Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Durable Nikola Jokic faces biggest challenge yet

Nikola Jokic is keeping Denver afloat in the wake of Jamal Murray's injury in our latest look at the Top 5 contenders in the Kia MVP chase.

Nikola Jokic may be looking at a prime opportunity to further solidify his standing as the top Kia MVP candidate.

The NBA recently dropped data proving the injury rate for this season decreased approximately 6% from the 2019-20 campaign.

Still, all the bumps and bruises continue to significantly impact the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

Of the top 10 players in this week’s edition, eight have combined to sit out a total of 76 games. No. 1 Nikola Jokic continues to widen his margin among the field, in part, because the Nuggets’ big man and No. 10 Rudy Gobert are the only players among the top 10 that have yet to miss a game.

Jokic churned out his 15th triple-double of the season Wednesday during a 123-116 win against the Miami Heat. That was the Nuggets’ first game since star guard Jamal Murray suffered a season-ending torn ACL just two days prior in a loss to the Golden State Warriors.

“Jamal Murray’s not coming back,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game. “So, we realize that, and other guys have to step up. Tonight, we had a lot of guys who did that.”

That needs to continue for the Nuggets and Jokic, who can raise his stock even higher among the Kia MVP contenders by keeping the squad afloat as it turns toward the stretch run of the season. In essence, Damian Lillard pulled off a similar feat in carrying the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this season as CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic sat out 25 and 32 games, respectively, due to injuries.

Five players — Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James and Kevin Durant — occupied top five spots in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder at some point this season … only to suffer injuries that knocked them out. Just Embiid and Antetokounmpo (who returned Thursday from a six-game absence due to a lingering knee issue) found their way back into the top five.

Embiid missed 18 games, including 10 recently as a result of a bone bruise in his knee. A high ankle sprain knocked James out of the Lakers’ last 14 contests, while Harden has played a total of four minutes in April after aggravating a hamstring injury that kept him out of Brooklyn’s first two games this month.

Durant (hamstring), meanwhile, has participated in a total of four games since Feb. 6.

Even as two-time Kia MVP Stephen Curry cranks out yet another season for the ages, you can’t help but wonder how Klay Thompson’s season-ending torn Achilles affects the point guard’s candidacy. With Thompson on the floor contributing, it’s likely Golden State would be squarely in competition for one of the higher seeds in the West instead of scrapping for a low seed in the upcoming Play-In Tournament.

Make no mistake, a team’s win-loss record affects a player’s prospects for capturing the Kia MVP. The Warriors are in the midst of their first four-game winning streak of the season.

So, there’s hope.

And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 26.0 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 8.8 apg, 1.5 spg

Nikola Jokic logged his 15th triple-double of the season in a win vs. Miami.

Jokic responded to Murray’s season-ending knee injury by producing his third triple-double in the last four games in a win over the Heat. He’s now one triple-double away from tying Fat Lever for the most triple-doubles (16) in a single season in Nuggets history. Jokic also leads the NBA in double-doubles with 49 in his 55 outings. All Jokic needs to do is keep Denver afloat for the rest of the regular season to become the first center to win the NBA MVP since 2000, when Shaquille O’Neal took home the honor.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 29.8 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.5 bpg

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons set the tone in toppling Brooklyn in a win that gives Philadelphia control of the East's No. 1 seed.

Pure dominance in this performance against the Brooklyn Nets. Embiid has racked up 35 points or more in three of the five games he’s been back in the lineup for the Sixers. So, it makes sense for Embiid to express confidence regarding his prospects for winning the Kia MVP. “I feel like I’m right there. I feel like that’s mine,” he said. “But that’s not what I’m focused on. I’m focused on winning every single game and getting to the playoffs healthy to try to win what matters the most, and that’s the NBA championship.”

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 28.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.0 spg

Take an all-angles look at Luka Doncic's miraculous game-winner vs. Memphis

Even LeBron James took notice of this ridiculous buzzer-beater Doncic nailed between two defenders to lead the Mavericks to a 114-113 win on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. “Luka made one of the signature special shots you’re going to see for a long time,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. The victory pushed Dallas through a bit of a rough spot in which it had lost two in a row. The Mavericks appear to be gaining some momentum toward overtaking Portland for the sixth spot in the Western Conference standings to avoid being forced into a Play-In scenario.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 28.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.3 bpg

Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from a 6-game absence to help power Milwaukee past Atlanta on Thursday.

He finally returned from a six-game absence and contributed 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with five rebounds and three steals in just 25 minutes vs. Atlanta. In addition, Milwaukee concluded a stretch in which it played nine of 10 games on the road over a span of 17 days. Antetokounmpo had been dealing with left knee issues since March 20, and Milwaukee has gone 7-6 since then with him missing a total of eight games. Interestingly, Antetokounmpo’s return came at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, where he hit 16 of 16 last month to earn MVP of the NBA All-Star Game.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 28.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 7.7 apg

Check out some of Damian Lillard's best baskets from the 2020-21 season.

The production continues to dwindle, but give Lillard respect for keeping a realistic perspective regarding his prospects for winning the Kia MVP with his team having lost four of its last five going into Friday’s game at San Antonio. “I think for that to really happen, we’ve got to get ourselves back on the winning track,” Lillard said. “I think the chances of that happening had been really, really strong when we got on the road, were winning a lot of games, and I was playing well.” Lillard is shooting a season-low 38.5% in April and is at 37.5% on 3-pointers this month, too.

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The Next Five:

6. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

7. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

8. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

10. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

And five more: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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