Kia Race To The MVP
Kia Race To The MVP

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Ja Morant may have a future someday in MVP mix

Fielding your questions on Donovan Mitchell, James Harden, LeBron James and more

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Jan 14, 2020 11:20 AM ET

Ja Morant has been the driving force for Memphis during its recent turnaround.

If Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook finds himself caught up in the moment tonight in Memphis (8 ET, NBA TV), he gets a pass. While Westbrook is getting a rest tonight, he’ll get another glimpse at Memphis rookie sensation Ja Morant.

It’s not often you get a glimpse of yourself in action the way Westbrook and Morant will tonight when the streaking Grizzlies host the Rockets at FedEx Forum. But that’s exactly what both players will experience in this instance.

 
The Grizzlies scored a big win against the Spurs on Jan. 10 thanks to Ja Morant.

Morant started drawing comparisons to Westbrook while he was in college -- an ultra-athletic point guard who plays at a breakneck pace while attacking the rim. To date, he’s done nothing to discourage those lofty comparisons.

Memphis is 7-2 since Christmas, much of which is due to the play of Morant during that stretch. He’s piling up highlights along the way that surely remind Westbrook of his younger self, not that he still isn’t one of the league’s most explosive players.

Tonight’s game also provides viewers an interesting glimpse at the Kia MVP past (Westbrook won the award in 2017), present (James Harden won in 2018 and is in the thick of this chase) and perhaps its future (Morant leads the Kia Rookie Ladder and could be a Kia MVP candidate sooner than later).

The praise for Morant’s game has been universal. His impact in Memphis, where expectations for this season didn’t necessarily include housing a playoff contender, is undeniable.

 
Ja Morant started to heat up as December wore on.

Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. are foundational pieces for the franchise as it makes an official transition from its “Grit and Grind” past to whatever this new and wildly exciting era becomes.

“I think he's exceeded everyone else's expectations,” Jackson said of his teammate. "He's a special talent. He moves without the ball, gets back on defense, set screens and gets the ball to guys when they're open."

* * *

Another LeBron milestone:LeBron James collected his latest stats feat in the Los Angeles Lakers’ win over his old Cleveland team, passing Isiah Thomas for eighth on the NBA’s all-time assists list. Just add that one to the long list of milestones for LeBron, an unabashed student of the game, will add many more to this list before he’s done playing in the NBA.

 
With this pass, LeBron James moved into 8th place on the all-time assists list.

Gilgeous-Alexander delivers:  Luka Doncic isn’t the only youngster in the league doing things we haven’t seen in ages. Did you see the line Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put together Monday night in a Oklahoma City’s win over over Minnesota? His 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists made him the youngest player (21 years, 185 days), per Elias Sports, to have a 20-20-10 game. The previous youngest was Maurice Stokes (22 years, 211 days) who had 26 points, 38 rebounds and 12 assists for the Rochester Royals on Jan. 14, 1956 (one day shy of exactly 64 years ago).

 
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander logged a historic triple-double on Monday night.

Player(s) of the Week: Excellent work from both Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan (the author of this Dunk of the Year offering below) on to earn Player of the Week honors. DeRozan slid into the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder last week, ahead of this honor. I guess you could say we saw this coming.

 
DeMar DeRozan's mid-range game is keeping the Spurs afloat out West.

No Sleep Zone: I feel you Zion Williamson. We’ve all been there before.

Now, let’s get into your emails about last week’s Kia MVP Ladder.

 

 

Here we go again: LeBron > AD

 
LeBron proved his worth in a win against the Cavs.

From: Felice Francario
Jan. 7, 2020, 7:07 p.m.

I am a big fan of your MVP Ladder. I usually agree with most of your rankings, but I completely disagree with having Anthony Davis over LeBron James. Just by watching a couple of the most recent Lakers games, I noticed that everytime LeBron is off the floor they look horrible. The analytics support the eye test.

When LeBron is on the floor : +12.7 net rating.

When Davis is on the floor : +7.4 net rating

When LeBron is off the floor : -1.5 net rating.

