Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Joel Embiid moves up a spot as All-Star Draft awaits

As the All-Star Game and All-Star break approach, we take stock of the Top 5 contenders in the Kia MVP award chase.

Will LeBron James make Joel Embiid 1 of his picks come All-Star Draft night?

In a live, televised pregame segment, the NBA All-Star Draft commences Sunday just before tipoff for the first time, and it’s worth pondering how well-represented the top of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder might be once the captains start choosing among the starters.

Aside from those dealing with injuries (Kevin Durant and possibly Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Sixers guard James Harden, who earned 10-consecutive All-Star selections until 2023, every player listed in today’s edition is expected to play in the NBA All-Star Game with Jayson Tatum and Damian Lillard (Starry 3-Point Contest) taking on extra work during events for State Farm All-Star Saturday Night, along with Antetokounmpo (Kia Skills Challenge) provided he’s healthy enough.

(If you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick explainer on how the All-Star Draft works.)

The voting results determined the captains for each conference. So, LeBron James heads up the Western Conference, while Antetokounmpo represents the Eastern Conference. As the overall leader in votes during the balloting process, James receives the first pick of the All-Star Draft.

From there, the captains take turns selecting from the All-Star field.

It was expected initially that James and Antetokounmpo would first draft from the pool of All-Star starters, before turning attention to the group of reserves. But TNT’s Ernie Johnson disclosed during “Inside the NBA” on Thursday that the captains would actually choose the reserves first before drafting among the eight starters.

As one of the captains, Antetokounmpo represents the first top five player in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder taken off the board. But will Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Tatum go over the next four picks?

Doubtful, considering the personal tastes, rivalries, loyalties, and friendships held by the captains. Besides, status as one of the MVP favorites likely won’t hold sway in the minds of two of the best to ever play the game.

But it’s still fun to try to predict how the NBA All-Star Draft might fall now that we’re focused on the upcoming fun in Salt Lake City, and off the rigors of an ultra-competitive season that will only intensify as players such as Durant, Stephen Curry, and Zion Williamson work back into form from injuries for the stretch run.

After this edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, we’ll take a break and return March 3, with a week’s sampling of games to draw from post-All-Star break.

Jokic and Antetokounmpo hold steady at the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, while Embiid squeezes into third past Tatum, who moves to No. 4. Doncic remains in fifth.

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: 24.7 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 10.1 apg

Dropped his league-leading 21st triple-double of the season to send Denver into the break on a three-game winning streak with the best home record (27-4) in the NBA after Wednesday’s 118-109 triumph against the Dallas Mavericks. Just four days prior, Jokic collected his seventh triple-double with 30 points or more and 15-plus rebounds, joining Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to accomplish that feat on multiple occasions. The reigning two-time MVP followed up on that with 27 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists while shooting 12 of 14 in a road win against Miami. The Nuggets are 21-0 this season when Jokic logs a triple-double and, going back to last season, they’ve won 25 in a row under those conditions.

Nikola Jokic finished with a strong triple-double in a showdown vs. the Mavs.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 31.8 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 5.4 apg

Antetokounmpo’s status for the All-Star Game is uncertain after the two-time MVP suffered a sprained wrist in the second quarter of the team’s win Thursday over the Chicago Bulls. Coach Mike Budenholzer said Antetokounmpo underwent an X-ray in the immediate aftermath that came back clean. But it’s unknown whether the 28-year old will participate in the events in Salt Lake City. On a torrid pace, Antetokounmpo had tallied at least 33 points in nine of Milwaukee’s last 11 games while snatching 10 boards or more in nine outings, as the Bucks ran their win streak to 12. Before suffering his injury, Antetokounmpo dished three dimes to increase his career total to (3,274), which broke Paul Pressey’s franchise assist record (3,272).

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 36 points in a Valentine's Day win vs. Boston

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 33.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.1 apg

Embiid and the Sixers bounced back from a two-game skid with four straight wins. The big man lit up opponents for 35 points or more with at least 11 rebounds in two of those victories, all while shooting 57.1% from the floor or better during that span. Philadelphia stacked up a 28-point lead in the first half of Wednesday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Embiid would score 17 of his team-high 29 points in the second half after making history five minutes into the contest by reaching 10,000 career points. The 28-year old hit the latest milestone in 373 games, passing Allen Iverson for the fewest contests needed to reach 10,000 points in Sixers history. In a bit of a downer, though, Embiid is dealing with lingering soreness in his left foot and his status for the All-Star Game is unknown.

Will the chemistry between James Harden and Joel Embiid be enough to get the 76ers over the hump in the postseason?

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.5 apg

Tatum missed just his fourth game in Tuesday’s overtime loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday due to a non-COVID illness. He then returned with a vengeance, lighting up Detroit for 24 of his 38 points in the third quarter of a 127-109 victory Wednesday that sent Boston into All-Star break with five wins in its last six games. The stellar showing came right on time, too, considering Tatum had connected on 33.3% or worse from the floor in three of his previous five appearances (in addition to hitting just 7 of 23 from deep in his last three games). In the win against the Pistons, Tatum drilled 6 of 10 from 3-point range.

Jayson Tatum dominated with 38 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in the Celtics win over the Pistons.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 33.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 8.1 apg

An abundance of deference appears to be holding back the Mavericks at this point as Doncic and new addition Kyrie Irving work to figure out how to co-exist. Doncic returned Saturday after sitting out the last four games due to a heel contusion for his first action alongside Irving, and the Mavs fell at Sacramento before suffering another defeat Tuesday to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Doncic piled up decent numbers in both those games, including a 33-point, 12-rebound performance against the Timberwolves. Irving sat out due to lower back tightness Wednesday at Denver, and Doncic kept the gaudy numbers rolling with 37 points (including 17 in the first quarter), four rebounds and nine assists. However, the Mavs dropped their third straight outing going into All-Star break and are 3-3 in their last six games.

Luka Doncic has never played alongside a talent like Kyrie Irving, and now must learn to find the open spaces for them to thrive.

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. 7)
8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
10. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

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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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