Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum leaps over Joel Embiid for No. 3

Nikola Jokic remains in the top spot as shuffling takes place below him in our latest review of the top Kia MVP contenders.

With 41 points Wednesday, Jayson Tatum passed Giannis Antetokounmpo for 7th on the all-time scoring list for players under the age of 25.

Luka Doncic ran a hand through his sweaty hair, oozing relief Thursday after combining with Kyrie Irving for 82 points in leading Dallas past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, 133-126.

Now’s not the time to exhale, though.

Not for the sixth-place Mavericks or any of the teams vying for playoff seeding, and especially not for the players fighting nightly to solidify their MVP candidacies over the last 38 days of the regular season.

The Kia Race to the MVP Ladder returns after a seven-day post All-Star break hiatus, and Thursday’s back-and-forth battle between superstar duos provides the perfect backdrop for tipping off the stretch run of a competition that appears to be tightening near the top between a pair of two-time MVPs in Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Luka Doncic vs. Joel Embiid showdown did not disappoint Thursday.

We’ll get to those two later, but let’s first hit what transpired in Dallas.

The clash between MVP candidates Doncic and Embiid packed a little more punch than usual due to the superstar sidekicks on both teams balancing the scales of the matchup in Irving and James Harden, who have each spent time this season ranked on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

Doncic fired his first six assists on the night to Irving, and the Dallas duo outscored Embiid and Harden 45-36 over the first two quarters as the Mavericks took a 71-67 lead into intermission. When Doncic found Irving with his sixth dime for a 25-foot runner with 10:19 left in the third quarter, the home team led 81-69. The 24-year old finished with a game-high 42 points and 12 assists, while Irving contributed 40 points and six dimes. The duo became the first pair of Mavs teammates to drop 40 points or more in the same game.

Doncic admitted to entering Thursday’s contest looking “to get [Irving] to be aggressive early.” In doing so, it revved up the production of both superstars. In all, Doncic dropped off eight of his 12 assists to Irving. Doncic would later nail a 28-foot stepback jumper with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter to give Dallas a 25-point lead.

Surprisingly, Philadelphia would chop down that advantage to four points with its superstar duo sitting on the bench.

Embiid poured in a team-high 35 points, while Harden finished with 27 points with 13 assists.

Doncic and Irving outpaced Embiid and Harden, 37-26, in the second half with Dallas tying a franchise record by making 25 3-pointers.

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving put on a show and become the 1st Mavericks teammates to score 40 or more in the same game.

“I just had to join the party and just make sure my teammates were going to follow along,” Irving said. “Luka was ready for the party. I was ready for the party tonight. It was one of those games where we had some special performances.”

Still, it wasn’t enough to propel Doncic past Embiid in this latest edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder because the Mavericks are now 2-4 when their newest superstar duo plays together, and 4-5 since Irving joined the squad. Doncic clings to the last rung of the MVP Ladder’s top five, while Jokic and Antetokounmpo hold down the top two spots.

Jayson Tatum moves up to No. 3, and Embiid slides to fourth.

With fewer than 20 games remaining, it’s likely the top five remains the same aside from the order changing some from week to week. But don’t count out a couple of the dark horses like Kevin Durant, who performed well Wednesday in his Phoenix Suns debut, and Stephen Curry, who could be back on the floor as soon as Sunday at Los Angeles, according to multiple reports.

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

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 24.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 10 apg

Jokic was named Kia NBA Western Conference Player of the Month on Thursday for games played in February. The reigning back-to-back Kia MVP averaged 22.6 points, 14.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game on 64.2% shooting and 50% on 3-pointers in 11 games that month as Denver went 9-2 in the games Jokic played. Over that span, the 28-year-old racked up eight triple-doubles and he’s achieved that stat line in four of his last five games, including Tuesday in Houston. In that win, he became just the sixth player in league annals to record 100 career triple-doubles. The first-place Nuggets are 24-0 this season when Jokic posts a triple-double and he faces off against Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday (10 ET, ESPN) at Ball Arena.

Nikola Jokic becomes this 6th player in league lore with 100 triple-doubles.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 31.3 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 5.4 apg

The two-time Kia MVP returned to the lineup on Tuesday to post his league-leading eighth game with 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds at Brooklyn, before helping Milwaukee the next night extend its winning streak to 16 games with a 139-117 home win vs. the Orlando Magic. The Bucks have sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference and are 7-1 this season in back-to-back sets. So, as well as Jokic continues to play, Antetokounmpo appears to be gaining some ground in this race despite fighting through various injuries along the way. The 10-year veteran can further solidify his case on Saturday when the Bucks host fellow MVP candidate Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers (8:30 ET, ABC) with a chance to reach 17 straight wins.'s Michael C. Wright breaks down his latest Kia MVP Ladder with Giannis Antetokounmpo rising.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 30.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.7 apg

From his first career ejection on Monday to a 41-point night with 11 rebounds and eight assists on Wednesday, Tatum proved the bounce-back is real. “You’ve got to take the good days with the bad days,” Tatum said on the heels of an 18-point third quarter in the team’s 117-113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I never get too high. I never get too low. Regardless of what happened, you can’t change it.” Nope, Tatum just made everybody forget about it in leading Boston to its fourth win in five games, passing Antetokounmpo for seventh place on the NBA all-time scoring list (9,429 career points) for players under the age of 25. Tatum joins LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady as the only players under 25 to produce at least 9,429 points, 2,936 rebounds and 1,386 assists.

Jayson Tatum finished with a double-double in a key win vs. Cleveland, posting 41 points and 11 rebounds for Boston.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.0 apg

Embiid held his own and dominated inside during Thursday’s loss to Doncic and the Mavericks, as Philadelphia outscored the home team 60-34 in the paint with the Sixers big man contributing 35 points (13-for-21 shooting) with eight rebounds and two steals. “We did our best with Embiid,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “He still ended up with 35. That’s how good he is.” Still, it’s hard to prevail when you let the opponent outscore you by 39 points from 3-point range. Despite the setback in Dallas and the fact Philadelphia has now lost three of its last four games, Embiid maintains his standing above Doncic in this race. The 28-year-old admirably continues to fight through foot issues while carrying his team, which is currently No. 3 in the East. Before hitting this latest rough spot, Philadelphia had won five in a row.

Joel Embiid scored 35 points in Thursday's road loss to Dallas.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 33.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 8.1 apg

The stellar showing against the Sixers on Thursday keeps Doncic in the top five, but you can’t overlook the Mavericks’ recent struggles, which haven’t improved much since the acquisition of Irving. Dallas has lost five of its last seven games and faces a revamped Suns squad on Sunday that now features arguably two MVP-caliber players in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. In the win over the Sixers, Doncic hit 7 of 13 from deep in notching his sixth game this season with 40 points or more and 10-plus assists. “The offense I don’t think is a problem,” he said. “I think offensively, we’re good. It’s just the defensive end.”

Luka Doncic finished with 42 points and 12 assists in a win vs. Philly.

The Next Five:

6. Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (Last ranking: No. 6)
7. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last ranking: No. 7)
8. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last ranking: No. 10)
9. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last ranking: No. 8)
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Last ranking: No. 9)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers.

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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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