The email inbox swelled with incredulity the day Nikola Jokic rose to the top spot in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the first time.
That took place back near the end of March, and since then, Jokic only strengthened his case with virtually every performance.
“He’s kind of gone wire-to-wire at this high level,” Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash said earlier this month. “He makes teammates better and everything go. They lost Jamal Murray, and they haven’t really skipped a beat. That shows how good he is.”
It’s also part of the reason Jokic finishes the 2020-21 season at No. 1 in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
We acknowledge Stephen Curry’s incredible season, as the former two-time Kia MVP captured the scoring title on Sunday with a 46-point effort in Golden State’s regular-season finale. Impressive, for sure. He connected on 42.1% on 12.7 3-point attempts per game this season, which eclipses the clip at which he produced during his MVP seasons from 2015 and ’16, and we acknowledge there’s no way the Warriors would have secured a spot in the State Farm Play-In Tournament without the veteran’s contributions.
Even LeBron James made sure to give Curry his MVP props ahead of their 103-100 Play-In victory against the Warriors.
“We get caught up in the [win-loss] record sometimes,” James said. “We get caught up in the, ‘OK, who has the best record, instead of saying who had the best season that year. Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”
But the truth is win-loss records matter.
And despite Curry’s mind-boggling production for a team that wouldn’t have advanced as far as they did without him, he didn’t conjure up enough total team success to knock Jokic off the top of the heap.
It’s expected — at least from this vantage point — that Jokic will win the actual Kia MVP vote in a landslide with Curry finishing somewhere in the top five alongside Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Chris Paul — all candidates leading teams ranked in the top three of their respective conferences.
Curry won his second NBA scoring title, averaging 31.8 points at age 33, making him the oldest scoring champion since Michael Jordan accomplished the feat at 34 during the 1997-98 season.
“Obviously, I’m appreciative that [James] knows when he says something, people pay attention,” Curry said. “So, for him to speak on my MVP candidacy, I respect him for it, and I appreciate it.”
And now, the Top 5 in the final 2020-21 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Season stats: 26.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.3 apg, 1.3 spg
The league leader in double-doubles (60), Jokic continued to carry Denver as injuries to Jamal Murray (torn ACL), P.J. Dozier (adductor) and Will Barton (hamstring) decimated the lineup. Jokic finished second in the league in triple-doubles (16) and authored career-high numbers in points, rebounds (tied) and assists. What’s more is Jokic insisted on playing in every game. He ended up playing 903 more minutes than Embiid to finish with 2,488 minutes, which ranked No. 3 in the NBA. Jokic won NBA Player of the Month twice this season to become the third Nugget to win the award at least twice in their career.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Season stats: 28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 1.0 spg
If Embiid finishes in the top three on the ballots for the Kia MVP, how can you keep him off the All-NBA first team? This is a question lots of voters are struggling to answer. But this year’s voting format — which allows players such as Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum — to be listed on the ballot at multiple positions should help. If we’re being real, Embiid dominated the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for a major portion of the season. But ultimately, Embiid just missed too many games (21) and the Sixers found ways to win without him.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Season stats: 28.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg
Antetokounmpo ranks as the only player in the NBA averaging 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists to go with at least one block and one steal. So, he’s put up the numbers. But you wonder how much voter fatigue hurts his Kia MVP candidacy. The truth is Antetokounmpo is probably worthy of some first-place votes, as he’s a major reason Milwaukee finished the regular season for the third consecutive year ranked in the top three of the Eastern Conference.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Season stats: 32.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.2 spg
Rightfully, Curry downplayed LeBron James’ endorsement for the Warriors’ star to win the Kia MVP Award, knowing there might have been some gamesmanship involved ahead of Wednesday’s State Farm Play-In matchup. “Just look at what he’s done this year,” James said. “I don’t know anything else if you’re looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at?” We’d be looking at a squad headed to the Draft lottery. Curry’s record-setting season has no doubt been tremendous, and he’s deserving of serious consideration. But team success matters. Golden State simply didn’t achieve enough of it during the regular season to vault Curry to the top in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
5. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Season stats: 16.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8.9 apg, 1.4 spg
Determining candidates for the Kia MVP Award can sometimes become overly driven by statistics, and Paul’s 2020-21 season forces you to take a closer look at his impact. With Paul, you’ve got to look beyond the numbers and really account for some of the intangibles he brings to the second-seeded Phoenix Suns, which hadn’t made the postseason since the 2009-10 season. No doubt, Devin Booker is Phoenix’s best player. But Paul is the glue that bonds it all together and allows Booker and the rest of the Suns to flourish due to his steadying influence, experience and propensity to perform in clutch situations.
Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet!
The Next Five:
6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
7. Luka Donic, Dallas Mavericks
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
9. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
10. Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards
And five more: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; James Harden, Brooklyn Nets; LeBron James, L.A. Lakers; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets.
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