Happy New Year’s Eve and welcome to the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder shakeup.
With the pending turn of the calendar, a new leader in Giannis Antetokounmpo leapfrogs the field among the top five. Returning from a five-game hiatus on Christmas Day, the former two-time MVP has dropped 33 points or more in two of his last three outings as Milwaukee extended its league-best tying winning streak to five games Thursday with a 136-118 drubbing of the Orlando Magic.
Antetokounmpo scored 16 of his 33 points against the Magic in the fourth quarter (his 11th 30-point outing of the season) and pulled down 12 rebounds for his 18th double-double, in addition to tallying two blocks and two steals.
This week’s reboot of the top five rings in 2022 with possibilities for fresh storylines that could affect the MVP race.
In Los Angeles, there’s the question of how long the Clippers can survive without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who is out at least a month with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The Lakers, meanwhile, can’t seem to right the ship in the wake of Anthony Davis’ knee injury, despite four-time MVP LeBron James continuing to churn out MVP-type performances. Does one of the vets such as 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook step up, or do the Lakers seek reinforcements ahead of the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline?
In the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors await the return of veteran sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who hasn’t played since the 2019 NBA Finals. If Thompson hits the floor anywhere close to his previous form, that can only positively affect Stephen Curry’s MVP candidacy, right?
In Brooklyn, it appears Voltron is inching toward full formation again with the return of Kyrie Irving, who practiced with the team Wednesday and is close to making his season debut. When he’s playing, Irving is a mainstay in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Let’s also not forget that James Harden is playing like an MVP again, too, having scored 30-plus points to go with eight-plus rebounds and 10-plus assists in three straight games.
With Kevin Durant in the mix, the Nets flex an embarrassment of riches with three legit MVP candidates in the starting lineup for a team already sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Then, in Memphis, we’re finally starting to see the Grizzlies live up to the expectations associated with fielding such a deep, young roster bursting with talent led by Ja Morant, who is back in this week’s MVP Ladder. He’s complemented by the play of Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the emerging Desmond Bane.
Can Memphis maintain that No. 4 spot in the West (the Grizzlies are 3 1/2 games ahead of the fifth-place Denver Nuggets), advance to the postseason, and win a series for the first time since 2014-15? The talent level suggests it’s certainly possible.
Happy New Year.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 27.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 5.8 apg
Curry’s recent shooting struggles and Durant missing three games going into Thursday played a role, but you can’t deny the roll Antetokounmpo has been on since returning to Milwaukee’s lineup. Shooting 56.3% over his last three games, Antetokounmpo has finished with 12 rebounds in two of his last three games, while averaging 32.3 points per game since Christmas to help the Bucks to a season-best 11 games above .500. Giannis is getting it done on the defensive end, too, defending a career-high 4.9 shots per game at the rim this season, giving up his second-lowest field percentage (47.1).
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 5.9 apg
It wasn’t ideal, but Durant, who is averaging 37 minutes this season, received a much-needed break by missing three games in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols. Durant returned for Thursday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers — a game that featured 19 lead changes and 11 ties — and put up 33 points, six rebounds and four assists. This game got a little chippy, but you can’t help but respect the competitive fire of both Durant and Embiid. “If there’s one player I think is probably more talented than me, it’s definitely him,” Embiid said of Durant.
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 27.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.9 apg
He received a night off on Thursday due to the league postponing a matchup at Denver due to a COVID outbreak that left the Nuggets without the necessary eight players required to play. The NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals made, Curry drilled his 3,000th career 3-pointer Tuesday in an 89-86 loss to Denver, which defeated the Warriors without Bol Bol, P.J. Dozier, Aaron Gordon, Markus Howard, Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray. Arguably the game’s all-time greatest shooter, Curry interestingly has connected on 50% or better from the field in just two of his last 10 games.
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 25.8 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 7.1 apg
Keeping it real here: this pick was a tossup. Jokic probably deserves to be sitting in Curry’s spot at No. 3 because of the way he’s carried the injured and ill Nuggets in the face of adversity. Check out these highlights from Tuesday’s win against the Warriors. Having averaged 20.5 rpg over his last two games, Jokic sealed the victory over Golden State with a block with 3.7 seconds left to play. “Nikola having 18 rebounds, 22 points and making a key play down the stretch is why he’s a great player,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 15.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Donovan Mitchell generates the oohs and ahs with the high-flying dunks, but the Jazz are 3-0 when he hasn’t been in the lineup in large part because of the job Rudy Gobert does with anchoring Utah’s defense. The man doesn’t shoot it much, but when he does, he certainly makes them count, hitting at a clip of 71.6% from the floor, in addition to averaging 14.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Colleague Brian Martin points out here that outside of his rookie season, when he played fewer than 10 minutes per game, Gobert has ranked in the top 10 in rim protection every season of his career.
The Next Five:
6. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last week: No. 4)
7. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets (Last week: unranked)
8. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Last week: No. 7)
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week: unranked)
10. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Last week: No. 9)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers, Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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