Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Fellow stars delight in Antetokounmpo's superstar turn

Strong stretch-run finish could help cement award for Bucks' phenom

So far this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s actions have spoken much louder than any words.

The Milwaukee Bucks sit atop the Eastern Conference standings this morning, due in large part to the play of their 24-year-old wunderkind, who has dominated the league in a fashion that calls to mind the last Milwaukee player to win MVP.

Yes, it’s time to go there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the first three of his record six MVP awards in a Bucks uniform, with the last coming in 1973-74.

Antetokounmpo is poised to end the Bucks’ MVP drought, if he can finish this season’s stretch run as he and the Bucks started the season. He’ll have to outplay a loaded field of previous winners — namely, reigning Kia MVP and Houston Rockets superstar James Harden as well as two-time MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

The Bucks’ charismatic young star seems up to the task, after serving notice at NBA All-Star 2019 that he’s more than ready for the prime-time stage. He turned in a spectacular performance and is clearly just scratching the surface of his immense potential.

Not that he needs the added endorsement, but his name was on the mind of his All-Star peers, (even if they are a bit unclear as to how old he is) when the topic turned to the MVP race.

“He’s got potential through the roof. He’s still producing at an elite level, and it’s scary to see how far he can keep going,” said 2014 Kia MVP Kevin Durant, who was named Kia MVP of the All-Star Game.

His game is rounding into shape. He’s still getting better, but he’s [the] leading top five, top three MVP candidates right now …”

Kevin Durant, on Giannis Antetokounmpo

“His game is rounding into shape. He’s still getting better, but he’s [the] leading top five, top three MVP candidates right now at 20. How old is he, 23? To be that young and already at the top of the class as one of the elites in the game, it’s a joy to watch his progression.”

“I don’t know how old he is, but his ceiling is still very, very high,” said Detroit Pistons All-Star Blake Griffin. He said the MVP conversation is shifting as a crop of under-25 stars makes a move on established candidates.

“There’s a lot of guys that are like — like A.D. [Anthony Davis] — there’s guys you almost don’t even mention when you talk about the best players in the world that you almost forget about,” Griffin said. “Kawhi [Leonard] — like the list goes on about guys that could the next season have a crazy season, and they seem like they’re the best player in the world. It’s an exciting time.”

To Griffin, the conversation has shifted – even in the five seasons since LeBron James won his most recent (and fourth overall) MVP.

“Yeah, I think the conversation’s closer,” Griffin said. “I mean, LeBron’s still has held that down for a long, long time, but you see Giannis, you see James [Harden] … KD, Steph, all these guys are — it’s a lot of fun because it feels like the competition is like that. Everybody is pushing each other to become better.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer is doing his part to push Antetokounmpo to his next level, providing an offensive framework for “The Greek Freak’s” rise.

“Probably the most exciting — or if you’re not with Milwaukee, the most scary — thing is to think about how much better Giannis can get,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of room to grow, a lot of room to improve. … He’s only 24. We’re certainly excited with where he’s going.”

Antetokounmpo’s path the next two months, with that loaded field giving chase, appears to be headed towards a seat at the table of the league’s MVP elite.

“Right now, I’m going to go with my guy Giannis,” said fellow Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton. “He’s having a great year. He’s leading us to first place right now. He’s doing everything for us. When you look at his numbers, you look at our team, you look at how we’re winning and everything, I think he’s the clear candidate right now.”

Middleton also senses the seismic generational shift Griffin mentioned. The MVP conversation – once dominated seemingly forever by LeBron, Durant and Curry — is at least a bit more complicated given Antetokoumpo’s rise.

“I think LeBron is the best player in the world, as far as overall in his career and what he’s doing for this league on and off the court,” Middleton said. “But I think Giannis is headed in that direction. Giannis is still 23, 24. LeBron is in his 30s now. I think Giannis can be a LeBron-type player, like an all-world, Hall of Famer, MVP, legend, one of the best ever. He’s doing the right things to put himself in that situation. I think he will get there.”

Provided, of course, that Antetokounmpo can finish what he’s started this season.

