Updated NBA MVP Rankings: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant Separate from the Pack

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 30, 2021

Updated NBA MVP Rankings: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant Separate from the Pack

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant don't share a locker room or even a conference anymore, but they could spend the 2021-22 NBA campaign together in one respect.

    They're in pole position to decide the MVP race.

    Throw out as many disclaimers as you'd like. It's early, these things are always subject to change and blah, blah, blah.

    One look at the track records of Curry and Durant and a second toward their current production levels makes it easy to buy both holding on to their prominent position in the pursuit. But which of the former teammates has the early edge on the other? And who else is hovering behind them with any hope of crashing the party?

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    10. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

    The Grizzlies' floor general is a bit hard to place after recently injuring his left knee, but assuming he doesn't miss much more than "a couple of weeks," then he could have built a big enough margin for error to retain his top-10 perch.

    He has meant everything and more to Memphis, which looks like it could once again factor into the playoff race. Prior to the injury, he was busy making good on the star potential made most visible during the postseason. Only five players are averaging 24 points, six assists and five rebounds, and he's one of them.

                

    9. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

    Kawhi Leonard's absence could've sent the Clippers tumbling down the Western Conference standings. Paul George has done everything in his power to make sure that never happens.

    He is L.A.'s best player in basically every asset, and that's only a pinch hyperbolic. He paces the team in points, assists and steals, and he is second only to starting center Ivica Zubac in rebounds.

                

    8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    Credit can be tricky to assign in Salt Lake City, where the top eight rotation players all have their fingerprints on another .600-plus winning percentage. You could present a passionate argument for Mike Conley and perhaps a very convincing one for Donovan Mitchell, but Rudy Gobert remains the proverbial stir in this squad's drink.

    His defense is elite. His rebounding is relentless. His screens are partitions keeping defenders away from ball-handlers. His point-blank finishing might be the best in the business. More than anything, his presence is felt throughout the franchise and gives it a championship-caliber identity.

                

    7. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

    The Suns are so expertly assembled that no individual has really shined above the rest amid the club's ongoing 16-game winning streak. Devin Booker could just as easily land in this spot, and if he sustains this recent heat wave (30-plus points on 50-plus percent shooting in three consecutive contests), he will separate himself as Phoenix's clearest MVP candidate.

    For now, though, the Point God still comes first. Chris Paul, who turned 36 years young in May, is the Association's only player averaging double-digit assists and within striking distance of the steals leader (eighth overall).

                 

    6. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

    The first month-plus for DeMar DeRozan in the Windy City hasn't been entirely perfect; he has just made it feel that way. He is already in rhythm with offensive co-star Zach LaVine, as DeRozan has maximized most every opportunity to come his direction.

    He is one of only eight players averaging 25 points, five rebounds and four assists. Among that uber-exclusive group, he has coughed up the fewest turnovers, posted the fourth-highest plus/minus and shot the fifth-highest percentage from the field, right in between LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Remember bubble-breakout Jimmy Butler? The guy who proved without a shadow of a doubt he could be the best player on a championship contender?

    Well, he's back. And he is closer to the MVP race than ever, despite claiming zero interest in the chase.

    "We need a championship here. That's all we're worried about," Butler told reporters. "All those individual things, they can keep it. I mean I can her it (MVP chatter), obviously, I'm not crazy. But definitely, it doesn't do anything for me."

    Butler's no-nonsense approach is a tone-setter in South Beach. He looks like he was forged in the fires of Heat #Culture and came out of it as a two-way wrecking ball. He takes on defensive assignments of all sizes and styles. And despite essentially ditching the long ball, he is as close to unguardable as ever. Opponents can't keep him off the line, and when whistles don't come, he uses his butter-soft mid-range touch to move the scoreboard.

    He shape-shifts his game often enough to make it tricky placing any specific label on him, but "winner" works best. To that end, only reigning MVP Nikola Jokic has contributed more win shares per 48 minutes.

4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    The difficulty level keeps climbing for Nikola Jokic to defend his MVP.

    It was already hard enough trying to mask the absence of flame-throwing point guard Jamal Murray, Denver's second-best scorer and table-setter just last season. But now Jokic also has to cover for high-scoring forward Michael Porter Jr., who is expected to miss the remainder of the season because of back surgery, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.

