Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: There's no easy way into this season's fray

LeBron James is on top in the latest ranking of the top 2020-21 Kia MVP candidates.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Donovan Mitchell is sizzling this season, but still ranks outside of the Top 5 in our latest Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell broke it down as best he could Tuesday, when asked what type of player deserves mention in the conversation regarding the Kia MVP.

Keep in mind, he’d just carried Utah to its fifth straight win and 16th in its last 17 outings against a formidable Boston Celtics squad. He scored a game-high 36 points with nine assists while dominating the last 5 minutes and 25 seconds by scoring 10 of the team’s final 18 points, while dishing dimes for the other eight.

Leery of the question posed by Sarah Todd of the Deseret News, Mitchell paused for a tick.

“I think first and foremost, the biggest thing is team play,” Mitchell said. “It’s the MVP award for sure, but you don’t get there without a team, and we’ve been playing well. I think for me, looking at it as on the best team, we’re doing our thing, we have a lot of room for improvement. But we’re definitely doing our thing right now, just making plays. It’s not necessarily having 35 [points], 10 [rebounds], and 10 [assists]. It’s doing whatever is needed. And I feel like my teammates trust me. I trust them. And I’m not worried about it. I know what it is. [I’ve] been here four years and the fans know that we don’t necessarily get all the credit we deserve, and that’s not just singling out me.

“I feel like we use that as a chip on our shoulder,” he added. “I’m just very fortunate to be in this position where my teammates trust me to go make plays like that. The other stuff, if it happens, it happens. I think the biggest thing is winning. Winning takes care of everything. Winning heals everything. The outside stuff is what it is. It’s not up to me. I’m just going to go out there and be the best teammate I can be and go from there.”

He’s not wrong here, nor is anybody else voicing strong opinions about what’s shaping up to be one of the tightest races for the MVP award in recent memory. With Mitchell as the headliner, the Jazz head into Friday’s game against Milwaukee with the NBA’s best record. He’s averaged 28.6 points, 6.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals during Utah’s five-game winning streak.

Still, it won’t move up Mitchell in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, which is a testament to the quality of the field. LeBron James remains No. 1 with a couple of changes in the hierarchy of the second and third tier of candidates.

Jazz still best in the West

Will Utah be able to maintain its perch atop the West all season?

Stephen Curry moves up some after lighting up Orlando for 40 points Thursday in his 17th career game and second this season with 10 or more 3-pointers, before he walked off the floor like this. Damian Lillard creeps up, too, after putting up 19 of his 30 points in the first quarter of an overtime win over Joel Embiid and the 76ers, while Jazz big man Rudy Gobert makes his Ladder debut.

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


1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Season stats: 25.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.9 apg

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

LeBron still playing at a 'high level'

The minutes are piling up, but 36-year-old LeBron James is still producing at an elite level for the Lakers.

James didn’t shoot it particularly well in Wednesday’s overtime win against the Thunder, but he came through in the clutch. He’s a big reason the Lakers are still riding a season-high six-game win streak, as they’ve captured wins in nine of their last 11 games. In all three of Los Angeles’ OT wins this season, James clocked in with at least 40 minutes, making him the first player age 35 or older in league history to play 40-plus minutes in three straight OT victories.


2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Season stats: 29.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 1.3 spg

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Embiid dazzles in Portland

Philadelphia's star center finished with 35 points in a loss to the Blazers on Thursday.

Embiid ran off to another fast start against Portland with 23 points in the first two quarters for his NBA-best eighth game this season with 20-plus points in the first half, before scoring just 12 more in the second half of Thursday’s OT loss. He’s scored 25-plus points in 10 consecutive games, becoming just the fourth 76er to accomplish that feat. The loss to Portland marked the first time Philadelphia suffered a defeat this season with its full starting lineup of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green.


3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 26.9 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.6 spg

Best of Phantom: Jokic 50-point game

Take a super slow-mo look back at the best plays and moments from Nikola Jokic's career-best game.

The day after last week’s Kia MVP Ladder dropped, Jokic hit Sacramento with a 50-piece despite the Nuggets missing their starting back court. The 50 points represented a career-high, but Jokic also contributed 12 assists, eight rebounds and three blocks to become the first center since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975) to put up 50 points and 10-plus assists. Jokic enters Friday’s game against OKC (9 ET, NBA League Pass) averaging 32.3 points in his last three games, but the Nuggets need to stack some wins as they’ve lost three of their last four.


4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 29.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.2 apg

Durant's season highlights

The Nets' star has scored 20 or more points in every game he's played so far in 2020-21.

In an MVP field this competitive, you can’t miss games unnecessarily. But Durant gets a pass here because of the reasoning behind his absence. Durant is expected to return Saturday against his former team, the Golden State Warriors. Durant hasn’t played with James Harden and Kyrie Irving since Brooklyn’s Feb. 5 loss to the Toronto Raptors. When KD misses time, the return games are scary. In the four contests this season he’s played coming off missed games, he’s averaged 34.3 points, shooting 54.3% from the field, 41.7% from deep and 90.7% from the free-throw line.


5. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 26.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.8 spg

Kawhi dominates Timberwolves

Kawhi Leonard dropped 36 points on Minnesota to fuel the Clippers' win.

Coming off 17-of-40 shooting and 0 of 7 on 3-pointers in two straight losses, Leonard racked up a season-high 36 points Wednesday against Minnesota to help the Clippers snap their skid. Going into Friday’s game in Chicago (8 ET, NBA League Pass), Leonard is averaging 28.2 points through his first five games of February. The Clippers will need to lean on him more with Paul George (right toe) out for the current road trip. Leonard has a reputation as a closer, but we need to see more in winning time since he’s 4-6 this season in clutch situations.

Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet!


The Next Five:

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

9. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

10. Paul George, LA Clippers

And five more: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics.

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

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