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

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks

With only 24 games left in the season, the Bucks have a finite amount of time to explore the possibilities with another giant floor-spacer (Nikola Mirotic) playing off Antetokounmpo. The All-Star Game — the defense-free exhibition that it was – proved a great reminder of how devastating “The Greek Freak” can be with better shooters and talent on his side. Make no mistake: Antetokounmpo was a dominant force for most of that game despite not winning MVP honors. Mirotic offers that help in smaller increments while changing things for these Bucks. Budenholzer’s ability to design schemes that play to the supporting cast’s strengths will only serve to boost Antetokounmpo’s stock. And with Harden, Curry, Paul George and the rest of the field breathing down his neck, Antetokounmpo will need every possible edge he can get to crash the MVP party he’s been on the outside of the past two seasons.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 36.5 points, 7.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals

As much as Harden would no doubt love to win a second straight Kia MVP, the Rockets’ star has bigger issues to deal with in the stretch run. “I’m not worried about MVP,” he said. “I’m just excited for the second half of the season, getting a full, healthy roster and taking it from there.” Harden is trying to secure a top-four seed in a rugged Western Conference playoff chase. The side benefit for his MVP chances is that to obtain that playoff goal, he’ll most certainly have to continue playing at the level that rescued the Rockets after an 11-14 start. He has more help now, what with both Chris Paul and Clint Capela back in the mix. And what better motivation for a player who has everything (short of an NBA title) than to see if he can keep his 30-point scoring streak rolling, too? Harden doesn’t have to favor one priority over another … they’re all intertwined until the very end.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.7 points, 8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals

It’s a credit to George that the MVP chase is a legitimate three-player competition right now and not just an Antetokounmpo-vs.-Harden sprint to the finish. In terms of this season’s best two-way players, George is right there with Antetokounmpo. George’s improvement in that department from last season to this one is nothing short of amazing. He’s shooting an absurd 45.8 percent on 3-pointers over OKC’s last 13 games (in which it has gone 11-2). Toss in the fact that Russell Westbrook is a walking triple-double every night out and it’s easy to cast George in a new light. The challenge for George now is to hold onto this position as a pack of Kia MVP contenders like James, Curry, Durant, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and, to a lesser extent, Westbrook, make a late-season charge.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 28.8 points, 5.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals

Curry was the toast of his hometown during All-Star 2019 in Charlotte, even if his mom, Sonya Curry, made the biggest shot of the weekend. But now comes the real heavy lifting for Curry and the Warriors. They’ll have to work to keep the West’s No. 1 spot as Denver and Oklahoma City give chase, and strength of schedule will be a serious factor for each of those teams. But Curry and the Warriors have the strength of experience component over all comers, in the conference and beyond. A healthy roster, one refreshed from a week off for big men Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins, will certainly aid the cause. Curry’s advantage in things is that there will be so much pressure applied to the Warriors’ other stars that he may find his spots a little easier (and certainly as often) as he’d like. This season has made it clear how crucial Curry is to the Warriors operating at their peak. If a third straight title is in the plans, it has to come with Curry playing MVP-level ball on the road to the playoffs and beyond.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks

It’s unclear how the news of Embiid’s week of rest with a sore knee is going to affect the 76ers and their chances of trying to climb in the Eastern Conference standings. The “load management” for “The Process” is no doubt going to impact Embiid’s status here, where a player’s availability during the stretch run is perhaps the most critical trait for staying in the MVP conversation. That would be a shame, because Embiid was enjoying the finest stretch of his NBA career. Plus, no team needs time for their newly formed core group to develop chemistry than Philly does. The one side benefit of adding Tobias Harris at the trade deadline is that there is a natural pecking order in place for the Sixers while Embiid rests. Harris will get many more reps as a main option with Embiid out, which should pay dividends when the league’s most dominant center in unavailable. Embiid should have plenty of time to stay in/fight his way back into the top-tier mix here — provided his load management period only lasts a week. Anything longer and it could end up costing him this perch.

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The Next Five

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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

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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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