Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Bucks vs. Lakers may sway voters ... but should it?

Taking stock of the Top 5 contenders in the Kia MVP Award chase

How important is one game in settling a season-long debate?

We’re going to find out in the aftermath of Friday’s 113-103 victory by the Los Angeles Lakers over the Milwaukee Bucks square in their second and final matchup this regular season.

LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo — by most accounts, the two leading candidates in the Kia MVP chase — shared the court for just the third time this season. The Bucks beat the Lakers 111-104 at Fiserv Forum on Dec. 19 and Team LeBron beat Team Giannis in the 2020 All-Star Game last month in Chicago.

A one-game sample doesn’t necessarily provide the sort of context needed to completely evaluate the MVP worthiness of either player. But in a narrative-driven race that is steaming toward its mid-April voting deadline, the takeaways from this matchup will certainly sway some undecided voters.

That James, 35, and Antetokounmpo, 25, are rivals is a testament to their careers. That age gap is significant for a pair of generational talents who represent two distinct factions of NBA eras.

Antetokounmpo joins Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming as one of the faces of the global influence on the NBA game. James joins Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant on the Mount Rushmore of the movement of American teenagers who bypassed college for the NBA.

That age gap might also explain the reverence Giannis has for LeBron, who was already a global superstar when “The Greek Freak’s” fantasies about being on this stage were still just a teenager’s pipe-dream.

“It’s amazing. He’s 35 and playing at a high level,” Antetokounmpo told reporters Wednesday. “He just leads the path for us. A lot of times we think that, ‘OK, we’re going to retire at 35,’ but seeing a guy at 35 being still top-three best player in the world, that makes us want to be there. … He paved the way, and hopefully we can just follow.”

Following in LeBron’s footsteps as a multiple-time Kia MVP is a part of what Giannis has on the line with his historic encore MVP season with the Bucks. His breakthrough last season provided a storybook plot twist in a career that began in an obscure Greek league for a Nigerian immigrant who no one had ticketed for NBA stardom.

If we could only get the main stars to play their part in the drama.

LeBron told reporters Thursday that MVP trophies aren’t now and never have been his motivation. He always had bigger goals in mind.

“It’s never motivated me,” James told reporters. “Regular-season MVP has never motivated me. To be the best — to be the best to ever play the game has motivated me and has resulted in me being able to be league MVP a couple times.

“But I’ve never gone into the season saying, ‘OK, league MVP is what I want to be.’ I’ve gone into the season saying, ‘OK, I want to be the MVP of this team; I want to be the best player in the world,’ and how I approach my game every day, how I take care of my body every day has resulted in that [award].”

Either way, this could be the final glimpse we get of these two contenders this season. There’s no guarantee either one of them battles through their respective playoff fields and survives for what could be an epic Finals matchup in June, a big-stage engagement that could settle this season’s “MVP debate” once and for all.

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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

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 29.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks

Miami put the squeeze on him Monday night as well as anyone has all season, but it’s not a blueprint other teams will be able to follow. Antetokounmpo bounced back with a trademark effort (29 points, 12 rebounds and six assists) in Wednesday’s win over Indiana. He should be rested and ready to go for tonight’s showdown against the Lakers (he lit them up for 34, 11 and seven in the previous matchup).

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 1.2 steals

LeBron and Anthony Davis were at their superstar best in Tuesday’s win over an overmatched Philadelphia team. LeBron finished with 22 points, 14 assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal. He’ll need to produce in similar fashion over the course of the next 48 hours with Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in town Friday and a Sunday afternoon showdown with Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers up next.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 28.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.0 steals

Doncic didn’t let a thumb sprain keep him from delivering down the stretch in an overtime win over rookie sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Doncic’s 30 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists was the perfect performance to pair with a wicked dose of Kristaps Porzingis (34 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks). The Mavericks’ dynamic duo seems to be grooving as the playoffs draw near.

4. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 26.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals

The Clippers have won six straight games by an average of 17 points, which sets up a spectacular Sunday showdown between Staples Center tenants who are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the West standings. Leonard will silence a lot of the critics of his injury management protocol with another dominant outing against James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.

5. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 34.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals

The Rockets’ small-ball revolution hit a snag with back-to-back losses to the lowly Knicks and the streaking Clippers. Harden hit the Knicks up for 35 points, but shot poorly. His game flat-lined against the Clippers’ stingy perimeter defensive brigade as things got out of hand early Thursday night. If that ends up being a preview of a first-round playoff series, that 2-2 regular season-series split with the Clippers doesn’t look so even now and the Rockets could be in trouble.

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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. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

7. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

9. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

10. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

And five more: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks; Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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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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