Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: LeBron James starts at the top as new chase begins

The Lakers' star holds the No. 1 spot in Sekou Smith's first ranking of Kia MVP candidates.

Lakers star LeBron James once again has himself in the MVP mix as a season begins.

In theory alone, the inevitable reshuffling of the Kia MVP chessboard makes sense at the start of a new season.

Change, of some sort, is on the way.

Good luck convincing the ruling class of such things.

For every ambitious newcomer to the conversation, there is an incumbent refusing to abdicate their position.

So even when the oddsmakers cast Luka Doncic as the favorite to ascend to the top of the MVP heap in his third NBA season, four-time Kia MVP LeBron James steadies himself for yet another run at the hardware in his 18th season.

LeBron James dropped a triple-double on the Spurs on Jan. 1.

The top six of the first Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of the season is a perfect illustration of the MVP tug-of-war between new and old, fresh and familiar, that will define the competition over the course of this 72-game, truncated marathon of a season.

James starts at the top with the glare of his latest Finals MVP trophy still shining. Doncic, Paul George and Joel Embiid fill in the spaces between two-time MVP Stephen Curry, with reigning and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo bracketing the top group.

It’s early in a season that has already been impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There will no doubt be twists and turns along the way — the usual drama that accompanies a new season plus the issues unique to an unprecedented set of circumstances everyone must face in 2020-21.

While change is inevitable and the notion of someone new joining the MVP crowd sends a jolt of energy into the award-chase atmosphere, there is comfort in the certainty of familiar MVP faces in these uncertain times.

It comes in the form of that group led by James, Curry and Antetokounmpo (that also includes Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose).

Perhaps it’s time to make room at the head table for someone new.

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

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Season stats: 24.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 7.9 apg, 1.0 spg

Take a look back at some of LeBron James’ career milestones.

No one would have blamed LeBron for easing into season No. 18 after an abbreviated offseason after leading the Lakers to the title in the Orlando bubble. But the old man (36 qualifies in the NBA) has been at his brilliantly consistent best in the early stages of this season. Even on a night when the Lakers saw their four-game win streak snapped by the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron’s performance (27 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, his third game this season with 20 or more points and 10 or more assists) shines. He’s set such a ridiculously high standard for himself and the rest of the crowd that follows on this list.

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Season stats: 27.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.0 spg

Luka Doncic lit up the Nuggets for 38 points on Thursday night.

Doncic put his full arsenal on display in Thursday’s overtime win over the Denver Nuggets and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. He self-corrected in game. After piling up eight turnovers entering the fourth quarter, he had none after that. Doncic also scored nine points in overtime to fuel the win and piled up a season-high 13 assists, controlling the game down the stretch. As good as Doncic has been, he’s still perfecting his ability to manipulate the action.

3. Paul George, LA Clippers

Season stats: 24.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.6 spg

Paul George poured in 39 points in a win against the Suns.

After a brutal finish in the Orlando bubble and an abbreviated offseason as a superstar piñata, George has gotten back on track early for a stout Clippers team (that 51-point loss to Dallas notwithstanding). He’s playing at his usual elite level on both ends and at his current pace will chase the 50-40-90 holy grail of shooting in 2020-21. He vowed to bounce back with a vengeance this season and so far, so good. Kawhi Leonard remains the Clippers’ biggest name and best player, but George has been LA’s catalyst.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Season stats: 24.6 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.8 bpg, 1.1 spg

Joel Embiid was dominant in a win against the Wizards.

Embiid and the Sixers were cooking, a league-best 7-1, before they were ambushed by the Kyrie Irving-and Kevin Durant-less Brooklyn Nets Thursday night. The league’s best defense, with Embiid as the anchor, was shredded. But one game doesn’t erase a fantastic start to the season for Embiid in his first run under coach Doc Rivers. These first nine games have provided an excellent glimpse of what Embiid and the Sixers are capable of if he can consistently dominate the competition the way his talent suggests.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 29.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.0 spg

Take a look back at Stephen Curry’s 62-point game.

Anyone wondering what type of fight Curry and the Warriors had in them after a rocky start to the season got their answer Sunday when the former two-time MVP torched the Portland Trail Blazers for a career-high 62 points in just 36 minutes. The Warriors are far from the juggernaut they were three seasons ago, but Curry is still as dangerous a shooter/scorer as there is in the league. And given the absence of Klay Thompson, there will be plenty of opportunities for Curry to heat up the way he did against the Trail Blazers.

Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet!

Reactions to Sekou’s first Kia MVP Ladder of 2020-21.

The Next Five:

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

T-8. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers & Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

And five more: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; James Harden, Houston Rockets; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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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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