There’s a new leader here, but please pump the brakes on making any definitive declarations in the midst of this dogfight for the top spot in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
Joel Embiid continues his rapid ascent, seizing pole position in what we expect to be a neck-and-neck fight between the Sixers big man and Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy as the 2021-22 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player.
Jokic’s Nuggets dropped two in a row with the reigning MVP sitting out of Wednesday’s loss at Utah due to soreness in a toe on his right foot, while Embiid’s squad is 1-1 over virtually the same span. We’d be remiss not to mention that Embiid missed a highly anticipated matchup against Memphis on Monday because of a planned rest day after participating in 21 consecutive games (which registers as the second-longest streak of his career).
Embiid averaged 33.1 points over those 21 games, improving his scoring average to 29.1 points, good for second behind Kevin Durant (29.3 points).
“I really don’t get that much involved in it, to be honest with you,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of Embiid. “They (the medical staff) come and present their calendar. They thought this was the right day with the amount of rest we can get him. So, that’s why we did it.”
That’s unfortunate, considering Embiid has now missed four consecutive matchups against the young, hungry, must-watch Grizzlies, who came up short in overtime that night against the 76ers.
Sitting at third in the Eastern Conference standings, Philadelphia is 4-8 this season when Embiid doesn’t play.
And while there’s somewhat of an urge to keep Jokic — the Western Conference Player of the Month for January — at No. 1 in the MVP Ladder, you can’t overlook the fact that Denver is sixth in the conference or that Utah, over its last 17 games, is 3-0 against the Nuggets while posting a mark of 2-12 against the rest of their opponents over that span.
Elsewhere in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Golden State guard Stephen Curry returns to the top five, while Luka Doncic — who has scored 30 or more (40 or more twice) in five of his last eight games — cracks the top 10 along with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
We mentioned Philly’s record of 4-8 with Embiid off the floor, but what’s most important is the Sixers are 27-12 when the big man plays. Deservedly, Embiid won Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January, a month in which he absolutely caught fire. Over his 14 games in January, Embiid averaged an NBA-best 34.0 points to go with 10.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 blocks, all while shooting 54.2% from the floor. Since the 1981-82 season, Embiid is one of just five players to average 34 points and 10 rebounds in a month while playing in at least 10 games, joining Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Karl Malone, and Moses Malone.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 25.9 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.8 apg
Watch Jokic pull off this nasty Dirk Nowitzki-style one-legged fadeaway right here on Tuesday against Minnesota. The Nuggets ran off a five-game winning streak dating back to Jan. 23, before dropping their last two games with Jokic sitting out of Wednesday’s loss to the Jazz. Jokic was named Western Conference Player of the Month on Wednesday for games played in January, after he led the Nuggets to a record of 11-5, averaging 26.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 9.0 assists over 16 games. Jokic ended the month with a triple-double on Sunday in a win at Milwaukee.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 28.9 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 6.0 apg
Our last Kia Race to the MVP Ladder published on the same night Antetokounmpo dished this sick dime against the New York Knicks. The last time we saw Antetokounmpo in action, he dropped a 33-point triple-double Tuesday in a win over the Washington Wizards. Antetokounmpo is currently on a career-best 17-game streak in which he’s scored 25 points or more, which is the longest since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put together a franchise-record 25-straight games with 25-plus points during the 1971-72 season. Antetokounmpo was also recently named a starter in the NBA All-Star Game for the sixth consecutive season, tying Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star selections in Bucks history.
4. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 10.4 apg
Trae Young and the red-hot Hawks snapped Phoenix’s 11-game winning streak on Thursday, but Paul deserves to remain in this spot after tallying his 31st game of the season with 10 or more assists, which leads the NBA. Paul also put together his 50th career game with 10 assists or more with no turnovers, good for the most such games in NBA history. On Jan. 24, Paul turned over the ball a season-high seven times in a win over Utah. In the five games since then, the All-Star has racked up a total of 64 assists with just seven turnovers.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week’s ranking: No. 6
Season stats: 25.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 6.3 apg
It sure is fun to watch Golden State when the Splash Brothers are doing their thing. Check out this filthy assist from Curry to Klay Thompson for one of his seven 3-pointers on the night. Curry and Thompson combined to score 43 points on 11 of 16 from deep Thursday in the Warriors 126-114 win over the Sacramento Kings. Not to jinx anything, but it appears Curry might be coming out of his slump. He’s knocked down 50% or better from deep in three of his last five games, and he’s taken at least 10 3-point attempts in four of those outings.
The Next Five:
6. DeMar DeRozan (Last week: No. 5)
7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week: No. 8)
8. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week: No. 9)
9. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week: unranked)
10. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Last week: unranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets; Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks.
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