Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: LeBron's MVP mettle about to be tested once again

LeBron James maintains the lead, but faces a huge challenge and more competition.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

LeBron James is ready for the challenge of carrying the Lakers with Anthony Davis out for 4 weeks.

LeBron James reached yet another career milestone against the Brooklyn Nets by becoming the third player in NBA history to hit the 35,000-point mark, joining elite company in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone.

But as you know, the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder isn’t about career achievements (they’re definitely fun to watch, though).

This comes down to impact; how a player is presently and positively affecting his team’s fortunes on the floor.

Despite scoring 32 points to go with eight rebounds and seven assists, James and the Lakers came up short Thursday in a 109-98 loss to Brooklyn in which his squad played without Anthony Davis (calf) and Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocols), against a formidable potential NBA Finals foe missing Kevin Durant (hamstring).

After the game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel delivered news that Davis “is gonna be out for four weeks,” which only increases the burden for James to carry the Lakers, who have dropped two of their last three games.

“He’s got to play his game, and we’ve got to find ways where he can impact the game sort of with less energy,” Vogel said. “Putting him at the elbow, putting him at the low post, where he’s not running a million pick-and-rolls; just try to manage it that way. He’s got a great feel for that. If he needs a blow, he’s gonna get himself out or ask for a sub. We’re looking at those types of ways to, within his minutes, make sure he’s not carrying too much of a load.”

Full Focus | LeBron joins the 35k club

LeBron James passed 35,000 career points in the Lakers' loss to the Nets.

But that’s what MVPs do, and James’ efforts up to this point serve as a major reason the Lakers are 5-2 without Davis in the lineup.

“Coming into the season, we already knew it was going to be a challenge,” James said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise when you’re hit with some adversity. I think adversity builds character, and that’s how you handle it. So, nothing changes for me.”

James remains at No. 1 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. But you’ll see somewhat of a shakeup in the top five as Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry earn their way into the party, while Nikola Jokic slips a couple of spots. Donovan Mitchell continues to rise along with 2018 MVP James Harden, while Durant and Kawhi Leonard fall back due to their injury-related absences.

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: 25.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 7.9 apg

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

LeBron James | 2021 NBA All-Star Starter

His minutes have increased in each of the last three months, and naturally, so has the productivity. Expect more from the 36-year-old with Davis expected to miss four weeks. James is shooting 54.3% from the field in February, but one area of concern is his accuracy from long range. James connected on 35.5% on 3’s in December and 42.9% in January, only for that percentage over nine games this month to plunge to 26.8%. The entire team seems to be fighting through a 3-point shooting slump, as they now rank 19th from range (35.8%).


2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 1.3 spg

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Joel Embiid | 2021 NBA All-Star Starter

Writhing in pain with a lower back injury, Embiid carried Philly again in Wednesday’s victory over the Houston Rockets, to snap a three-game skid. Embiid put up 31 points with 11 rebounds and nine assists with DeMarcus Cousins guarding him most of the night for his 12th straight outing with 25 points or more. Critics knock Embiid for missing six games. But what we witnessed against Houston was as gutsy a performance as you’ll see. Hopefully, Embiid’s back issues clear up some going into tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls.


3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Season stats: 29.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 7.7 apg, 1.1 spg

Last week’s ranking: No. 8

Full Focus: Lillard clutch in Blazers win

Damian Lillard tied a career-high with 16 assists while also dropping 43 points on the Pelicans.

The Hulu ad campaign should just air this man’s recent highlights on a loop with Lillard in the background freestyling, “Hulu. Has. Live. Sports.” It’s just flat out ridiculous what he’s doing in shouldering the load in Portland with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic nursing injuries. Clutch time is definitely Dame time, as he’s 12-3 in those situations, burning the opposition down the stretch, sinking 58.8% from deep in the last five minutes of games separated by five points or fewer. He’s not an All-Star starter, but neither was Russell Westbrook the year he won MVP.


4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 30.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.2 spg

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Stephen Curry | 2021 NBA All-Star Starter

Had knocked down 51% from 3-point range in the 10 games before Wednesday’s ice-cold night against the Miami Heat. Curry even set a new career record for his most missed 3-pointers in a game, as he finished 5 of 20 from deep on the night. Still, Curry kept shooting it and answered the call when needed to pace Golden State’s OT victory over the heat. Curry continues to carry the undermanned Warriors, keeping them squarely in playoff contention. MVP candidacy, from this vantage point, isn’t as much about numbers as it is impact. Curry checks that box.


5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Season stats: 27.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.6 spg

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Nikola Jokic | 2021 NBA All-Star Starter

Denver is on a two-game skid going into tonight’s matchup at Cleveland, and although Jokic has poured in 76 points over his last two outings, you can’t discount what transpired in Wednesday’s loss to the 9-17 Washington Wizards. The Wizards outrebounded Denver 46-42, and outscored the Nuggets in the paint 50-44, finishing with a season-high 21 second-chance points. Jokic is averaging nearly a triple-double, yet needs more help, no doubt. Wilt Chamberlain is the only center to average at least eight assists in a season (8.6), and Jokic is on pace to do it, too.

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


The Next Five:

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

8. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

9. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

10. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

And five more: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics, Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks.

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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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