Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Rockets' turnaround tale fueling Harden's run at hardware

Storyline always crucial, and reigning MVP helping Houston craft a stellar one

Wicked numbers alone won’t secure a Kia MVP.

Reigning Kia MVP James Harden knows that better than most, given his checkered recent history with the NBA’s top individual regular-season honor.

Harden believed his case to be rock-solid in two separate seasons, but came up short both times before finally breaking through last season.

Sure, his numbers were off the charts in 2016-17, when he finished second to his friend (and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate) Russell Westbrook. The same goes for 2014-15, when he finished second to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry in the first year of Curry’s back-to-back seasons winning the award. Harden did win the NBPA’s first MVP in a vote of his peers, but the sting of losing out to Curry was already there.

The place where Harden came up short in both instances was in the narrative department, which, like it or not, has always been a crucial component for the media-panel voters.

Westbrook’s campaign came both during his historic (first) triple-double season and immediately after 2014 Kia MVP Kevin Durant bolted for the Warriors in free agency. Curry’s first win was on the strength of his (and the Warriors’ breakout season) that ended a 40-year title drought. His second MVP came as he fueled the Warriors’ record-breaking 73-win season.

Truth be told, a large part of Harden’s compelling narrative last season was his previous near-misses (not to mention the Rockets’ wire-to-wire run as the NBA’s best team and their league-best 66 wins).

With the winds changing seemingly by the day in this season’s MVP chase — thanks to the work Harden and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo are treating fans to — Harden is crafting yet another gripping drama for voters to consider.

Dragging the Rockets from 14th place in the Western Conference standings last month to their current fifth-place perch is a great place to start. Doing it with Chris Paul and other rotation players injured fed the drama. And chasing history — 18 straight games of scoring 30 or more points in a run the league hasn’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain’s days — always punches up the script.

“All you need is eyeballs to know what’s going on. James has been unbelievable and what he’s done for that team is unreal,” a Western Conference executive said. “The hard sell this season is in what these guys are doing on the court, both he and Giannis. There really isn’t a need to create some back story for any of these guys, and I include Steph in that as well. He’s on that level, too. There’s plenty of season left, though, for all of these guys. It’s too early to make any final declarations, isn’t it?”


There is much more season to play out, for the current frontrunners and everyone else.

But as they all know, it’s never too soon to start weaving that narrative that might push your campaign over the top.

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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. 2

Season stats: 35.4 points, 8.5 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals

His quest for a back-to-back Kia MVPs is a very real possibility, given Harden’s current performance. He’s on a nuclear run, averaging 40 points per game over his past 20 and scored at least 30 points in 18 straight games, which is the longest streak since the ABA/NBA merger. He is averaging a bonkers 47.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 2.6 steals in his past five games. His back-to-back games of 58 and 57 points mark the NBA’s first back-to-back 50s since he did it on Dec. 20 and 22 of 2017. The last time a player posted back-to-back games with 55 or more points was Wilt Chamberlain on Dec. 11 and 14 of 1962. Harden’s work rate is at an all-time high these days because so much of his usual supporting cast is wounded and/or unavailable. Chris Paul is still out. Center Clint Capela could miss anywhere from four to six weeks after thumb surgery. If Harden keeps the Rockets in the mix through all of this, it would be hard for anyone to argue against him keeping that MVP trophy he so adores.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals

Antetokounmpo has been forced to get his work done in limited minutes recently, what with the Bucks dominating the competition in their past three games. He pounded the Hawks for 33 points in 31 minutes in Sunday’s win in Atlanta. Then, he snagged a 12-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in 24 minutes in Tuesday’s annihilation of the Miami Heat. That was followed by 27 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in a 22-minute effort to lead a road win Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. Milwaukee’s roll allows coach Mike Budenholzer to ease up on Antetokounmpo’s grind as the trade deadline and NBA All-Star 2019 come into focus. That’s a good thing for “The Greek Freak,” whether he realizes it or not. Because the load he’ll be asked to carry in the 2019 playoffs trumps anything that’s been asked of him in the past. These Bucks will enter the playoffs with high expectations and Budenholzer will need their catalyst at his healthy best down the stretch of this season. Antetokoumpo must steal moments for a rest wherever he can get them now.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 29.8 points, 5.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals

Harden isn’t the only player on this list making history these days. After roasting the New Orleans Pelicans for 41 points and nine 3-pointers Wednesday, Curry became the first player in NBA history to make eight or more 3-pointers in three straight games. To open 2019, Curry has three 40-point games while averaging 34.1 points (on 50.6 percent shooting and 47.7 percent on 3-pointers), 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals. The Warriors have won six straight games and expect to welcome DeMarcus Cousins into the starting lineup tonight against the LA Clippers (10:30 ET, ESPN). Any concerns about the Warriors’ focus were answered by Curry and Co. this week. They smoked the Nuggets in Denver in Tuesday’s showdown/statement game between the West’s top two teams. Curry scored 31 points and went 8-for-13 on 3-pointers to serve notice that he, too, will wage a vigorous MVP campaign of his own as 2018-19 wanes.

4. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.5 steals

Pascal Siakam rescued the Raptors at the buzzer against Phoenix Thursday night with Leonard in street clothes. That continued Leonard’s season-long trend of not playing on the second night of back-to-back sets. (The Raptors, by the way, are an impressive and NBA-best 8-1 this season in the second night of back-to-backs.) But working without one of the league’s elite two-way players is something Raptors coach Nick Nurse can live with now because he knows he won’t have to do so come playoff time. In fact, preserving Leonard at this time makes sense for a team with designs on a playoff run they hope stretches into June and, thus, The Finals. Those designs are realistic right now because Leonard is on the roster. He’s shown himself to be every bit the difference-maker Raptors boss Masai Ujiri hoped he’d be when he shook the franchise up last summer in trading for him. Leonard’s work this month — 31.6 points on .570 shooting, .364 from deep — is his best offensive work to date. In all, things are going according to plan.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 26.9 point, 13.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 blocks

For a player who has missed so much time early in his NBA career, one of the most impressive things Embiid has shown this season is an ability to play through aches and pains. Last night, the Indiana Pacers likely would have rather seen Embiid give his sore lower back. Instead, he wore them out to the tune of 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in a huge win. It was both a critical win in the East chase for Philadelphia as well as a chance for Embiid to let the league know exactly where he is at this stage of the process. No offense to Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert or DeMarcus Cousins, but conversations about the NBA’s best big man cannot be had without mentioning Embiid’s name first. He’s been that good on both ends of the floor this season under all sorts of circumstances, including some choppy nights as he adjusts to life with Jimmy Butler in the fold.

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The next five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

And five more: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder; 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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