When Davis is off the floor : + 10.5 net rating.

That means that the Lakers without LeBron James have a worse net rating than the Washington Wizards (-4.1 net rating). Meanwhile Without Anthony Davis, the Lakers still have a better net rating than the Clippers (+5.9 net rating).

My Kia MVP list:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. James Harden
3. LeBron James
4. Luka Doncic
5. Anthony Davis

For now, I am putting Harden over LeBron, since he is averaging nearly 40 points which can't be ignored. If the Lakers continue with this win pace I will move LeBron up on my list.

* * *

My response:  These are compelling numbers Felice, I appreciate you taking the time to share them. One thing I'd point out about the LeBron-AD on and off the floor ratings. As the primary ball handler for the Lakers LeBron is always going to have a more significant impact on the Lakers' bottom line. It's not like AD takes over as the primary ball handler/decision maker when he's on the floor without LeBron.

 

A few things to note

 
James Harden set a scoring milestone in a win against the Wolves.

From: Ethan Jha
Jan. 7, 2020 | 5:47 p.m.

I personally believe that this past week’s MVP ladder was good, such as Giannis at No. 1. But, there were a few things I should note.

For example, I think James Harden should be higher than Luka Doncic because of his CRAZY scoring while also averaging 7.5 assists per game. If he was averaging less assists, I guarantee he would be averaging at least 40 ppg. In the meantime, Luka is lower in points than Harden. While he may be averaging a near-triple-double, he also missed some time, and the Mavs have dropped in the West, from the second to the sixth seed -- two spots lower than the Rockets.

I also want to talk about AD and LeBron, because I believe that LeBron should be higher than AD because. In my opinion, he is worth more to the Lakers than AD right now. They are in first place in the Western Conference, and I have a good feeling that it will stay like that.

However, I believe that if you take AD off that team, they will still be a top 5 team in the West, but not in a place to win the championship. If you take LeBron off the Lakers, they essentially become the Pelicans for the last five years. This is why I think LeBron should be higher than AD. I also think he should be higher than Luka and Harden because I believe that they are all playing at about the same level, but look at the rankings.

The Lakers are first in the West, the Rockets are fourth and the Mavs are sixth. Now, like I said earlier, being in first place is definitely due in part to AD. But I also said that LeBron is more valuable to them, just like how Luka is more valuable to the Mavs than Kristaps and how Harden is more valuable to the Rockets than Russell Westbrook. It all cancels out and we’re left with the standings, and the Lakers are the highest.

With that being said, here’s my Top 5 MVP Ladder:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. LeBron James
3. James Harden
4. Luka Doncic
5. Anthony Davis

Besides the MVP Ladder, I also had a thought about the All-Star Game, specifically the All-Star draft and who is drafted. I believe that it was a fantastic idea by Adam Silver to have two special spots for Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. I personally believe that the league should do that every year, which is why, for this year, if they do have a special draft for soon-to-be-retired players, I believe they should do Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony.

This is because Carter is retiring this season, and he definitely will be a Hall of Famer, so it is a perfect fit. For Melo, however, he hasn’t said he is retiring this year. If he does, at least this will be a way to respect him for all he’s done for the league as he is also a future Hall of Famer.

Either way, give me your thoughts on all of this, and thank you for reading this. Have a great day!

* * *

 

My response: Seriously Ethan, this is more homework than I have time to do. I do want to address your point about bringing retiring stars to All-Star weekend. I agree it would be cool to see Vince Carter in Chicago. I wonder if someone could entice him to participate in the Slam Dunk contest ... just for kicks. As for Carmelo, I don’t think he’s retiring anytime soon -- not after what I’ve seen of him this season. I think he plays another year or more. But you are right, it is the perfect way to honor retiring future Hall of Famers, celebrating them during All-Star weekend. Great call.

 

My own MVP critera

 
Sekou Smith explains why each player is where in his latest Kia MVP Ladder.

From: Hollis Pettway
Jan. 7, 2020 | 5:10 p.m.

