Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Kevin Durant ascends to No. 3; Nikola Jokic remains on top

Kevin Durant, who seems to get better with age, rises to No. 3 in our latest look at the contenders for this season's Kia MVP.

Kevin Durant is enjoying a career-best season in several statistical categories.

Despite leading the Eastern Conference in the first fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting presented by AT&T, Kevin Durant cracks the top three of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the first time.

So, maybe it’s fitting the hardware awaiting at the end of this journey is dubbed The Michael Jordan Trophy.

After all, Durant is 34 years old, and the trophy’s namesake registers as the last player (1997-98) that exact age to capture the award (Karl Malone was the oldest to win MVP at 35 in 1998-99). At an age when many start to fade, Durant continues to ascend, having led Brooklyn to 16 wins in its last 18 games entering Friday night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans (7:30 ET, ESPN).

“If he gets better, that would be wonderful for him,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Durant on Monday, before the forward scorched his team for 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting in leading the Nets to their 12th consecutive victory. “But I don’t know how you can get a whole lot better. He loves the game as much as anybody has ever loved the game.”

It certainly shows.

Although the Nets suffered their first loss in a month on Wednesday, falling 121-112 to the Chicago Bulls, Durant finished only one point shy of tying his season high in scoring (44 points). That showing was his third 40-point game of 2022-23, with 28 of the 44 points coming in the first half. Over his last three games, Durant has averaged 30.7 points per game, while shooting 66.7% from the field.

On the season, he’s producing career-highs in field-goal percentage (56.8), effective field-goal percentage (61.5) and free-throw percentage (93.3). If he finds a way to boost his current 3-point percentage (36.9) — which won’t be easy — he’d be on the way to a second career 50-40-90 campaign. Keep in mind, there are just nine NBA players in that distinguished club, as well as one from the WNBA (Elena Delle Donne) and one from the NBA G League (Quinn Cook).

But we all know Durant won’t be chasing stats anyway on Friday at Smoothie King Center against a New Orleans Pelicans squad that will be missing young star Zion Williamson (right hamstring strain). After defeating the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, the Pelicans are 7-2 this season without Williamson. It’s expected the home team will also hit the floor without former All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, who has sat out of the last 19 games due to a toe injury. New Orleans is 4-1 this season in games without both Williamson and Ingram.

As for Durant, he believes the Nets have finally caught a rhythm after their choppy 9-11 start.

“We understand how we want to play every night,” Durant said Wednesday. “I feel like the league is always on notice with the talent we have on our team. I don’t think anybody takes us for granted when they’re preparing for us each night. We’ve found some things that were good for us on both ends of the floor, and [we] want to just be consistent with executing those things as we move forward. So, it’s good to have winning streaks. But we’re more concerned with how we’re playing, and what we’re doing to produce the wins. I think we’re walking in the right direction when it comes to that.”

Now let’s run off this Kia Race to the MVP Ladder order right quick.

Durant occupies No. 3 in this week’s edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, while reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic clings to a slim lead for the top spot after leading the Denver Nuggets to eight wins in their last 10 outings Thursday against the LA Clippers. Jayson Tatum stays at No. 2 after dropping his second career triple-double Thursday in a blowout win over Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

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: 25.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 9.5 apg

“The Joker” led Denver to its eighth win in 10 outings (and ninth straight home victory) on a relatively light night Thursday, scoring 12 points with nine assists in just 24 minutes against the LA Clippers. The engine that runs the Nuggets, Jokic had dished at least 40 assists to five different teammates entering Thursday (no other player in the league can stake that claim). The NBA leader in triple-doubles (nine, which includes five in December), Jokic has now shot 50% or better from the field in 29 straight games, trailing only Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton (30 games) for the longest such streak in the league. Check out colleague Brian Martin’s deep dive examining Jokic’s bid to become the first player in 37 years to pull off the MVP three-peat.

Nikola Jokic has once again led the Nuggets toward the top of the West with high-level play.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 30.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 4.2 apg

Tatum dropped his second career triple-double (29 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) against triple-double king Doncic on Thursday as Boston ended its two-game skid on this current four-game road trip that closes Saturday in San Antonio. In the two losses, the team’s opponents averaged 136.5 points on 58% from the floor and 53% from deep. But Tatum (one steal, two blocks) and the Celtics locked down on Doncic and the Mavericks, holding them to 95 points on 35% from the field and 22% on 3-pointers in what was Boston’s second-largest margin of victory of the season (29 points).

Jayson Tatum heats up for 29 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists for his 2nd career triple-double in Boston's big win over Dallas.

3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 29.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.5 apg

Forget about the offseason trade request. It doesn’t factor into things now after seeing how the 12-time All-Star has been a model of consistency in Brooklyn, demonstrating as much during Wednesday’s loss at Chicago. Over Durant’s last 20 games, he’s shot 60.1% overall, 39.4% on 3-pointers and 95.5% on free throws, while ranking eighth in the league in total blocks (55). With Durant leading the way, the Nets own the league’s second-best clutch offensive rating (128.3) and its top clutch net rating (27.4). Durant has produced 25 points or more on 50% or better shooting in 25 games so far this season, which ranks No. 1 in the NBA.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have finally synced are turning the Nets' season around.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 34.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 8.7 apg

Boston snapped Dallas’ seven-game win streak (the team’s longest since 2011) with a dominating performance in which the Celtics held Doncic to his lowest scoring half of the season (three points in the second half). It’s worth noting Doncic rested the entire fourth quarter, having averaged 44.5 ppg in his previous six games. The 23-year-old appeared to be hobbled with an ankle injury against the Celtics, and at times grabbed at his chest in discomfort. Dallas can’t afford for its superstar to break down at this point and the Mavs are 2-7 in games where Doncic scores less than 30 points. Without Josh Green, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber, Doncic and the Mavs were severely undermanned in this latest loss.

Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell make league history as they continue climbing the Kia MVP Ladder.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 32.7 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 5.4 apg

Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee to wins in his last three games, putting up monster numbers along the way. We saw 43-20-5 (on Dec. 30 vs. Minnesota), 55-10-7 (on Jan. 3 vs. Washington) and 30-21-10 (on Jan. 4 in Toronto). But those gaudy statistics came against a trio of teams with a combined record of 51-65 entering Friday. Still, Antetokounmpo ranks as the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 to tally 200-plus points, 80-plus rebounds and 30-plus assists over a five-game span. The 28-year-old is also on track to produce the eighth season in NBA history in which a player averaged 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists. In the previous seven instances, a player reached those numbers while shooting better than 50% on just three occasions. Antetokounmpo is shooting 53.2% overall this season.

Frank Isola and Amin Elhassan discuss Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 55-point game and his place in the MVP chase.

The Next Five:

6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
T-7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
T-7.Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
9. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; 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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