Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Bucks' trade deadline deal could bolster Antetokounmpo's bid

In acquiring Nikola Mirotic, Milwaukee may have helped their star's MVP case

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

With potential power moves being made all around the league, most notably in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, Thursday’s trade deadline produced the desired effect in most places.

Teams that felt they were maybe one key piece away did their business and are now prepared for the stretch run of this season.

By the same token, the players involved in this season’s Kia MVP race have the landscape settled as they make their final push for the league’s most prestigious regular-season honor.

And perhaps no player will benefit more from the deadline shake up than Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who moves back into the pole position on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

“The field is pretty much set now,” a Western Conference scout told me in the aftermath of a busy trade deadline. “And some of the deals that went down will impact everything, the standings and I’m sure the MVP debate. [Nikola Mirotic] could be a real game changer for the Bucks if he’s right physically. You add another shooter with size like that to a group that’s already locked and loaded around Giannis … that’s a huge matchup problem for the rest of the league.

“I know a lot of people had [James] Harden at the top of their list after what he’s done the last five or six weeks. But Giannis has been the guy for me all along. He’s been there from the start and hasn’t let up, hasn’t had a prolonged dip in his performance this entire season. He’s got the slight edge, in my eyes, especially with the addition of another piece like Mirotic.”

The Philadelphia 76ers addition of Tobias Harris could have a similar effect for Joel Embiid, another member of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder top five. His position here has been fortified now that the trade deadline is over.

Marc Gasol’s addition to Toronto’s lineup is a huge upgrade for the Raptors, but might not boost Kawhi Leonard’s MVP case.

Harden’s not going away, not as long as his streak of 30-point games (28 and counting) continues. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George is in the mix, as is two-time Kia MVP and Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.

You can never count out LeBron James, whose bid for a fifth Kia MVP took a huge hit with his 17-game injury absence that dented the Los Angeles Lakers’ early season rise. Time isn’t on his side, though.

With the buyout market the only real way to alter a team at this point, the field is basically set.

You might want to get your popcorn ready for what could — and should — be a wild finish.

* * *

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

* * *

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

The Bucks raised the ante in the Eastern Conference at the trade deadline, adding yet another big shooter to their mix in Nikola Mirotic. That’s just one more reason teams won’t be able to clutter things up in the paint when facing Antetokounmpo, the league’s most devastating rim attacker this season. And if you can believe it, “The Greek Freak” is actually getting better at assaulting the rim as the season wears on. In Wednesday’s win against the Washington Wizards, he shot a preposterous 17-for-21 (.810) and finished with 43 points in the Bucks’ highest scoring game of the season. His six rebounds, four assists and three steals were a bonus on a night when he Eric Bledsoe took turns shredding the Wizards’ defense. Lost in the flurry of James Harden’s huge January was the fact that Antetokounmpo has been the NBA’s most consistently dominant force from the start of training camp to now.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 36.5 points, 7.9 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals

The Rockets are 10-7 in their last 17 games and firmly entrenched in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase as All-Star weekend nears. Harden’s wicked grind continues as his streak of 30-point scoring games stands at 28 as a Saturday showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder looms (8:30 ET, ABC). After Rockets GM Daryl Morey made trade deadline tweaks to the roster — and with the prospect of key players returning soon — the Rockets seem to be exactly where they want to be as the season’s stretch run looms. Harden is in a similarly sweet spot in his quest for back-to-back Kia MVPs. In his most recent masterpiece, he scored 36 points and shot 8-for-13 on 3-pointers in a blowout win against the Kings. He’ll have the chance to make his MVP case with his actions the rest of the way, which is all he can ask for after helping revive a seemingly lost Rockets season.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 28.0 points 7.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals

Much of the attention on the Thunder these days is focused on Russell Westbrook and his eight straight triple-doubles. Only Wilt Chamberlain (nine straight in 1968) had more. There’s no question Westbrook has been outstanding. But George has been even better in his role as the Thunder’s best player this season. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games and, during that stretch, George is averaging 34 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.5 steals. Thanks to a trade during the All-Star Draft on Thursday, Westbrook and George will pair on Team Giannis to see if they can bring some of that same energy to the NBA All-Star Game. Charlotte is the perfect place for George to be recognized for the way he’s performed this season. He’s in a groove right now while positioning the Thunder as perhaps the greatest threat to the Golden State Warriors’ death-grip on the Western Conference crown.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.9 points, 5.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals

Curry is coming off back-to-back un-Steph-like games (19 points in Wednesday’s win against the Spurs) and just 14 on 5-for-15 shooting (in Saturday’s win over the Lakers). That means the Suns should brace themselves for a nuclear effort tonight in Phoenix (9 ET, NBA League Pass). The good part for the Warriors is that their depth is so great that they can endure a couple of rough shooting nights from their most impactful player and still win (they have won 15 of their last 17 games). The Warriors are in a great space right now with DeMarcus Cousins incorporated into the mix without so much as a hiccup. Curry will get the chance to enjoy his trip home to Charlotte for NBA All-Star 2019, where he will battle his brother Seth (and others) for the MTN Dew 3-Point Contest on Saturday and take in all of the positive vibes that come with being the unofficial host of the weekend on his home turf. Come Sunday, he’ll star on Team Giannis. Golden State’s three-peat business, of course, will crank up to epic levels coming into that weekend.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2 blocks

Win or lose, Embiid has been dominant for a Sixers team that has morphed into a potential nightmare for the entire league with the addition of Tobias Harris. Unlike the hiccups both Embiid and Jimmy Butler endured as they tried to manage Butler’s transition into their mix, there should be no such issues with Harris. Embiid has the Butler experience to draw from and Harris isn’t the type of player to get in the way of the greater good for the sake of his own numbers. And if there’s one thing Sixers coach Brett Brown and his staff can lean on at this time, it’s Embiid’s thirst for dominating the competition. DeMarcus Cousins got a taste of it last week in the Sixers’ huge win at Oracle Arena, when Embiid overcame his own eight turnovers to pummel the champs for 26 points, 20 rebounds and five assists. He hit the Sacramento Kings with 29 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks Saturday and the Raptors with 37 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. The Sixers lost both games, but you can bet Embiid will have his new-look crew amped up for tonight’s showdown with fellow All-Star big man Nicola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets (7 ET, ESPN).

* * *

The Next Five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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

* * *

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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.