Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Giannis Antetokounmpo's improvement makes him our pick

Bucks star takes game to new heights to top LeBron James for our MVP vote

Frozen in place for four and a half months.

That’s what had to be done with the Kia MVP Ladder the moment NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the suspension of the season on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was that night when we learned that Utah Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Covid-19. Others followed, including his All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell.

Last week, voters for the NBA’s end-of-season awards — which include the Kia MVP — were informed that games after March 11 would not be used in evaluating players for awards purposes. (Ballots are due July 28, two days before the season restarts, negating any chance of it happening anyway.)

That brings us back to the nearly five months between actual games this season — an eternity that gave plenty of time to deliberate about the merits of each candidate for the league’s most prestigious individual (regular-season) award.

What was a five-or six-man race early on — consisting of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, four-time MVP LeBron James, his teammate Anthony Davis, two-time and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, reigning Kia Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and former MVP James Harden — had narrowed to a two-man sprint between Antetokounmpo and James.

(Quick refresher: in the last weekend before the season hiatus, three of the top five candidates engaged in head-to-head action. James’ crew beat Antetokounmpo’s Bucks on a Friday night and Leonard’s Clippers on a Sunday afternoon.)

Some were arguing that James had for the moment passed Antetokounmpo, setting up a roller coaster ride to the scheduled finish of the 2019-20 season.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel, far from an unbiased observer, didn’t need that weekend or the months that have passed since then to make up his mind. He was ready to cast a vote for James during training camp, long before he went on to lead the league in assists in his 17th season.

“Nobody impacts winning more than LeBron James, I do believe that he should be the MVP this year,” Vogel said earlier this week on a Zoom call with reporters. “I believe he should be the MVP and I believe Anthony Davis should be the Defensive Player of the Year. I hope those awards go to our two players. That’s not to take anything away from some of the other candidates. But what LeBron means to our team, even before the season begins when the roster is being put together, with the number of guys that are on the Lakers because LeBron James is here and want to play with him. I think it starts there.

“And then obviously what he’s able to do on the basketball court, orchestrating the offense, leading the league in assists and really setting the tone on the defensive end. We’re the third best defense in the NBA, best in the West and a lot of that comes from his commitment this season, which has been greater than the last few years from what I’m told, has really set us apart in terms of being the best record currently in the Western Conference.”

Vogel’s loyalty is as admirable as his comments were predictable. (And what else would you expect him to say about his guy?)

But it takes more than endorsements and even the memory of one spectacular weekend for a reshuffling of the order as significant as that, especially with the season Antetokounmpo put together after his first MVP season.

He didn’t play like a man satisfied with himself after falling short of his main goal of winning Larry O’Brien Trophy. He improved himself in every facet of the game, once again guiding the Bucks to the NBA’s top overall record.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer provided a glowing endorsement of his own for his star, too.

“Giannis, in our minds, has done more than enough to deserve a back-to-back MVP,” Budenholzer told reporters on July 17. “What he does for us on both ends of the court, what he does every night, the way he sets the bar for us, culture-wise, work ethic-wise, just as a teammate. He’s an incredible teammate, plays unselfishly, does everything. And I think that’s kind of what the MVP is, so we certainly feel like he’s very deserving, and we’ll be excited to support him.”

LeBron’s contextual and narrative brilliance — could he really be this good, this dominant and this impactful in the mighty Western Conference 17 years in? — would provide a decided edge in this race in a normal setting. But the raw, fearless and kinetic brilliance Giannis brought every night is hard to top.

As spectacular as LeBron’s season was, Giannis was even more impressive; he could join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon on the short list of players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

“I want to be one of the best players to ever play the game,” Antetokounmpo told reporters during a media availability session earlier this month. “I did the best job I could do trying to stay ready and trying to have my team ready for this journey that we’re about to go on to leave and play games. But as I said, whoever wants it more, whoever is mentally prepared for all this, what’s going on in Orlando, that’s the team that’s gonna come out on top.”

Antetokounmpo had one request after winning his first MVP: he didn’t want to hear anything about it as he readied for an encore.

“After this day — July 14 — please, please do me this favor so I can be a better player and I can lead this team to a championship, please don’t call me MVP,” he told an adoring crowd of Bucks fans at a downtown rally last summer. “Please after this day don’t call me MVP, until I win it again next year.”

As you wish, Mr. MVP.

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The Top 5 in the final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of 2019-20:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Season stats: 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

That collective groan you heard Tuesday was front office personnel and coaches from the other playoff teams on the NBA campus in Orlando watching clips of Antetokounmpo’s improved shooting stroke from 3-point range. It’s the final part of his game that needs polishing so he can become the rest of the league’s biggest nightmare. The Bucks’ hopes for a championship run this season rest squarely on the broad shoulders of “The Greek Freak,” whose relentless work ethic has fueled his rise to the top of this list for a second straight season. A virtually unstoppable two-way force with a still-evolving offensive arsenal, he improved his 3-point shooting (30.6%) to become just enough of a threat from deep to force teams to pick their poison in guarding him. His rapid rise from a relatively obscure Greek pro league to NBA MVP status is one of the great stories in sports history. Best of all, he’s only a few chapters in at this stage of his career.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Season stats: 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10.6 assists, 1.2 steals

LeBron wins this season’s narrative award. Seventeen seasons into his NBA Mount Rushmore career, James led the league in assists and remains (in the eyes of many) the NBA’s most dominant force. He’s returned a proud Lakers franchise to contender status in a rich comeback story not even Hollywood could have penned. LeBron has been refining his game longer than some of his MVP competitors have been playing competitively … and in some cases (Luka Doncic), nearly as long as they’ve been dribbling a ball. The Lakers have the look of a true contender with LeBron and All-Star big man Anthony Davis joining forces to become the league’s most dynamic duo. The Lakers’ struggles without LeBron this season might be the best exhibit of his MVP talents. Any doubts about him being able to perform at an elite level at his advanced NBA age have been silenced.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Season stats: 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.1 steals

