NBA MVP Rankings: Kevin Durant Injury Changes Everything

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 11, 2023

NBA MVP Rankings: Kevin Durant Injury Changes Everything

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    MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 26: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks stand on the court on October 26, 2022 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Injuries are starting to exact a toll on the NBA's 2022-23 MVP race.

    Sure, ability is the best ability. But availability is a skill, too. And it carries a crap ton of weight in this year's MVP discourse, at a time when, if the season ended today, six players could reasonably be crowned without the decision seeming ludicrous or off-base.

    Devin Booker, Stephen Curry and Zion Williamson have all seen their place in the debate take a nosedive thanks to extended absences. Ditto for Anthony Davis. Joel Embiid's case, meanwhile, continues to suffer from a sub-1,000-minute sample against an onslaught of equally worthy candidates with much more court time under their belts.

    And now, just when it looked like he might make a real run at the top spot, Kevin Durant is slated to miss at least the next month with a sprained right MCL.

    Does that timetable submarine his MVP chances? Where should KD even sit right at this very moment, before his injury has a material impact on his availability?

    Oh, and of course, who sits atop this ladder, which has undergone change after change all season long?

    Before we dig in, here's your usual reminder that these rankings reflect a snapshot in time—what my ballot would look like if the season ended before Tuesday night's games. Recent performances carry a ton of weight within discussions for each player, but this is still a season-long evaluation at its heart and will not be entirely subjected to spur-of-the-moment swings that are implicitly unsustainable.

Honorable Mentions

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    CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 4: Cedi Osman #16 and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high fives during the game against the Phoenix Suns  on January 4, 2023 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by  Lauren Bacho/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Lauren Bacho/NBAE via Getty Images

    T-10: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; and Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

    Devin Booker Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Stephen Curry Previous Ranking: 5

    Zion Williamson Previous Ranking: 9

    Yes, I'm making this an "Injured Player Appreciation Slot." Someone like James Harden or LeBron James has top-10 potential, but I'm not quite there yet.

    Booker's MVP stock has only climbed during his absence with a groin injury. The Suns are a dumpster fire without him—now a minus-49 when he's out of the lineup compared to a plus-120 with him on the floor.

    Curry will have returned from his left shoulder injury by the time you read this. Golden State treading water in his absence—by going 6-5—doesn't hurt his case in the slightest. It ensures he'll be playing plenty of high-stakes minutes in the coming months, opening the door for him to rejoin the upper crust of this race.

    The endurance of Zion's case will come down to the reevaluation of his right hamstring at the end of January. If he's given the go-ahead to return, he'll have time to make up ground. If he's going to remain out closer to or through the All-Star break, he'll struggle to climb much higher than the honorable mentions section.


    9. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

    Previous Ranking: Unranked

    Morant has hovered around the fringes of this discussion for the entire season. And his case remains extremely fluid.

    On the one hand, he's churning out 27.2 points and eight assists while canning 51.7 percent of his twos and, by and large, playing better defense for a potentially top-seeded Grizzlies squad. On the other hand, his three-point slump is real—22.9 percent since the last MVP ladder and 31 percent for the season—and the margins in this conversation are incredibly thin. So, he ends up here.


    8. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Previous Ranking: 6

    SGA has incurred serious pull-back in his three-point volume and accuracy the past few weeks; he's taken just 11 triples over his last six games. Head coach Mark Daigneault gave a thoroughly insightful answer when asked about the regression, which, by the way, absolutely matters in this space.

    Still, the havoc SGA wreaks inside the arc remains at an all-time high, and he's playing up to snuff on defense. More importantly, he continues to be the driving force behind Oklahoma City floating around respectability.


    7. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Previous Ranking: 10

    Dropping 71 points and 11 assists against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 2 was always going to give Mitchell an MVP-ladder boost. But that eruption was also indicative of his entire season.

    Mitchell has been the Cavaliers' offensive heartbeat all year, the player most responsible for helping them navigate various injuries, still-sort-of-clumpy half-court setups and a dearth of variable pace. His numbers keep leaping off the page, especially when it comes to knocking down off-the-dribble threes, and Cleveland has handily won the (extensive) minutes he's logged without both Darius Garland and Evan Mobley.

T-5: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics and Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 18: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates hitting a three-point shot in front of Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half at TD Garden on October 18, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Jayson Tatum Previous Ranking: 3

    Joel Embiid Previous Ranking: 7

    Tatum tumbles two spots through almost no fault of his own. He has never been a more complete player.

