2023-24 NBA MVP race: Another three-man ladder likely looms

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Most Valuable Player races in the NBA are usually pretty static, as far as who is in the race. Not this year.

While the leader in last month’s FOX Sports MVP Rankings — Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid — has been effectively eliminated by a knee injury that is almost certain to prohibit him from playing the mandatory 65 games to be eligible for a postseason award, he isn’t the only one to fall out of the Top 10. Four new players have jumped into the race at the midway point of the season, thanks to how they’ve fueled their respective teams’ rise in the standings: New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant.

The four falling out of the top 10: Embiid, Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis and Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero.

The volatile MVP race mirrors the equally chaotic team rankings this season. By the time the All-Star break arrives, the top two or three teams have been identified. Again, not this year. The top eight teams in the league are separated by a total of 6 1/2 games, and the superiority of the top two teams — Boston and Minnesota — lies less in the presence of a superstar player than the collective talent and versatility of the team overall. Which is why, despite having the league’s two best records, their top stars are not serious threats to win MVP. And, partly because of that, their status as the teams to beat has yet to be established.

Up until now, the four new entrants were all lurking just outside the top 10 MVP candidates this season. What moved them up, and the other four down, is how their play has impacted winning. Mitchell had to step into a bigger role with point guard Darius Garland injured and did so admirably. While the acquisition of OG Anunoby certainly spurred the Knicks’ 14-2 record in January, so did Brunson’s plus-minus jumping to a stratospheric plus-25.8.

While the elimination of Embiid and his chance at back-to-back MVP awards clears the path for Jokic to win his third in four years, the race is far from over. If the Thunder should make the massive leap from lottery to best record in the Western Conference, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to have a compelling case in light of the relative inexperience of the Oklahoma City roster. Brunson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic — whose MVP chances are now nearly identical to Antetokounmpo’s, according to Basketball Reference — are still within striking distance as well, depending on how the second half of the season unfolds.

Jokic is undoubtedly the favorite at this point, but imagine if the Nuggets fall behind the Timberwolves, Thunder and Clippers, which is entirely possible. He is not likely to get the consideration he received two years ago when the Nuggets were missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., finished sixth in the Western Conference and Jokic still won his second MVP in a row. Also, don’t be surprised if, a month from now, the MVP list has gone through another major transmutation. Is it crazy to think that a first-time MVP could be crowned?

Not this year.

NBA MVP Ladder

  1. Nikola Jokic
  2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  3. Jalen Brunson
  4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  5. Luka Dončić
  6. Donovan Mitchell
  7. Kawhi Leonard
  8. Anthony Edwards
  9. Jayson Tatum
  10. Kevin Durant

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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