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Kia MVP Ladder: Trade deadline-day moves could alter award chase

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum rise up as we take stock of the Kia MVP chase after a busy NBA trade deadline.

Nikola Jokic remains atop the Kia MVP Ladder after a wild NBA trade deadline shook up several rosters.

MVP candidates need help too, and our 2023 NBA trade deadline roundup indicates nearly every player listed on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder received some form of it in the flurry of transactions consummated ahead of the league’s annual trade deadline.

“You never take any of these guys for granted,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said, when asked what it’s like to coach generational stars like Kyrie Irving, who had just debuted Wednesday for the Mavericks after joining them two days prior in a trade that sent Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and three picks to Brooklyn for the eight-time All-Star guard.

In all, 57 players have changed teams since Jan. 5, and the Irving deal represented one of the most significant. That deal created arguably the league’s most lethal backcourt combo by pairing Irving, the 30-year old, with superstar guard Luka Doncic, who is No. 5 on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

A mix of blockbuster deals and trades galore made the 2023 NBA trade deadline a historic one.

Phoenix would only up the ante in what seemed like an all-out arms race in the West by bringing aboard Kevin Durant and T.J. Warren in a trade with the Nets that sent away Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder (who ended up in Milwaukee to play alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo) in addition to four future first-round picks and a pick swap.

A 13-time NBA All-Star, Durant raises the profile of the Suns to legitimate contender. He joins a roster that features a future Hall of Fame point guard (Chris Paul), and a young star (Devin Booker), backed by a versatile, athletic big man (Deandre Ayton). The Suns will be  looking to return to the NBA Finals, where they fell just two seasons ago to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

New Phoenix governor Mat Ishbia described the Durant trade as “a transformative day for this organization,” adding “Kevin is one of the most accomplished players in the history of the sport, but his character also embodies the world class commitment to excellence we are instilling across every facet of this organization.”

LeBron James’ 13th-place Los Angeles Lakers even lit fuses to the transactional fireworks. The club announced the trade of Russell Westbrook ahead of Thursday’s deadline and moved a bevy of players in finagling a near total team makeover. Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba are all now Lakers, and somehow the franchise surrendered only one first-round Draft pick to add reinforcements for Anthony Davis and James, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Nikola Jokic and Jayson Tatum also received needed depth for their respective teams.

The Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, added another shooter to play with Ja Morant.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see how the moves pan out and whether they positively or negatively affect these MVP candidacies.

But for now, the top five of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder remains virtually the same aside from Antetokounmpo inching up to second and Tatum returning to the top three. Embiid tumbles two spots to No. 4, while the injured Doncic maintains his fifth position.

And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 24.8 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 10.1 apg

Inactive on Feb. 5, Jokic delivered his league-leading 19th triple-double in a Feb. 7 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the reigning two-time MVP dishing the bulk of the dimes, Denver is 23-3 this season when it finishes a game with 30-plus assists. The Nuggets distributed just 24 assists in Thursday’s loss at Orlando, as Jokic produced a 29-point double-double, shooting 10 of 19 from the floor and was 3-for-5 from 3-point range with six assists. The 27-year old even morphed into Super Bowl mode against the Magic to hit Bruce Brown on the long ball. Winners of four of their last six games, Denver plays two of the next three on the road.

Nikola Jokic finished with a 29-point double-double in a loss to the Magic on Thursday.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 32.3 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 5.4 apg

This move was overdue considering Antetokounmpo averaged a staggering 37.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists while connecting on 60.8% from the floor entering Thursday’s 115-106 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. Antetokounmpo hit 60.9% against the Lakers for 38 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, driving through the opponent like a freight train. Milwaukee came into the season as the most experienced team in the NBA by average age and seasons played. But these Bucks certainly haven’t showed any signs of slowing down during their current nine-game win streak led by the two-time MVP, who has poured in 338 points in just 288 minutes played during this run.

Michael C. Wright joins GameTime to break down why Giannis is ascending toward the top rung of this week's edition of the Kia MVP Ladder.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.5 apg

The youngest player in Celtics history to become a four-time NBA All-Star, the 24-year-old Tatum scored 12 points Wednesday to lead a total team win against Philadelphia. Tatum pushed his season points total to  1,580, which ranks second in team annals for the most points scored before All-Star break behind Isaiah Thomas’ mark of 1,583 points set during the 2016-17 season (and the Celtics have four games remaining before the break). Tatum will really get to prove his mettle in the coming weeks since co-star Jaylen Brown will miss time. Brown suffered a facial injury in Wednesday’s win over the 76ers after colliding with Tatum under the basket late in the first half.

Jayson Tatum has put himself in the thick of the Kia MVP conversation this season.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 33.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 4.0 apg

The Sixers dropped two straight games since Embiid jumped into the second spot on the MVP Ladder, and Wednesday’s 106-99 defeat at Boston seemed particularly concerning due to the fact the Celtics were so undermanned. Boston competed without Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Robert Williams III and Brown, who suffered a facial injury in the first half. Still, three Celtics — Tatum, Grant Williams and Sam Hauser — standing 6-foot-8 or shorter finished with more rebounds than the most dominating center in today’s game, while backup bigs Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet shined (a combined 8-for-11 shooting). Despite a quick start against the Celtics, Embiid saw his run of games with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds (formerly the longest active streak in the league), end at eight.

Joel Embiid finished with 28 points in a loss to the Celtics.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 8.2 apg

Doncic hasn’t played since Feb. 2, missing three consecutive outings due to a right heel bruise. But behind the scenes, the 23-year old showcased MVP-level maturity, drive and selflessness by pushing Dallas brass to pursue a trade for Irving (who shined in his debut Wednesday night). Doncic joined the team in Los Angeles and cheered from the bench, virtually licking his chops at the prospect of the damage he and Irving might inflict on defenses in the coming months. “This is a great challenge for Luka,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said. “I think Luka is up for the challenge to show that he can play with another superstar.”

Can the Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving pairing in Dallas take the Mavs back to the West finals?

The Next Five:

6. Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
7. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
8. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
9. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: unranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers.

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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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