    That's a brutal blow to a Nuggets squad already stumbling through a six-game losing streak, but the fact it isn't necessarily fatal for Jokic's MVP chances says everything you need to know about the season he is having.

    You pick the advanced metric, and Jokic is probably leading it. He holds the No. 1 spot in win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, player impact estimate and FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR. If the campaign closed today, he'd have the highest player efficiency rating in NBA history by a mile.

    He looks even better than last season, when he collected 91 of 101 first-place votes for this very award. The question is whether Denver can drum up enough team success for his individual numbers to matter, and the injury issues around him make it tough to summon much optimism on that front.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    If any player can make this more than a two-man race between Curry and Durant, it's two-time winner Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    All metrics place him near the very top, and he's in the No. 1 spot in value over replacement player. He is one of only two players averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and those cutoffs are well behind his actual production (27.0/11.8/5.9). That also doesn't account for the fact he's also one of just seven players averaging 1.5 steals and one block.

    Statistically speaking, his credentials are incredible.

    Beyond the numbers, though, he could also get multiple lifts for narrative-driven voters. For one, he gets a bump for showing zero signs of complacency after helping the franchise snap a 50-year championship drought in July. Secondly, he has kept this club afloat despite a wave of injuries and absences washing over the rest of the roster.

    He might be the closest thing this league has to an unstoppable force and an immovable object rolled into one. He shouldn't be counted out of this MVP race (or maybe the next five), but his numbers might not quite be as absurd as this roster continues getting healthy.

2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Raise your hand if you remembered that Kevin Durant tore his Achilles during the 2019 Finals. That request is obviously made in jest, as hoop heads will never forget it, but it's still astounding to see how little has changed for the scoring forward since suffering the most worrisome injury in basketball.

    He's jostling for a fifth scoring title, fighting for a second MVP and generally cementing himself as perhaps the most skilled scorer in this league's history. There's still no right way to approach his combination of a center's size and a shooting guard's perimeter game.

    "He's evolved in every way that you can evolve," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, per SI.com's Michael Pina. "He's a scoring, point 3, 4, 5. He's a one-of-a-kind player. I think just from a pure scoring standpoint, I mean, I've never seen anybody do it easier."

    The Nets are sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings almost exclusively because of Durant's net-shredding. So far, that's been enough to cover: Kyrie Irving's ongoing absence, James Harden's choppy start, Blake Griffin's abysmal shooting and now, an ankle injury sending Joe Harris under the knife.

    Brooklyn's season probably shouldn't make sense, but Durant can do the impossible as the best player on the planet. What he can't do, though, is form as complete of an MVP argument as Stephen Curry.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry plays basketball like he was the first one to find its cheat code.

    He has flipped conventional hoops wisdom on how a shooter should play and how high a snipe-first superstar can rise, all while dismantling every defensive approach deployed against him. If defenders are too close, he toasts them off the dribble. If extra help comes his way, he spots an open teammate. If he gets a sliver of space when he crosses half-court, he's launching.

    His margin for error is minuscule, so his execution must be precise. Somehow, it almost always is. Despite the fact every opposing defense builds its entire game plan around stopping him, he is tied for the scoring lead and, as always, wowing with efficiency. His 94.2 free-throw percentage is as good as it gets. His 42.3 percent three-point splash rate is impressive on its own and remarkable when considering he's on course to break his own record for perimeter makes.

    "He's a master at what he does, I've been saying that ever since he came into the league," Durant told reporters. "Just a crafty player who can pretty much do anything off the ball, can cut to the rim, shoot floaters, shoot 3s and can handle the basketball too and get down to his spot."

    Curry doesn't have a great supporting cast—particularly with Klay Thompson and James Wiseman still on the shelf—but he has the Warriors leading the NBA in winning percentage (.900), net rating (plus-13.6) and scoring differential (plus-273 in 965 minutes). Golden State is an all-time juggernaut when he plays (plus-20.8 net rating with him) and a middle-of-the-pack afterthought when he doesn't (minus-0.8).

    For as sharp as Durant has been out of the gate, Curry has a comfortable lead on him and everyone else in the 2021-22 MVP race.

                

    Statistics through Sunday's games. Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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