Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Joel Embiid stays on top as finish line draws closer

Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid keeps hold of the No. 1 spot in an award chase that continues to provide intrigue.

Joel Embiid is at the top of our list, but he and the 76ers are eyeing health for the playoffs.

With the race coming down the final stretch, you can catch a nightly update on the top five candidates in our Kia MVP Tracker.

Beware of overanalyzing upcoming snapshots that will ultimately lead to recency bias when viewing this next slate of games featuring showdowns between some of the leaders in this latest edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

Over the next three days, starting Saturday in Denver and ending Monday in the same locale, we’ll see reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic take on two of this list’s top three on NBA TV. But be careful about making snap judgements over a couple of contests when considering an award based on the entire regular season.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone even offered some words of advice we should all heed after his team’s win Wednesday over the Washington Wizards.

“Compared to the last two years, I think this year unfortunately has just taken a really ugly, nasty turn in the MVP conversation. What’s happening now is there are so many guys that can win the MVP this year. Great candidates,” Malone said. “But what happens in today’s society is that [with] everybody, it’s not promoting my guy, it’s ripping down every other guy, and that’s just ridiculous. As [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver told us at the All-Star break: the game is in a great spot. We have great players. Celebrate them. Don’t criticize. Don’t tear them down. Build them all up. And whoever wins it, good for them.”

Of the top three listed in this edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Jokic faces the toughest upcoming test. He has consecutive home matchups against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, followed by a Monday matchup with Philadelphia, led by Joel Embiid, who clings to a slim lead atop the ladder. Embiid played a season-low 16 minutes in Wednesday’s win over Chicago due to a right calf tweak that forced him to leave the game after two quarters. So, while it’s unlikely, it’s still possible another Embiid vs. Jokic clash might not even materialize considering the 76ers’ focus on the postseason.

Frank Isola and Tim Legler discuss the MVP race and the criteria considered to win the award.

Still, coach Doc Rivers expects Embiid to be available Friday when Philadelphia faces Golden State on the road (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

“We’ve gotten in[to] the playoffs two years in a row with injuries and we all know you don’t win in the playoffs when your key guys aren’t healthy,” Rivers said.

The Sixers’ center first suffered the calf injury in Monday’s double-overtime loss to the Bulls, before feeling what’s been described as “mild” discomfort in that area Wednesday during the first half of a win against Chicago.

“It’s all about the playoffs, trying to make sure we get there healthy,” Embiid said.

The fairly healthy Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, foster similar aspirations but appear to eye a slightly different objective as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed with 10 games left to play.

“If you had to choose between a No. 1 seed or health, I’d take health any day,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we’re right there. We’re No. 1. We should take this spot. I’ve never played a Game 7 in my career at home. So, it’s just being able to not just have the No. 1 seed in the East, [but to] just have the best record in the NBA and have that homecourt advantage against everybody.

“The No. 1 priority is guys being healthy. [The No.] 2 priority, hopefully, [is] we can finish with the best record in the league. I’ve never in my career believed in seeding. But we’re No. 1 right now. We should just take it. We should just keep on building good habits, take it, and maybe it helps us on a playoff run.”

Jokic stands in the way against Antetokounmpo on Saturday at Ball Arena. The Nuggets host Embiid and the Sixers two days later. Denver is one of just three teams currently in the NBA with at least 30 home victories.

The next potential head-to-head clash between Embiid and Antetokounmpo, however, doesn’t take place until April 2 at Fiserv Forum (8 ET, NBA League Pass).

So, while Embiid and Jokic hold the top two positions in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Antetokounmpo, Tatum and Doncic occupy the final three slots with Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis closing fast on a spot in the top five.

And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 33.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.2 apg

The recent calf injury makes you wonder whether Embiid will take a cautionary approach to his team’s final 10 games of the season. With the race so close, such a move would be unwise. But at the same time, overall team goals supersede personal ambition. If Jokic and the Nuggets find a way to stay atop the Western Conference standings, Embiid will likely slip behind the reigning two-time MVP on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. But Embiid’s monstrous production of 31 points or more in 10 of the last 11 games — including nine victories — is strong. And, his 10 straight games with at least 30 points also registers as a franchise record. Even in brief action Wednesday against Chicago, Embiid performed brilliantly (12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, seven rebounds, seven assists, one block and one steal in 16 minutes).

Joel Embiid shows he can do the 'Smitty' and gets a spot in Smitty's Top Plays Under the Rim.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 24.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 9.9 apg

Denver seems to have steered itself out of the late-season doldrums with two consecutive victories to finish its five-game road trip at 3-2. Jokic’s 31-point, 12-rebound night in Wednesday’s victory against the Washington Wizards. And, since the 2016-17 season, Denver hasn’t posted a losing streak longer than five games with the Serbian big man in the lineup. The Nuggets are 3 1/2 games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies for the top seed in the West, but have a couple of difficult matchups on the horizon. After the home games against Milwaukee (March 25), Philadelphia (March 27) and New Orleans (March 30), four of Denver’s last six games are on the road before the season finale at home vs. Sacramento (April 9).

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in Denver's win over the Wizards.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 31.2 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.5 apg

Antetokounmpo tacked on another 30-point, 10-rebound performance on Wednesday, giving him 29 such games this season (which leads the NBA). The two-time MVP’s 29 games with more than 30 points and 10 rebounds register as the second most he’s put together in a season in his career (he had 34 such games in 2019-20). Antetokounmpo is averaging a career-high in scoring, and he’s tied for second in the NBA in rebounding entering Friday’s matchup at Utah. Having recently clinched a postseason berth for the seventh consecutive season, the Bucks now own the second-longest active playoff streak in the NBA (which is also the second-longest playoff streak in franchise history).

Giannis Antetokounmpo pounded on the Spurs and finished with 31 points in a win.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.7 apg

After losing three of four to open March, Boston has won five of its last seven games. But, Tatum has shot the ball better than 50% just once in his last six games. Tatum did drop 36 points Tuesday at Sacramento, as the Celtics snapped the Kings franchise-record seven-game streak of scoring 122 points or more. At No. 15 on Boston’s all-time scoring list (9,684 career points entering Friday), Tatum leads the league with 2,044 total points. Interestingly, just four Celtics have posted multiple 2,000-point seasons in their career (Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Tatum).

Jayson Tatum goes for 36 points and grabs 8 rebounds to put the Celtics past the Kings. 132-109.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 32.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 8.2 apg

Doncic returned from a five-game absence due to a left thigh strain on Wednesday, recording 30 points and 17 dimes in a tough loss to the Golden State Warriors that Mavericks governor Mark Cuban reportedly planned to protest. After a surprising run to the 2022 Western Conference finals, the ninth-place Mavericks find themselves in hot competition for a spot in the Play-In Tournament. “The mood is not good,” Doncic said. “Every time you lose, it’s bad. We’ve got to focus on what’s next. We’ve got to be focused on winning.” Dallas has lost six of its last 10 with a five-game road trip looming after Friday’s home game vs. Charlotte (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).

In a game marked by last-second thrills, Luka Doncic and the Mavs lose at home to Golden State.

The Next Five:

6. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
7. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
8. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
9. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Last week’s ranking: Not ranked)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz; Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies.

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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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