As the list of players in the NBA’s Health and Safety protocols swells, most of the mainstays of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder continue to contribute heavily for their respective teams.
Of the top five players from last week’s edition, two recently entered Health and Safety protocols in Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo (who actually entered on Dec. 14), along with Trae Young and Luka Doncic. But on the bright side, two players – Zach LaVine and James Harden – recently received clearance to return to the court.
Per the current protocols, players are required to sit for at least 10 days or return two negative COVID-19 tests in a 24-hour period before they can return to basketball activities.
So, it’s reasonable to expect that the next few weeks of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder could get interesting.
“As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country right now, putting aside the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months, and that is that this virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN earlier this week. “That’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now.”
How that affects the MVP race at this point is unknown. But we won’t penalize players sidelined in the NBA’s Health and Safety protocols, while also making sure to recognize those worthy of moving up or cracking the list.
Leading a Nets team that at one point placed a league-high 10 players in protocols, Durant falls to No. 2 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, while Golden State’s Stephen Curry regains the top spot after drilling eight 3-pointers Thursday to go with his 46 points in the Warriors’ 113-104 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. The performance marked Curry’s sixth game this season (67th of his career) in which he connected on eight or more 3-pointers.
No other player in 2021-22 has accomplished that feat more than once.
With the Denver Nuggets losing consecutive outings, including a 108-84 setback Wednesday in which coach Michael Malone benched his starters, Jokic might be starting to lose some ground among his peers in the top five. Chris Paul, meanwhile, moves up a spot as Phoenix continued its NBA-best five-game winning streak on Thursday by toppling Oklahoma City. With Paul running the show, Phoenix produced a record of 5-2 when leading scorer Devin Booker missed most of December due to a left hamstring injury.
The victory over the Thunder sets up a Christmas Day showdown at home against Curry and the Warriors.
“When you play the elite teams in the league, just playing isn’t enough,” Paul said after Thursday’s game. “You have to be a lot more cerebral. Playing against Golden State, they always make you think. Playing against the Lakers, Milwaukee, all those good teams, they’re going to make you think. So, it’s always a good test for us because every team is different.”
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 27.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.9 apg
Has dropped 30 points or more in three straight appearances and racked up 46 points on Thursday to move past Trae Young for second in the NBA in scoring behind Durant. By the way, the Warriors now own a record of 11-1 this season when Curry scores 30 points or more. Curry was definitely on fire against Memphis, and it showed right here and especially here over a dog of a defender in Dillon Brooks. After hitting eight 3-pointers against the Grizzlies, Curry is now just six triples away from becoming the first player in NBA history to reach 3,000 for his career.
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 5.9 apg
Entered the league’s Health and Safety protocols on Saturday and isn’t expected to return in time to play on Christmas Day against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Teammates James Harden, Paul Millsap and Jevon Carter recently received clearance to return, but such isn’t likely for Durant, according to coach Steve Nash. “We are not expecting anyone else to come out of protocols, but it is possible,” he said.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 25.9 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 7.2 apg
Put together a 29-point double-double that included 21 rebounds (one shy of tying his career high) – including 16 boards in the first half — during a Thursday loss to Charlotte in which the Nuggets squandered a 19-point lead. In calling out his starters, Nuggets coach Michael Malone described the game as becoming an “iso-centric, over-dribbling” affair where “everybody [was] trying to get theirs.” Charlotte outscored Denver 38-13 in the fourth quarter. “Everything was bad…offense, defense, shots, body language, energy,” Jokic said. “When you score 13 points and they score 38 [in the fourth quarter] it’s really bad.”
4. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 14.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 9.9 apg
Has led the way in Phoenix putting together its eighth 15-game winning streak at home to set up what should be a hotly-contested Christmas matchup against the Warriors. Paul is one of six players averaging two steals a game, while also ranking among the top 10 in deflections. The Suns have limited opponents to fewer than 110 points in 23 games this season, and they’ve registered a record of 23-0 under those circumstances. One area of concern for Paul moving forward is 3-point shooting, as he’s connecting on just 31.9% from deep, his lowest mark since his rookie season.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.8 apg
Entered the NBA’s Health and Safety protocols on Dec. 14 and has missed the team’s last five games as the Bucks compiled a record of 3-2 in his absence. Antetokounmpo is one of three Milwaukee players currently in the protocols, and the club hosts a Boston squad on Christmas that currently has six players advancing through the protocols. There’s some hope that Antetokounmpo might be able to exit the protocol and receive clearance to play against the Celtics. But the team hasn’t yet provided an update. Antetokounmpo has missed seven of Milwaukee’s last 12 games.
The Next Five:
6. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Last week: No. 7)
7. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week: unranked)
8. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last week: No. 6)
9. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Last week: No. 8)
10. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks (Last week: No. 9)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers; James Harden, Brooklyn Nets.
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