deep, but so far there isn't another team that's looked up to the task of taking down a more versatile and talented Lakers team than the one that captured the title in Orlando.
On the other side of the bracket, the Bucks and Nets still loom as the primary obstacles, but Brooklyn is just 2-4 since its hot start, while Milwaukee is still figuring things out after a busy offseason. The Nets are an especially dangerous opponent, but I would pick the Lakers to beat either team in a potential Finals matchup.
If you're looking for a longshot, I'd consider the Suns at 40/1. Their 5-2 start is legitimate, and while ultimately I think they'd fall short against either LA team, an upset – or an untimely injury – isn't inconceivable. Phoenix has a top-five defense and a top-10 offense in the early going, and it hasn't even felt like Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have played all that well. The Suns' net rating (+7.6) ranks fifth behind only the Bucks, Lakers, Sixers and Nets.
Nikola Jokic to win Most Valuable Player (+1200)
Luka Doncic (4/1) is still the rightful favorite, but a slow start has made this a wide-open race. My favorite bet is still Kevin Durant (8/1), but Jokic is also worth a look at 12/1. He's off to the best start of any premier player, averaging 24.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 11.9 assists and 1.4 steals through seven games. The only issue is the Nuggets are 3-4 in those games. Given how strong the field is, Denver will likely have to finish as a top-four team in the West for Jokic to garner legitimate MVP consideration.
LaMelo Ball to win Rookie of the Year (+350)
We're two weeks into the season and this already feels like a two-man race between Ball and James Wiseman, who's the favorite at the DraftKings Sportsbook (+250). Wiseman has had some wow moments through his first seven games, but Ball is picking up steam – and minutes in the Hornets' rotation – over the last week. Over his last four games, Ball is putting up 15.5 points, 6.3 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals, while hitting nearly two threes per game. The way things are trending, it wouldn't be surprising if he eventually usurps Devonte' Graham's starting spot.
Jaylen Brown to win Most Improved Player (+1800)
I first highlighted this bet during the preseason when Brown was listed at a preposterous 80/1. That number has fallen considerably, but Brown is still a good value right now, as the number will likely continue to drop as the season goes on. The three players ahead of him – Christian Wood, Michael Porter, Julius Randle – are worthy candidates, but none fit the profile of the recent MIP winners better than Brown.
Every player on that list was already a very good player who took one more leap into legitimate star status. Some were more established than others, but these were not guys who came out of nowhere. Brown narrowly missed the All-Star Game a year ago, and he's well on track to earn his first career bid this season.
The case for Randle is also an interesting one. The numbers are eye-popping, but Randle is averaging more than 38 minutes per game, which is probably not sustainable. For him to win, the Knicks will also have to continue to win games – otherwise it'll be chalked up as yet another good stats/bad team season for Randle.
Another player to monitor for MIP: Markelle Fultz at 25/1. Right now, the numbers for Brown and Randle are overwhelming, but Fultz might have the edge when it comes to narrative. He'll need to boost his shooting percentages after a few bad games, but if Fultz can push closer to 20 points per game – it's a lot to ask, I know – he'll be in the conversation as the ultimate reclamation project success story.
Joel Embiid to win Defensive Player of the Year (+900)
The Sixers are 6-1, they have the best defensive rating in the league and Embiid ranks third in both defensive and total win shares. The Giannis-Gobert-Davis triad has dominated the DPOY conversation in recent years, but the door is open for Embiid to steal the award if the Sixers' defense proves it can continue to dominate when the schedule picks up.