Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Myriad of changes mark start of 2019

Harden's scoring surge has award chase all topsy-turvy now

LeBron James recently said he thinks he’s the greatest player of all time and would indeed relish adding a fifth Kia MVP to his trophy case in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

James Harden, the reigning MVP, doesn’t want to give up the title, however. He’s been playing like it, as the Houston Rockets have taken off over the past three weeks with Harden leading the way.

Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo — the upstart in this season’s MVP chase — is authoring a rather compelling case of his own in Milwaukee. Maybe that MVP challenge from Kobe Bryant in 2017 is still on his mind these days.

And we didn’t mention the other legit MVP candidates — Kawhi Leonard in Toronto, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in Oakland, Joel Embiid in Philadelphia — who are sure to keep this debate rolling as the 2018-19 season rolls on.

There’s something refreshing about everyone making their intentions known. Perhaps it’s the start of a New Year and the accompanying resolution season that has everyone so willing to make their ambitions clear and (perhaps more importantly) public.

Clearly, storylines abound as the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder says goodbye to 2018 as the collective focus turns to whatever lies ahead this year.

No one is charging like Harden, who’s been a one-man force of nature all while Chris Paul nurses the sore hamstring he injured before Christmas.

The idea of him finishing this season with back-to-back Maurice Podoloff trophies seemed laughable on Dec. 11. Back then, the Rockets were in 14th place in the Western Conference.

Since then, they’ve won 11 of 12 and six straight with Harden on a historic scoring run.

You saw the show he put on at Oracle Arena last night. (And if you didn’t, you missed the performance and game of the New Year). There’s a new No. 1 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, and for good reason.

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 33.6 points, 8.6 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals

All Harden had to do was post his second triple-double of the week and record his fifth straight 40-point game to lead the Rockets back from a 20-point hole in Thursday’s overtime thriller. The game-winning 3-pointer with 1 second left was just the latest masterstroke of an absolutely jaw-dropping run from the reigning MVP. It’s clear he has his mind on keeping the hardware in his possession for a second straight season. What’s more impressive, though: that Harden has scored 30 or more points in 11 straight games? Or the circumstances (no Chris Paul) in which he’s performing these heroics for a Rockets team that looked lost weeks ago? Harden’s refusal to let this season slip away after an 11-14 start has been the fuel coach Mike D’Antoni’s team needed to get back into contention in the Western Conference — a place where the mighty Warriors don’t look so invincible.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.4 steals

Antetokounmpo’s all-out assault on the Eastern Conference, and really the entire league, shows no sign of slowing down. His Bucks have won four straight and eight of nine heading into tonight’s game against the Atlanta Hawks (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Were it not for Harden’s recent near-nuclear run, “the Greek Freak” would have started 2019 the same way he finished the past one — sitting atop this list. The appreciation for what he’s doing for the Bucks was reflected in the first All-Star ballot returns as he’s leading all Eastern Conference players in votes. That puts him on track to serve as one of the captains for next month’s superstar showcase in Charlotte. What the Bucks need is for Antetokounmpo to stay healthy and focused as the season wanes. The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is well within the reach for his Bucks.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 28.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals

It’s not often that a 35-point night from a former back-to-back MVP winner gets overshadowed the way Curry’s did Thursday (thanks, Harden). Curry didn’t shoot anywhere close to his usual 45 percent (he was 5-for-15 from deep) against the Rockets, but certainly played well enough to win a game the Warriors led by 20 points. The real concern for Curry and the Warriors is that the switch they are used to flipping in rough times doesn’t appear to be working. They don’t lose the way they did to the Rockets with a near-healthy roster (DeMarcus Cousins is practicing and nearing his debut) and with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all on track. It’s not like you can ask for more from Curry if you’re coach Steve Kerr. But that won’t stop Curry from examining his own recent performance (he is shooting just 41.6 percent overall in his last 10 games) and tweaking some things.

4. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals

Leonard’s first trip back to San Antonio since forcing his way out of town was the boo-fest you might have expected. There was a nasty reception from the crowd as the Raptors got rolled by the Spurs. (And DeMar DeRozan, who was traded to San Antonio for Leonard last July, got a triple-double vs. his old team). Leonard finished with 21 points, a sharp drop off from the career-best 45-point game he logged agaisnt Utah two days prior. Still, you could almost excuse his struggles given the emotions swirling about as he played as a visitor at AT&T Center for the first time. Whatever bad feelings may linger among the Spurs’ faithful, it appears that Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have moved on from it all. After the game, they embraced and spent some time in a pointed discussion. The conversation for the Raptors, of course, turns to the health of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry. He and Leonard are still working on the chemistry that will carry this team come playoff time, which is what matters most for Toronto.

5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 26.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals

Lost in the hype surrounding his return to his beloved Southern California on Wednesday was the fact that George, and not Russell Westbrook, has become the Thunder’s true alpha male. All the browbeating of George’s decision to re-sign with OKC last summer revolved around a narrative that he was willing to be the “Robin” to Westbrook’s “Batman.” But that’s clearly not the way things are playing out this season for the Thunder’s two biggest stars. George has been nothing short of brilliant this season and of late (33 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 steals in his last 10 games). That has not only put him in the All-NBA mix, but also made him a legit MVP contender for the first time in his career. And, George has the Thunder positioned to push for the top spot in the West. That’s a place no one saw them being after their 0-4 start was marked by Westbrook’s injury and shaky team chemistry.

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The next five

6. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

T-8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

T-8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

And five more: DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers;Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Lou Williams, LA Clippers

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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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