I have decided to compiled a serious MVP list for your review:

1. James Harden
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
3. LeBron James
4. Luka Doncic
5. Nikola Jokic

With respect to the seemingly countless factors upon which the MVP decision is usually made, these selections are based on certain changes to those perimeters. I looked at this season’s accomplishments only, with no consideration for past regular or postseason accomplishments/shortfalls. This is, after all, a regular season award, right?

I feel the player's value to his team is paramount and a factor that could only be calculated based on the average regular-season points total for which the player is responsible. I also tried to limit the feel-good narrative that often has nothing to do with actual team value (box office totals not withstanding). For me, this approach helps to mitigate the sense of a scattershot approach to the whole thing. Your thoughts?

* * *

My response: Hollis, my man, I appreciate you coming back with your own top five. And yes indeed, the Kia MVP is strictly a regular season award. There’s another MVP trophy you can earn after The Finals. And I have no problem with the “feel-good narrative” playing a huge role in this debate. It often has plenty to  do with actual team value. Don’t sleep on the narrative. It’s a huge part of this process for many voters.

 

The best in Texas

 

From: Anthony Brown
Jan. 7, 2020 | 3:57 p.m.

I understand your points in regard to Giannis, but the defense of James Harden this year sounds like a bail out.  He’s not a lock-down defender, but great offensive players are going past him this year. And, who stops great offensive players anyway?! I believe you have Luka too high on the board.  He should be top 5 but not in the top 3 and we all know why he is a leading All-Star vote-getter. He’s not the best in Texas, much less in the NBA.

Everyone has so much to say about Harden in the playoffs, but for three consecutive years Harden has been the best player in the league. It’s crazy: how a man can get double teamed every game averaging almost 40 points and not be one or two on the list today? Seriously, Houston is 3 or 4 in the West today. The excuse last year wasn’t fair to Harden when he was responsible for bringing his team from the bottom to the No. 4 seed in the West.

* * *

My response: I have no interest in the instigation of some Kia MVP civil war in Texas, Anthony. And as you’ve likely seen by now, James Harden moved ahead of Luka in the latest Kia MVP Ladder. I’ll defer to you (and my main man Michael C. Wright of NBA.com) on all other matters in Texas, if that will keep everyone down there calm. I’m trying to increase the peace in 2020.

 

Time to add Gobert?

 
Rudy Gobert proved his all-around worth in a win against the Wizards.

From: Zachary Pinney
Jan. 7, 2020 | 2:06 p.m.

I think it’s about time we define what Most Valuable Player really means. A lot of people take it as the best player in the game. We should set aside a new award, the NBA’s best player award, from the MVP. There are some players, that if they didn’t play for the team they play for, that would change the whole outlook of the team and what they stand for.

Take reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert off the Utah Jazz and what do you get? A defense that falters because people don’t look at the effect of having Gobert on your team. He is the NBA's best shot-altering force. Players struggle scoring against him. If Gobert is not on the Jazz, the Jazz wouldn’t win as much. People think it’s all about offense, but the defense means a lot. Rudy Gobert should be an All-Star and an MVP because of his game-changing defense. We know Donovan Mitchell is very good( we could flip the script: who are the Jazz without the scoring punch of Mitchell?), but when we talk about valuable, you need a defensive-minded person like Gobert.

Take LeBron out and you still have Anthony Davis. Take Kawhi out and Paul George is still there. Take Giannis out and the Bucks' outlook is totally different. Take Gobert out, and you no longer have a team that relies on its defense to win games.

* * *

My response: That’s an original take on the MVP conversation that I honestly haven’t heard much of, Zachary. But you raise some great points. And Gobert is a great example of the dilemma all voters face. Gobert wins Defensive Player of the Year but is conveniently left out of most MVP lists. There’s a reason we connect offensive-minded players or guys who can do it all with the MVP award, and it’s done across all sports really. Even when we know great defense wins championships, we tend to be offensive-minded with MVP or Player of the Year honors.

