Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Game after game, the James Harden Show must go on

Taking stock of the Top 5 contenders in the Kia MVP Award chase

The question didn’t require any real deliberation from Houston coach Mike D’Antoni.

He’s been at this long enough to know there’s no sense in making the game any more difficult than it already is.

When asked what changes for his team when one of his superstars (James Harden) is available and the other (Russell Westbrook) is not, his lighting-quick response shouldn’t be misconstrued.

“Nothing,” D’Antoni shot back Wednesday night in a hallway at State Farm Arena before Harden roasted the Atlanta Hawks for a 40-point triple-double. “It’s just more James … for better or worse.”

Things tend to work out for the better where Harden is concerned. The league’s leading scorer has only grown more and more unstoppable as he dives deeper into D’Antoni’s offensive system that caters perfectly to his skill set.

Harden has proven to be equally effective no matter who is playing alongside him, be it Westbrook, Chris Paul or anyone else. At the end of day, the Harden Show must go on.

That’s been obvious this season, as Harden continues his assault on the NBA record books. He trails only Oscar Robertson (22) when it comes to 40-point triple-doubles (15). He’s chasing 40 points per game (37.9) while Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant start 2020 in street clothes, proving he has no active peer who can score like he can.

Even as he and Hawks guard Trae Young made triple-double history on Wednesday, the sight of Harden toying with defenders was a stark reminder of just how next level his abilities have become.

“The craziest part about what he does is that he’s rarely if ever the biggest, fastest or most athletic player on the court and yet the entire game revolves around him because of the way he can manipulate things with his dribble and shot,” said an anonymous scout at Hawks-Rockets.

“He’s a physical specimen: 6-5, 230 and in great shape. You don’t play the minutes he has any other way. But whenever we talk about him, we talk about his shot creation and how he can get shots basically any which way he wants.

“We’re always talking about guys being ‘unicorns’ and just how unique the superstar players in our game have always been, James is his own category … I couldn’t give you a player comparison that would make any sense. He’s just different, perfectly suited for the time he’s playing in and an absolutely transcendent shot-maker at the same time.”

Paul, now in Oklahoma City, has seen it from both sides. He competes against Harden now (as he did for years), but spent two seasons alongside him (2017-19) as Houston challenged the Golden State Warriors for Western Conference supremacy.

James, I said it before last year, he might be the best offensive player to ever play,” Paul said Thursday night after the Thunder held Harden to a season-low 17 points in a 113-92 OKC win. Hes tough with the step back and getting to the free throw line.”

But for as many admirers as Harden’s game has, there are critics aplenty, too. His shot selection, manipulation of the game to draw fouls and his will-he-or-won’t-he attitude on defense continues to frustrate some purists.

Harden, however, will not stray. He’s staying true to what transformed him from a Kia Sixth Man Award winner to a Kia MVP and one of the best players of his generation … and one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen.

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The Top 5 this week in the 2019-20 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks

Giannis just keeps cranking out the monster performances for the league-leading Bucks, regardless of the quality of the opposition, hence his latest Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor. He worked the Warriors for 30 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and a steal in a hard-fought win Wednesday night. He’s listed as probable with back soreness for Friday’s game against Sacramento (10 ET, League Pass).

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 25.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 1.3 steals

The Western Conference Player of the Week, LeBron will get another shot at matching up with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Friday (9:45 ET, ESPN). This time he’ll likely do it without Anthony Davis (muscle bruise), which means we should see plenty of LeBron vs. Luka in this one. LeBron’s had two triple-doubles in his past five games and might need another one to escape Dallas with a win.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 29.6 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.2 steals

Talk about a young player living in the moment, Doncic has been at his competitive best in three games against the Lakers this season. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds against LeBron James and Co. Doncic hasn’t shied away from the challenge of matching up against his idol, which should make for an entertaining show Friday at American Airlines Center. Adding to the storylines, LeBron just passed Doncic in the latest All-Star returns released Thursday.

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 37.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals

Harden’s uncharacteristic shooting night on Thursday — his 17 points was his lowest total since he scored 19 in a loss to Milwaukee in the season opener — was just one of the Rockets’ problems in Russell Westbrook’s celebrated return to Oklahoma City. Harden and Westbrook were both upstaged by Paul, who was Harden’s former running mate and the man who took Westbrook’s place in the Thunder lineup and locker room.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 20.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.0 steals

Butler’s choice words for Indiana’s T.J. Warren will overshadow anything else he has done this season until he gets back on the floor Friday vs. the Brooklyn Nets (7:30 ET, League Pass). The dust-up with Warren is overshadowing the fact that Butler’s fire and drive have fueled the Heat’s stunning start to this season. He’s having the “max player” impact the Heat banked on when they chased him in free agency.

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Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet and I’ll get back to you!

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The Next Five:

6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

8. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

9. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

10. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

And five more: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers; Jazz; Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

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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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