Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Joel Embiid joins Top 5 fray as Luka Doncic rises up

Star big man Joel Embiid keeps piling up the stats as we review the Top 5 contenders for this season's Kia MVP.

Joel Embiid has scored 30 or more points in 6 of his last 7 games.

Kevin Durant debuted in the top three of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder last week, only to tumble back down a few rungs through no fault of his own in this latest edition.

Durant suffered a sprained right MCL on Sunday in a win at Miami that is expected to sideline him for several weeks. But the Brooklyn Nets lapped up the opportunity Thursday to face the league’s top team in their first game since Dec. 10 without the 2014 MVP.

“Our mentality is whoever is next on the schedule,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said, shortly before tipoff of his team’s 109-98 loss to the Boston Celtics. “It just so happens it’s the No. 1 team in the league right now. I think it puts us in a great mental state that we know if we’re not prepared, we’ll get embarrassed.

“We know if we don’t have maximum effort, we’ll get embarrassed. We know if we don’t play harder than the dude that’s next to you, you’ll get embarrassed. So, great entrance into the Kevin-less games that we’ll play.”

Brooklyn hopes to exit them soon, though, if last season serves as any indicator of what might come next.

Durant sprained his left MCL near mid-January of last season and didn’t return until Mar. 3 after Brooklyn lost 11 in a row and 16 of 21 contests with the superstar sidelined. The team remains hopeful that Durant’s latest setback isn’t as significant as last season’s knee injury.

Still, the 34-year-old’s expected extended absence opens the door in the top five for another player that had been limited somewhat this season by injuries.

Joel Embiid finished with 30 points in the Sixers' loss to the Thunder on Thursday.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid debuts in the fifth spot of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, after making his 30th appearance of the season and dropping 30 points Thursday in a 133-114 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of all the candidates ranked among the current top five, Embiid has participated in the fewest games, while every other player except Giannis Antetokounmpo (35 games) competed in at least 38 of their team’s contests.

Even Durant showcased rock-solid durability prior to Sunday’s injury by playing in 39 of Brooklyn’s first 40 games.

As for Embiid, the Sixers big man returned in typical dominating fashion Tuesday in a win over the Detroit Pistons, racking up his 20th 30-point performance of the season, while adding 11 rebounds and two blocks after missing the previous three contests due to a sore left foot.

“I’m alright, better than expected,” Embiid said of the sore foot after the game, adding he’s still got to “manage it.”

Before Embiid’s latest three-game hiatus, he had played in 16 consecutive contests coming off a four-game absence in late November due to a foot injury. It’s also worth noting that Embiid was slowed earlier in the season by an offseason bout with plantar fasciitis that isn’t related to his most recent foot issue.

So, while Embiid makes his long-awaited return to the top five, reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic maintains his firm grip on No. 1 atop the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Additionally, Luka Doncic rises to No. 2 on the strength of a gutsy performance Thursday night in a double-overtime road win against the Lakers.

Jayson Tatum falls to No. 3 despite his team’s five-game winning streak, and Giannis Antetokounmpo inches up one slot to fourth.

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: 24.9 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.7 apg

Part of what makes it fun to watch Jokic is you won’t see any stat padding from the 27-year-old. He just does whatever is required to win on any given night, like Monday, when he became the first player in NBA history with a 15-plus assist triple-double with no missed field goals. Two nights later, Jokic finished with 21 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in a win over Phoenix and didn’t even play in the fourth quarter as Denver walked away with its 11th victory in the last 13 outings, dropping 120-plus points for the eighth consecutive contest at home. The Nuggets are tied with Memphis for the conference lead and the NBA’s best home record (18-3).

Frank Isola and Brian Scalabrine discussing Nikola Jokic’s excellent case for winning a 3rd consecutive MVP.

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 34.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.8 apg

Doncic racked up 27 points over the first three quarters to finish with a 30-point triple-double in regulation, including stepback 3-pointers from 27 feet out to force both overtimes in Thursday’s 119-115 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavericks’ superstar finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists over a gritty 53 minutes, saying afterward of the game, “I think it was very physical.” No doubt. The performance marked Doncic’s 10th triple-double and pushed him up a slot on the MVP Ladder as Dallas snapped a two-game skid. The Mavericks started the new year on a seven-game winning streak but have since lost three of the last five.

Luka Doncic comes up clutch twice and the Mavs stay strong in a 119-115 double-overtime win against the Lakers.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 4.2 apg

Dribbling past four defenders for a bucket is definitely tough, but most importantly, the 24-year-old continues to help Boston stack up victories. The Celtics have now won five in a row and nine of their last 11 with Tatum averaging 29.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 5.6 apg during the streak. “Everybody has to sacrifice to be on a great team,” Tatum said after Thursday’s win over Brooklyn. “No individual stat or accolade can measure up to being on a winning team that’s having fun. There’s nothing better than that.” Dominance over the Nets can’t be bad, either, considering Boston has won its last five regular-season clashes with Brooklyn after sweeping the club last season in the first round of the playoffs.

Steve Smith and Sam Mitchell debate Jayson Tatum's chances of claiming Kia MVP honors this season.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 31.0 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.3 apg

Antetokounmpo sat out of Milwaukee’s 108-102 loss at Miami on Thursday due to left knee soreness, as a total of 11 players from both teams missed for various reasons. Against the Heat, the Bucks were playing the second night of a back-to-back set on their current weeklong road trip. The night before, the two-time MVP scored a season-low seven points in a 114-105 victory at Atlanta but led the team as a facilitator with 18 rebounds and 10 assists. Since the last Kia Race to the MVP Ladder dropped, Antetokounmpo has put together two single-digit scoring nights sandwiched around a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in a win over the Knicks, after reeling off a combined 128 points in the previous three contests.

At the halfway mark of the regular season, take a look at some of Giannis Antetokounmpos top plays so far!

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 33.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 4.4 apg

We referenced Embiid’s 30-point performance in Thursday’s loss to Oklahoma City, but it’s worth noting the 76ers center played just 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, yet still managed to put up a swollen stat line that included this nasty block. Embiid played a major role in shrinking a 16-point deficit to start the fourth quarter to six points with 4:31 left to play, scoring 12 of his 20 second-half points in the final frame alone on 3-for-3 from the field and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line. Two days prior, the 28-year-old dropped 36 points with 11 boards in nearly 24 minutes of action against the Pistons.

Joel Embiid comes through with 36 points against Detroit on Jan. 10.

The Next Five:

6. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 3)
7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: tied for No. 7)
8. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers (Last week’s ranking: tied for No. 7)
9. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: unranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz; Julius Randle, New York Knicks; Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings.

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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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