 

Getting into the mix

 
Jimmy Butler continues to deliver for the Heat this season.

From: Aleksandar Predojevic
Jan. 7, 2020 | 2:05 p.m.

Your top three of Giannis, Luka and Harden, which I do agree is the top 3 at this point in time. But, do you think Harden has the chance of dethroning Giannis at the top of the list? I mean you can argue he goes to the free throw line a lot, to which he does, however Giannis does have more free-throws per drive than any other player in the league.

If Harden were to go on a scoring tear where he has another three to four 60-point games to bring his scoring average to 40 ppg (all while maintaining his current efficiency) and leads his team to 50 wins, would you put him at No. 1? I don’t think Luka will maintain his unbelievable play toward the back end of this season as I think he's too young and not used to being able to maintain this level of play. I also don't think the Mavs will be able to continue this hot streak they're on, so I’ve essentially taken him out of the equation.

If Harden were to have a 40/6/8 season with two steals per game and the Rockets go 53-28, would that outweight Giannis at, say, 29/12/5 with a 60-22 mark? I personally think it should. Then, of course, there's LeBron, who could just finish with 26/8/11 and also have 60-plus wins. Would that over rank those two guys? Or would the help of Davis put him out of contention?

Jimmy Butler may not be having a fantastic statistical season. But if the Heat maintained their incredible play, would that put him in contention? If Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets dethroned the Lakers atop the Western Conference (and he's at 22/10/8), would that make him an MVP candidate? And if by some miracle the Pistons were able to finish in a No. 7 or 8 spot, would that put Andre Drummond in contention?

Who do you think will continue their amazing play for the rest of this season and who do you think will drop off ?

* * *

My response: I’ve got to keep it real with you Aleks, I don’t see Harden or anyone overtaking Giannis without a significant spike in their play or a Giannis doing something drastically different this season. If you’re going to catch and pass him, you gotta go off on both ends of the floor, because Giannis is leading the pack with a comprehensive game. You better match that two-way dominance, if you can.

 

Isn't it obvious?

 
Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to expand his game this season.

From: Sebastian Corsello
Jan. 7, 2020 | 1:47 p.m.

If you base MVP on the most significant impact, I think it has to be quite a strong case for Giannis to be the front-runner. Although the season is not even half way done yet, Giannis is putting up the greatest PER in NBA history.

I do see the reasoning behind why some may think that Harden deserves it due to his incredible offensive season. But if you look at per 36 numbers, Giannis is only averaging 1.6 points less and just 0.7 assists less than Harden ... while also leading his team to the NBA's best record.

Although Doncic is putting up ridiculous numbers and achieving things that no one his age has ever done before, a don’t believe a player on a non-Top 3-seeded team should be considered in the MVP race.

LeBron and AD, I think, have been ridiculously good. Come playoff time I think they will be almost unstoppable, but I don’t feel like there’s a scenario where two superstars of their talent could both be seriously contending for an MVP.

My MVP list right now is:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. James Harden

3. LeBron James
4. Luka Doncic
5. Anthony Davis
6. Jimmy Butler
7. Kawhi Leonard
8. Kemba Walker
9. Pascal Siakam
10. Nikola Jokic

Just curious on your thoughts about this and how much you agree with it given your deep understanding for the game.

* * *

My response: Seems pretty obvious to me, Sebastian. You’ve taken a rather unbiased and quite logical approach to your evaluation of the current MVP landscape. It’s not as easy to do when you have a rooting interest. Folks assume you have an agenda all the time, I know. But that’s not the case for me, nor has it ever been. Your thorough analysis makes nothing but good sense to me.

 

A new basketball world for LeBron

 
LeBron James had his way with the Cavs in a win on Monday.

From: Wyatt Kelly
Jan. 7, 2020 | 8:38 p.m.

I'm a massive fan of your MVP ladder, but I really believe LeBron should be No. 2. He has been playing a whole new brand of basketball as he isn’t just focusing on offense he’s playing defense and showing off his playmaking ability. Surely you will consider putting him at No. 2 -- and maybe even No. 1 -- in future. And on top of that, he is 35 and has played 17 seasons!

