Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid continue to soar

As Luka Doncic falls back, 2 other players are rising in our weekly review of the Top 5 Kia MVP contenders.

Dallas’ season-long woes on defense may be damaging Luka Doncic’s once-solid Kia MVP case.

Speaking specifically on his team’s leaky defense, Dallas coach Jason Kidd may have inadvertently predicted Luka Doncic’s seemingly dwindling prospects for winning Kia MVP.

Like Doncic, the Mavericks can score.

Like Doncic, the club also struggles to stop opponents from putting the ball into the basket.

Dallas’ 130-122 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday provided the latest piece of evidence, with the Mavericks dropping their third-straight game, having allowed an average of 135.3 points in each of those setbacks headed into Friday’s clash with the Miami Heat at American Airlines Center (7:30 ET, ESPN).

Asked how to stop the bleeding, Kidd cut deep into his team.

“If it’s with this personnel, then you’ve got to keep asking or demanding for those guys to play defense,” he said. “It’s not just the offensive end. Tonight, again, we gave up 130 [points]. The team shot 57%. It’s a shootaround. In this league, [if] you do that, no matter if you have Luka or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or LeBron [James], you’re going to lose.

“It doesn’t matter how many points you score, you’re always going to be short. So until we put a better effort into playing defense and understanding what we have to do, we’re going to score 120. But we’re going to give up 130, 140. One night, we might give up 150. But we’ll be fine because we scored, so it won’t look too bad.”

Interestingly, the situation almost mirrors Doncic in the quest to win his first MVP. The 23-year-old consistently pumps out gaudy numbers on offense. But of all the players ranked in the top five of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Doncic owns the worst defensive rating (115.3).

While nobody expects lockdown showings night after night from the three-time All-Star, if his current defensive rating holds, it will register as a career low for the leader of a team that was seventh last season in defensive rating (109.1) but is 25th in that department (115.0) in 2022-23.

“The last few games, we got scored on like 130 almost every game,” Doncic said. “I think we’re fine on offense. We’ve got to put the same effort on defense as on offense.”

Losers of six of their last eight outings, the Mavericks face a Miami squad Friday that has won seven of its last 10, including Wednesday’s 124-98 road triumph against a New Orleans team that was missing CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.

Colleague John Schuhmann points out that Miami’s improving bench has played a role in its recent surge. The Mavericks, meanwhile, welcomed back their two best perimeter defenders in Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Green on Wednesday, and that should help against the Heat. But Dallas also announced Thursday that power forward Christian Wood (fractured left thumb) will be out at least a week.

That leaves Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee as the only healthy bigs on the roster because Maxi Kleber continues to rehab from a December right hamstring surgery.

As for this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Doncic drops two spots to No. 4 as seven teams are 1 1/2 games or fewer behind Dallas in the Western Conference standings.

Jayson Tatum jumps back into the second position on the heels of Boston’s overtime victory Thursday over the Golden State Warriors, while Joel Embiid climbs up to No. 3 after leading Philadelphia to win No. 4 in its current five-game roadie out West.

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: 25.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.9 apg

Count it up. We’re now at 90 career triple-doubles for Nikola Jokic, who tallied No. 14 of this season (not to mention his fifth in six games) in Wednesday’s win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a day after dropping a 36-point triple-double against Portland. Russell Westbrook is the last player (2021) to string together five triple-doubles in six games, and the Nuggets are a perfect 14-0 when Jokic hits that stat line. The all-time assists leader in Nuggets franchise history, Jokic has dropped 37 dimes in just his last three games as Denver has won eight in a row, including 15 consecutive victories at home. Jokic hasn’t shot worse than 60% from the floor in his last five appearances. Impressive.

Why Nikola Jokic continues to fend off Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid atop the Ladder.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 31.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.3 apg

He dropped 34 points with a career-high 19 rebounds in Boston’s overtime win against Golden State, helping the Celtics capture their eighth straight victory. Dating back to the last three games of the 2022 NBA Finals, Boston had lost four in a row to Golden State, but that changed on Thursday night. “We lost the championship. No one can bring that back,” Tatum said when discussing the Celtics’ mindset going into the game. “So we didn’t look at this as a rematch of the Finals. It’s just one game against a great team with great players and a great coach. But it was just one game.”

Jayson Tatum goes off on the Warriors for 34 points and 19 rebounds to power a 121-118 overtime victory.

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 33.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg

The steady rise continues. Embiid missed three straight games from Jan. 4-8, but returned with a vengeance, averaging 34.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 1.8 bpg in the six games since. The Sixers have won four in a row on their current five-game West road trip and have won eight of their first 10 games in January to move into a second-place tie with the Bucks in the East. “I think we’re good, and I think we can be really, really good,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. Much of that depends on Embiid’s continued production on both ends of the floor, as the big man and James Harden seem to be hitting their stride.

Joel Embiid rings up 32 points and nine rebounds in a win vs. Portland.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 33.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 8.8 apg

Scoring isn’t the problem, nor is shooting, considering the Mavs have shot 50% or better from the field in three of their last four games. Doncic leads the NBA with 31 30-point games this season, which is also a career high. But the 23-year-old — and the rest of the team — need to drastically improve on defense for Dallas to return to its winning ways, which would only improve Doncic’s MVP prospects. It’s not like this team isn’t capable either, as evidenced by last season’s run to the West finals with Doncic serving as a willing defensive participant. Every other player in the top five of this list carries a defensive rating of 111.3 and since Christmas, Dallas has the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA (121.9).

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 31.0 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.3 apg

Antetokounmpo hasn’t played since Jan. 11, when he scored a season-low seven points in a win at Atlanta while contributing 18 rebounds and 10 assists. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last four games dealing with knee soreness, but the Bucks aren’t concerned about the two-time MVP’s future availability, as he’s expected back soon, according to coach Mike Budenholzer. “Taking care of him is always our priority,” Budenholzer said. “We’re probably always going to err on the side of caution because we know how important he is for us.” At 31 ppg, Antetokounmpo is set to produce the highest-scoring season of his career and the third-best scoring season in Bucks history.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 10 assists and 18 rebounds in his last game.

The Next Five

Michael C. Wright explains why Ja Morant didn't make top 5 on the Kia MVP Ladder, and why that shouldn't be considered a 'snub'.

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

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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