Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Time may be ticking for LeBron to get back in chase

Lakers star back at last, but has he lost too much ground in voters' eyes?

Most if not all the Los Angeles Lakers’ goals this season remain in plain view.

There’s the NBA trade deadline and all the potential it provides, as well as the time and space for the Lakers to claw a path back into the Western Conference playoff chase.

All of it is a very real possibility with a little more than a third of the 2018-19 season remaining.

The only place where the calendar could complicate things is for LeBron James and his ability to catch back up in the Kia MVP race he was eyeballs deep in on Christmas morning.

Now that the Lakers’ resident superstar has finally returned to the lineup after a five-week absence caused by that groin injury he suffered Christmas Day, we’re left to wonder if there’s enough time left for LeBron to get back in the mix?

The math doesn’t look good.

Seventeen games in street clothes, even for a player capable of operating at the level LeBron can for a sustained period, is a huge chunk of time to make up for. And he didn’t hide the fact that the weeks away from game activity have taken a toll.

“I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” James said. “Definitely ecstatic about being back out there with my guys and getting a great road win versus a team that we’re kind of climbing [against] in the playoff race. After being out five weeks, I’m feeling it right now. I wish I could click my shoes together and be home right now in my bed, but it was great to be back out there.”

Still, the Lakers’ remaining 30 games simply might not provide a large enough canvass for LeBron to finish what he started in his first season in Los Angeles. And who knows what next week’s trade deadline will (or won’t) bring?

Then again, James did come off the shelf with a vintage effort — flirting with a near triple-double (24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in 40 minutes) — in a much-needed overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday night.

And if we’ve learned anything in this crazy season (raise your hand if you thought a Kristaps Porzingis trade would happen days after Anthony Davis made his trade desires known), it’s that anything is possible.

There could be plenty of time for LeBron to close the gap on the players currently occupying the top spots in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

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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. 1

Season stats: 36.3 points, 8.1 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 steals

Harden’s case for a second straight Kia MVP got it’s strongest jolt of energy from his monstrous January run that saw him average a staggering 43.6 points (on .430 shooting, .335 shooting), 8.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks. As crazy as it sounds, some of Harden’s finest defensive work we’ve seen also came during his current stretch of offensive brilliance. So it’s not as if he was just carrying the Rockets offensively while Chris Paul, Clint Capela and other key players went in and out of the the rotation due to injury. But for all of the deserved hype surrounding Harden’s run of 30-point games (now at 24), the real heavy lifting is still to come. Harden’s pushed ahead to the front of this race but will have to keep it up to hold off the field. And now that Paul his back, his nuclear usage rate figures to come back to human levels. If coach Mike D’Antoni is planning properly, he’ll do whatever else he can to ease the burden on his star to make sure he’s properly rested for a potential deep playoff run.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.4 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

Antetokounmpo will have plenty of company in Charlotte for the 68th All-Star Game now that Khris Middleton has earned his first All-Star nod and Mike Budenholzer and his staff will serve as the coaches representing Team Giannis. There’s no doubt “The Greek Freak” has taken his game to another level this season. But he’s far from a one-man show, which was clear to see as the Bucks wrapped up the season series with the Raptors (3-1) with an impressive road win Thursday night. Giannis finished with 19 points (on 7-for-13 shooting), nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks and dominated the floor. He did so while another MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard — who is an elite defender — was unable to slow Antetokounmpo down. The Bucks have clearly established themselves as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star break and now have to stay locked in and focused through the stretch run of the regular season to hold on to that distinction. It shouldn’t be a problem, sustaining the energy, with all of the good vibrations surrounding the franchise right now. That’s especially true when you are drafting off of the juice Antetokounmpo provides.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 29.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals

Curry did everything he could to keep the Warriors’ win streak going, but not even his 41 points (including a 10-for-18 showing from 3-point range) was enough to hold off the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday. With his “Splash Brother” and fellow Western Conference All-Star Klay Thompson missing from the lineup with an undisclosed illness, the Warriors couldn’t find enough pop offensively to keep up with a Sixers team that pounded them inside. The loss overshadows what’s been an absolutely wicked January run for Curry — 31.3 points (on .515 shooting, .460 from 3-point range), 5.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds as the Warriors went 11-2. Curry’s regained his MVP form after that adductor strain cost him all but three games in December. Curry had just finished off a monster November (33.0 points per game on .549 shooting, .529 from deep, 5.9 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals) even better than his past month’s worth of work.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 27.2 point, 13.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 blocks

No one enjoys showcase games more than Embiid, who put his entire arsenal on display Thursday night in a huge road win against the Warriors. He outplayed DeMarcus Cousins in his home debut, finishing with 26 points (bolstered by a 10-for-12 showing from the free throw line), 20 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was a statement win for the Sixers and an interesting snapshot of how they could potentially match up against the champs. Whether or not the Sixers have what it takes to come out of the East remains to be seen, no matter how confident Embiid is about their prospects. What is no longer up for debate is Embiid’s ability to stick out in a crowd, even one overrun with other All-Stars, as was the case Thursday in Oakland. Both Embiid and Ben Simmons, who received his All-Star news before the game, physically overwhelmed the Warriors at critical times in the game. It’s a recipe coach Brett Brown will surely use repeatedly down the stretch this season.

5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 27.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals

If the Thunder have truly become a clear danger to the Golden State Warriors’ stranglehold on the Western Conference throne, it’s because of George’s play. Russell Westbrook was piling up triple-doubles and collecting individual hardware before George showed up. And their inaugural season together, however choppy it was early, has given way to a second season where they have clearly defined roles. There’s an ease in their give-and-take that signals huge things to come for these two All-Stars (and everyone else along for the ride). And if that ride includes more of what we saw from George in Tuesday’s win over Orlando (31 of his 37 points before half-time) and more of what we saw from him to finish January (29.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals), all of the momentum being built now will pay off handsomely in the coming months.

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The Next Five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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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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