The conversation started out innocently enough.
“Why aren’t you wearing your glasses?” a trusted Western Conference executive texted me late Wednesday night.
“I’m tired of having to clean them all the time when I’m on [the NBA TV] set, plus there’s the glare,” I responded, not knowing the punchline was coming next.
“Put them on and do me a favor and tell me where Kawhi [Leonard] is on your MVP Ladder?” the executive replied.
Nice … now it’s not just the folks who fill up the Kia MVP Mailbag each week who have got jokes.
Leonard’s absence from the top five of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder is over, at least for the time being. The LA Clippers’ star and reigning Finals MVP moves up to No. 3 from No. 7 on the strength of his recent scoring surge.
Leonard has scored 30 or more points in each of his past six games, tying the longest such streak of his career. It’s also the longest streak of its kind for a Clippers player since World B. Free set a team record with 11 straight 30-point games in January of 1980 (which was 11 years before Leonard was born).
Leonard sat out Wednesday’s 102-95 loss in Atlanta, adhering to his program of not playing back-to-backs. But he is expected to play Friday night in Miami (8 ET, ESPN).
The Clippers have won eight of their last 11 games and weathered whatever has come their way, including working some nights without Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley — although that was the case (and it didn’t result in a win) vs. the Hawks.
Anyone upset with the way Leonard is handling his business, though, need only look back at what his load management produced for the Toronto Raptors last season. (This season, the Clippers have termed it as “injury management,” but it is the same concept).
If the Clippers finish this season the same way — with Kawhi healthy, rested and dominant in the final days of the championship chase — his injury management process won’t be worth the time that can be wasted talking about the merits of it.
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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
Season stats: 30.0 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks
Giannis is the captain for the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the second straight season, opposite LeBron James, and will celebrate by going at the Charlotte Hornets in Paris on Friday (3 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Antetokounmpo is the league’s second-leading scorer and ranks fifth in rebounds while leading the Bucks to the best record in the league. He was a no-brainer pick for captain from all voting factions.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Season stats: 25.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 1.3 steals
LeBron and the Lakers are the best road team (20-4) in the league and are battling through their Grammy road trip. They opened with a win in Houston, got routed in Boston and followed that up with back-to-back wins in New York (Knicks Wednesday) and Nets (Thursday). LeBron turned in his 10th triple-double (27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) of the season (and 91st of his career) against the Nets. He needs 18 points to pass Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA career scoring list.
3. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
Season stats: 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals
Lost in all the chatter about injury management is that Leonard is putting up career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists while also ranking third in the league in steals. He’s doing all this for a title-contending Clippers squad, who have a huge test ahead on Friday in Miami (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Leonard earned his fourth career All-Star nod and fourth career starting bid Thursday, proof that the fans, players and media members who voted don’t care about the outside noise.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Season stats: 29.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.1 steals
Doncic was his usual brilliant self in Thursday’s 133-125 win in Portland, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and six rebounds. He has the Mavericks just five wins away from last season’s win total (33), which is perhaps more impressive than any of the individual milestones he’s achieved this season (one in which he is a newly minted All-Star and All-Star starter). Doncic, remarkably, is fitting all of this in prior to his 21st birthday (which is on Feb. 28).
5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Season stats: 20.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.8 steals
Not that he needs any more motivation to fuel his fire, but Thursday’s All-Star starters announcement had to sting a little bit for Butler. He finished third in the media voting, fourth in the fan voting … and sixth in the player voting. He lost on that third frontcourt starting spot to Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. If his sore knee doesn’t sideline him tonight with the Clippers in town, we’re expected to see him and his grimy best with Leonard in the building.
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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. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
T-10. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder & Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
And five more: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Jazz; Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics; Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
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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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