Here is my MVP ladder:1

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. LeBron James
3. Luka Doncic
4. Anthony Davis
5. James Harden
6. Joel Embiid
7. Kemba Walker
8. Donovan Mitchell
9. Pascal Siakam
10. Damian Lillard

Honorable mentions: Kawhi Leonard, Brandon Ingram, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal

And will Lakers win the championship?

* * *

My response: We’ve got you down for LeBron and Lakers, Wyatt. No going back now. You’ve put it out there and we’re keeping track here at MVP headquarters.

 

Enough about Harden!

Some are growing tired of the Kia MVP hype surrounding James Harden.

From: Nicholas Fulwiler
Jan. 8, 2020 | 12:56 p.m.

I’m so sick of hearing about James Harden in this race. Every year it’s the same thing. Yeah, he scores the ball at am amazing clip and, yeah, no one can guard him. Cool. So what? The Most Valuable Player Award should go to the Most Valuable Player.  Not the player who scores the most. Who cares how many points and individual scores if their team can’t win?!

It’s been brought up that there is no standard for judging this race and everyone has their own unique set of values. But, yo, can’t we agree that the MVP award is about more that putting the ball through the hoop?

In response to the second published letter this week (from Doreynoldstx): James Harden playing “respectable” defense doesn’t cut it. Defense is half the game. If you're not a top defender, you shouldn’t be considered for MVP. There’s an award for the highest scorer in the league. Harden can have that and another early exit from the playoffs. Let’s talk about Harden in MVP context when (if?) he starts putting in effort on both ends of the floor.

* * *

My response: Nick, my friend, we’re supposed to be working on some things to kick off 2020. So don’t be so hard on the rest of the folks in our community here. We might fight every now and then, but we’re a Kia Race to the MVP Ladder family. And yes, I think we should all agree the award is about more than just who scores the most points. If we start there, I think everything else falls into place as we continue the never-ending debate.

 

Getting it off his chest

From: Jackson Medilien
Jan. 8, 2020 | 8:23 p.m.

I've been following the NBA for four seasons now and I would like, for the first time, to manifest my opinion. According to me, LeBron should have won the MVP award every season except for last year. He is the one that brings the money to the NBA and all the sports show around the NBA. His name is attached to every headline either to criticize or praise him, but most of the time it is critics that are railing on his name.

This year, he is again the one running the offense for the Lakers. OK, yes, Davis scores a bunch, but this is the way the offense is constructed. Most of the baskets that count -- the ones that give the lead or change the dynamic of the game -- come from LeBron. This guy must be at least at the second place on the MVP ladder. You are disrespecting Giannis' teammates by saying than he is alone, because he is not. He has the Lopez brothers, two guys trained by LeBron in George Hill and Kyle Korver, while LeBron has nobody consistent except for AD.

* * *

My response: Some people have made similar arguments about other players in the past, Jackson. Michael Jordan should have eight or nine straight MVPs if you let some of his most passionate fans tell it. So I’m not here to tell you that you are wrong.

 

A simple case for Jokic

 
Nikola Jokic came through in a win against Luka Doncic and the Mavs.

From: Jonathan George
Jan. 10, 2020 | 10:23 a.m.

I am a 13-year-old Denver Nuggets fan and I feel like Nikola Jokic should win MVP.

He is averaging about 20 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a steal on 50% from the field, while leading his team to the second-best record in the West. He has the most game-winning shots under 10 seconds since last year and is first among centers in real plus-minus with 4.59.

Out of the whole league, Jokic is seventh in RPM trailing players like LeBron James, James Harden and others. Last season, he single-handedly carried his team to the playoffs.

Jokic was a monster in the playoffs, getting triple-doubles and posting insane stats. He is one of the clutch players in the NBA, and he is a really good post-up player.