    His slumping three-point percentage (32.8 percent since the last ladder) is simultaneously a sticking point and a harbinger of his growth. He no longer needs the outside shot to fall at astronomical clips. His ability to generate offense off drives and trips to the foul line is at an all-time high. He has never followed through on his inside attacks more consistently.

    Though the Boston Celtics have lost the minutes they play with him over the past couple of weeks, make no mistake: His fifth-place finish is more about those to come than Tatum himself.

    Embiid, meanwhile, is getting harder and harder to keep off the mountaintop. I can't reasonably put him any higher, for now, when he's sitting at under 1,000 minutes played, and everyone else is around 1,100-plus or much higher.

    At the same time: Holy hell, has he been dominant.

    Embiid is now averaging 33.3 points (35.8 since the last ladder) while shooting 56.5 percent on twos and 34.1 percent on threes. His turnovers can still be dicey, but it's tough to ding him when he's doubled on a larger share of his possessions than James Harden, Luka Dončić, Zion Williamson and pretty much everyone else not named Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Also: Embiid is spitting out 1.19 points per post-up possession, which remains silly. (Aside: Tatum is averaging 1.39 points per possession across 50-plus post-ups.)

    The Philadelphia 76ers defense has slipped in recent weeks but remains fourth overall. Embiid is still driving that train. His individual rim-protection numbers might be down, but this doesn't jibe with the eye test.

    He remains an overwhelming deterrent, foisting fundamental doubt upon entire opposing offenses. Rival teams, unsurprisingly, see the share of their shots coming at the rim plunge by five percent with Embiid in the game—a dip that ranks in the 97th percentile.

4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 8: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots the ball during the game against the Miami Heat on January 8, 2023 at FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: 8

    Kevin Durant's MCL injury will eventually displace him from the top five. It's not worth harping on here. He has yet to even officially miss a game.

    Pinpointing his spot at this moment is more compelling. This is his first appearance inside my top five. Many, if not the vast majority of, NBA-watchers will declare that treason of the highest order.

    KD's numbers concur.

    He is averaging 29.7 points, 5.3 assists and 1.5 blocks while connecting on 62.2 percent of his twos and 37.6 percent of his threes. I'm not sure I've actually seen him miss a mid-range jumper this year. He's nailing nearly 60 percent of those in-between looks and flirting with 80 percent finishing around the rim for good measure.

    Defense is the cherry atop Durant's ostensibly airtight case. The Brooklyn Nets have saddled him with a ton of responsibility. Nic Claxton is the only player on the team to contest more shots at the rim, and nobody except Royce O'Neale has spent more time guarding No. 1 options, according to BBall Index.

    Tack on the Nets overcoming a surfeit of adversity, including a coaching change, and rising all the way to No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, and the "Kevin Durant is Your 2022-23 MVP" headline writes itself.

    I couldn't get there. I'm closer than I was, that's for sure. But I'm still not there.

    Using KD's love of the game or desire to #justhoop to offset the role he played in jacking up the Nets' uncertainty is cringy as hell. Does, like, Giannis Antetokounmpo not love the game or something? Not every NBA player is Andrew Bynum.

    Yes, Durant has been spectacular—maybe even the best player wire-to-wire so far. But he shouldn't get brownie points for helping extinguish a fire he helped start over the offseason, first with a trade demand, then with a call for Brooklyn to fire then-head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks.

    None of this should preclude him from winning MVP. But it has to be part of a conversation with so many other worthwhile candidates.

3. Giannis Antetkounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 9: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks prepares to shoot a free throw during the game against the New York Knicks on January 9, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE  (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: 4

    Weird things are happening to the Milwaukee Bucks. They are over .500 since the last MVP ladder but scrapped to a 4-3 record with a bottom-eight net rating and 28th-place offense.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has seen his efficiency circle the drain over this span. His 25.0 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers is the lowest among 91 players attempting at least three per game, and he's averaging as many turnovers as assists (5.7) over the past two weeks.

    Sticking him in third, ahead of Kevin Durant, is not akin to giving him a pass. Giannis' offensive workload has been overstretched amid absences from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and the Bucks' supporting shooters aren't doing nearly enough to open up the floor for him in the half court. Only one of their six most-played names is hitting more than 35 percent of their threes since the last MVP ladder.