Doncic went from dazzling as a rookie to downright dominant in his sophomore season, from runaway Kia Rookie of the Year to All-Star starter. The best part in Dallas is that he’s taken the Mavericks along for the ride, returning them to the Western Conference playoff mix for the foreseeable future. It took Jason Kidd 500 career games to set the franchise triple-double mark. Doncic needed just 119 games to catch and pass him, with 21 before his 21st birthday. And who says lightning can’t strike the same place twice? Doncic is owner Mark Cuban’s dream replacement for franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki and Doncic is a hybrid built perfectly for this era. He has LeBron James-like playmaking skills with James Harden’s scoring instincts. His sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis, played like an All-Star during the second half of his first season back from knee surgery. They are the clearest danger to the Lakers’ pair as the league’s most dynamic jumbo-sized duo.

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 34.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.7 steals

Harden and Rockets GM Daryl Morey are convinced that the NBA’s best player has worn a Rockets uniform for years now. But it’s only been reflected once in the Kia MVP balloting. Given how Russell Westbrook has performed in his first season in Houston, there’s a strong argument that Harden hasn’t even been the best player on his own team since mid-January. Undoubtedly, Harden is one of the greatest NBA scorers ever and has shown himself to be an extraordinary playmaker. The only real knock on Harden, aside from his situational indifference on defense, is that he’s struggled to carry his regular-season brilliance into the playoffs. Fair or not, that reputation seems to consistently poke holes in the MVP narrative the Rockets coordinate for him every season. In an era filled some of the greatest scorers and two-way stars, a one-dimensional superstar like Harden keeps coming up a bit short of the biggest prize.

5. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

Season stats: 26.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals

There is still no evidence that Leonard even cares about regular season MVP awards. The two-time Finals MVP had the table set to chase the Kia MVP this season, but his injury-management protocol poked holes in his candidacy. Even with his unavailability being an issue, he proved time and again to be the league’s most complete superstar in high-pressure situations. No player in the league can score at every level as he can (46.9% shooting, 36.6% on 3-pointers) while also being the best lockdown defender against other elite players. The Clippers’ depth kept his absences from being felt the way they might have been had he played elsewhere. This season has been similar to 2018-19 in Toronto, where his supporting cast proved to be far better than given credit for. But much like he did for the Raptors last season, Kawhi serves as the ultimate closer for any contender.

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The Next Five:

6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

7. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

8. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

And five more: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder; Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

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5 quick MVP notes …

A look at some additional Kia MVP storylines from 2019-20 that garner mentioning:

1. Close but not quite: James Harden’s MVP consistency over the past five seasons is as impressive as any player in the league. He has three runner-up finishes (2015, ’17 and ’19) and won award in 2017-18. In 2014-15, 262 points separated Harden from Stephen Curry, 135 points separated he and Westbrook in 2016-17 and Antetokounmpo edged him out by 165 points in 2019-20. In his Kia MVP season, Harden finished 227 points ahead of James. Once again, he could end up in the top three of the 2019-20 voting. When these eight seeding games end, Harden will become the first player since Michael Jordan to average 30 ppg or more in three straight seasons.

2. A new L.A. story: Nothing impacts a player’s MVP fortunes like opportunity. Last season, Paul George finished third in the voting while playing alongside a former MVP in Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Fast-forward to this season and George probably won’t be anywhere in the mix after injuries and joining forces with Leonard altered the MVP perception about him. Leonard, who was ninth in last season’s voting, is likely to finish in the top five this time around. He could finish as high as third, which would be his best finish since 2015-16, when he was on the San Antonio Spurs.

3. The rise of Luka-mania: After his wicked Rookie of the Year campaign, we knew Doncic was destined for NBA stardom. But an All-Star starter and potentially a top-three MVP finish in his second season is a bit more than even the most optimistic of Luka lovers could have predicted. Doncic’s triple-double barrage and mastery of coach Rick Carlisle’s system has vaulted him to superstar status and the Mavs back into the playoff mix for seasons to come. The search for the next torch-bearer of the game after (and perhaps alongside) Antetokounmpo has already revealed himself. The pairing of Doncic and Porzingis should be is enough to inspire championship ambitions sooner rather than later in Dallas.

4. Don’t forget about us: In addition to Leonard’s return to the MVP mix this season, new venues did likewise for Davis (Lakers), Jimmy Butler (Miami) and Chris Paul (Oklahoma City). These three veteran stars showed why they belong in the mix. No one was sure Paul would even suit up for the Thunder after last summer’s trade that swapped he and Westbrook. Paul didn’t miss a beat with the Thunder, though. Serving as the ideal mentor for young(er) point guards Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he lead a surprising playoff push in OKC. Few suspected this Thunder team would be playoff-bound, let alone entering the season restart at 40-24 — the same record as the Rockets.

5. Rising the MVP ranks: Get used to seeing budding stars like Nikola Jokic, Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum on MVP lists for the foreseeable future. They’re all franchise players for teams that will be contenders in the coming seasons. Jokic already has a first-team All-NBA nod on his resume was curiously omitted from MVP conversations last year. Both Siakam and Tatum stepped into the MVP mix for the first time this season and both could earn All-NBA honors for their work. This trio represents a wave of 25-and-under superstars who aren’t about to wait for their elders to step aside so they can shine.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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