* * *

My response: Keep crunching those numbers, Jonathan. I’ve been trying to find a young John Schuhmann (NBA.com's analytics guru) to replace that snarky old man. You’re just the man for the job. Jokic was outstanding last season, the somewhat reluctant headliner for one of the best teams in the league. No one can dispute that. And there are strong arguments made on the regular that suggest he, and not Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns, is the best big man in basketball.

 

Where's Westbrook?

From: Ryan Tretsky
Jan. 12, 2020 | 2:36 a.m.

Do you think Russell Westbrook's overall improvement on offense from the beginning of the season can make him a viable MVP candidate by the end of the year if he keeps it up? It seems that he really is improving everywhere (except for 3-point shooting) since the beginning of the season.

* * *

My response: If he keeps it up Ryan, yes, I think Russ can play his way into the MVP conversation. But even if he does, it would be hard to see him supplant James Harden as the Rockets' most viable candidate for MVP. It's Harden's team and the voters understand that. Russ is certainly capable of making things interesting, though, provided he continues to play as well as he has recently.

 

Time to bump up Mitchell

 
Donovan Mitchell showed out in a win against the Magic.

From: Nethul Maddumage
Jan. 12, 2020 | 11:28 a.m.

Personally, I think that Donovan Mitchell should be higher in the list as he has been playing out of his mind. The Jazz superstar has averaged 22 points, 5.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds during the last eight games and his production also propelled the Jazz to a 10-game win streak. With that winning streak, the Jazz have been climbing the West standings and are now the No. 3 seed.

Mitchell has proven himself to be a perennial All-Star that can also be the cornerstone of an organization. All this production and accolades within just the first three seasons of his career. He has proven to be the player the Jazz thought he was when they drafted him and has even surpassed those expectations by showing glimpses of being more than that.

* * *

My response: I’m not here to argue with you, Nethul. You don’t seem like there is any way you could be convinced of anything else, so I won’t waste any time on that. Donovan Mitchell is indeed where he belongs in the Kia MVP mix, with plenty of chances to climb over the next few months.

 

Pay attention to the stops

From: Richard Udoh
Jan. 12, 2020 | 2:43p.m.

As noted by advanced stats, Giannis appears to be the best at holding opponents to a low field goal percentage. Yet you don't bring it to the forefront. This might hurt is chances of being the DPOY as well as MVP. Start adding a little defensive info for Giannis, please.

* * *

My response: Giannis doesn’t need any help from us, Richard. Trust me. But your points are duly noted and I’ll be sure to spread the words you shared.

 

Fearing 'The Beard'

 
Game after game, James Harden continues to work on his scoring skills.

From: Emmett Dunn
Jan. 10, 2020 | 10:36 p.m.

I’m going to get straight to it. James Harden needs to be top 2, and there’s an argument for No. 1. We’ve never seen anyone in the modern era of basketball score the ball at the level he does, with the exception of one or two players. Teams have created new defenses just to try and stop him. There is no one more VALUABLE to his team in the league, because for better or worse, the team revolves around him more than any other player in the league.

I also have some thoughts on LeBron. He shouldn’t be near the top 3, or above AD, considering AD is the man that the offense runs through. LeBron passes to AD in the clutch, and 'Bron has played small in every big this year for them. Also, CP3 needs more love.

My ladder as of Jan. 9:

1a. Giannis Antetokounmpo
1b. James Harden

3. Luka Doncic
4. Anthony Davis
5. Nikola Jokic
6. LeBron James
7. Donovan Mitchell
8. Jimmy Butler
9. Kawhi Leonard
10. Chris Paul
11. Joel Embiid
12. Kemba Walker
13. Domantas Sabonis
14. Kyle Lowry
15. Rudy Gobert

* * *

My response: You might be on to something, Emmett. I hadn’t given much thought to a 1a and 1b in terms of ranking the top five. Sure, we’ve seen some ties in the bottom five. But rarely have we seen ties among that top group. You went 15-deep on your list and it looks like the right mix of players to me. Stay tuned for the next Kia Race to the MVP Ladder in a few days.

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Got MVP thoughts? Send Sekou an email!

* * *

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.


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