    Yet, Giannis continues to dominate anyway. His 52.5 percent clip inside the arc during this stretch is extremely low by his standards, but he's still averaging 34.0 points on the back of his 16.3 free-throw attempts per game, which he's splashing in at a 70.4 percent clip.

    There is an inherent, almost unquantifiable value in Giannis' relentlessness. He is neither functionally nor emotionally impacted by struggles in previous possessions. Where other players might pull back, hesitant to attack amid shaky shooting, he keeps driving and slashing, sometimes over-settling, but never deviating too far from his bread and butter.

    That mindset shapes the Bucks' identity. It hasn't been enough to stave off disappointment at the more glamorous end, but it gives them a lifeline while they bide time for better health, shooting progression and, hopefully, a trade.

    Couple that with Giannis' still-world-beating defensive efforts and results, and you've got a player who's a one- or two-week heater away from putting genuine pressure on the two names to follow.

2. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

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    DALLAS, TEXAS - JANUARY 07: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks walks off the court following a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at American Airlines Center on January 07, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. Dallas won 127-117. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
    Sam Hodde/Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: 2

    Luka Dončić clearly took falling from the top spot in the last MVP ladder personally. That's the only explanation for his hanging 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists on the New York Knicks the day it came out (Dec. 27). He is obviously reading this, and I, for one, appreciate the click.

    Nudging Dončić back up to No. 1 is tempting. We have seen what the Dallas Mavericks look like without him or when he's not fully "on" a couple of times over the past month. Spoiler alert: It isn't pretty.

    His raw numbers make this an even harder call. Dončić is up to a league-leading 34.0 points per game to go along with 8.7 assists per game while converting 57.9 percent of his twos and 35.5 percent of his triples—including a 38-plus-percent clip on his patented, ultra-ultra-ultra-difficult step-back treys.

    Critics angling to poke holes in Dončić's case tend to spotlight Dallas' record or Luka's seemingly inflexible play style. Neither leg is providing much stability on which to stand these days.

    The gap between "home-court advantage" and "draft lottery" barely exists in the Western Conference. But the Mavs have, for the time being, worked themselves into fourth place. And Dončić cannot be declared functionally stubborn when Dallas hasn't armed him with the supporting cast to play a different brand of basketball or when he's so clearly elevating the efficiency of everyone around him.

    To wit: Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Christian Wood round out the Mavs' top-five scorers (behind Luka). Three of them—Dinwiddie, THJ, DFS—see their effective field-goal percentage climb by more than 10 points with Dončić on the court, according to PBP Stats.

1. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets

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    DENVER, CO - JANUARY 9: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 9, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

    Previous Ranking: 1

    Please, pretty please, spare me the "It might look weird years and years from now if and when Nikola Jokić joins Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the only three-consecutive-MVP winners in league history!" pretzel-twisting.

    It is perfectly fine if you wouldn't—or won't—vote for Jokić to take home this year's honor. But if that's the way you're leaning, you better come up with a more salient, coherent argument than voter fatigue or hypothetical optics decades into the future.

    Do I think voter fatigue will cost Jokić a genuine crack at third straight MVP? Probably. But less so than last time around. (Progress!) Do I think that's fair? Not even kind of.

    The same goes for the notion Jokić would historically be out of place as a three-time winner. He is the best passing big man the NBA has ever seen and is averaging nearly a triple-double for one of the Association's top teams on unreal efficiency. And nothing he's doing is out of character.

    Jokić is on track to make this the third time he clears 20 points and seven assists per game on true shooting north of 60. Here's every player to hit these benchmarks with more such seasons: James Harden (five) and LeBron James (five). That's it.

    Feel free to split hairs over playoff viability. But MVP is a regular-season award. Any playoff gut feelings or preferences better be a last-resort tiebreak rather than the meat and potatoes of your reasoning.

    Let's not pretend that Jokić isn't a postseason player, either. His offense has scaled to the pressure cooker—and then some. We also can't pretend to know that he's somehow failed a full-strength Nuggets unit in the playoffs because we've never seen this group together when it matters most.

    And finally, it's probably time we talk more about how Denver's net rating this season with Jokić (plus-12) is appreciably better than the on-court marks from any of the 11 other players mentioned here. (The second-highest comes from Golden State with Curry, at plus-8.4.)

    In a sea of correct answers, Jokić's MVP case feels most right.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Tuesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.

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