Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Antetokounmpo, refreshed Bucks ready for next step forward

Versatile star forward helping Milwaukee raise its status in East hierarchy

Based on the recent history of the award, crafting a Kia MVP season can be done in a number of different ways.

Sometimes it’s a transcendent individual season, one that doesn’t need the assistance of a championship-caliber team effort to bolster the case (see Russell Westbrook’s win in 2017).

Other times, it’s a spectacular individual season combined with a best-in-show regular season from a team that inspires voters to cast their ballots for the player leading that charge (see James Harden’s romp to the finish line last season).

And on those rare occasions when a otherworldly, all-time great individual season is paired with the greatest regular season in NBA history, you get a unicorn effort (see Stephen Curry’s unanimous win in 2016, when the Golden State Warriors finished 73-9).

It’s unclear right now just what type of season Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are in the midst of crafting. And they’ve had a monster start in coach Mike Budenholzer’s first season at the helm … but they’re not necessarily on some record pace.

What isn’t up for debate, though, is Antetokounmpo’s or the Bucks’ readiness for prime time.

They’ve made that abundantly clear through the first 11 games of this season, serving notice that they are indeed prepared to take that next step.

Budenholzer’s reconstitution of the Bucks’ collective DNA, with “The Greek Freak” as the fuel cell for this revival, has the entire league on notice. And that includes the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, who allowed the second-most points of the Steve Kerr era in Thursday night’s 134-111 rout at Oracle Arena.

They pounded the Warriors inside, outscoring them 84-34 in the paint, and have shown themselves to be more than the one-man-band they played like far too often before Budenholzer showed up.

“I think teams are starting to take notice and realize we’re not the Bucks that we were when I first got here six years ago,” Bucks small forward Khris Middleton told ESPN after the game. “We’re a totally different team even from last year.”

Antetokounmpo is certainly the same monster he was a season ago, only with another year of polish and a fresh set of directions from Budenholzer on how to attack the opposition and ultimately impose his will on the game each and every night.

That’s the main reason he’s moved into the top spot of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. He’s spent plenty of time on the list the past two seasons, but usually outside of the top five due to the Bucks’ lack of team success.

But with that shored up now with the new look provided by Budenholzer, the Greek Freak is free to sort through the different blueprints that could lead him to the finish line in this marathon.

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The top five in the Week 1 edition of the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 25.6 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.3 blocks

Antetokounmpo is living up to his “Greek Freak” persona on a nightly basis, filling up the stats sheet and collecting jaw-dropping highlight plays at every turn. The difference this season is that his work is coming during a renaissance under first-year coach Mike Budenholzer, whose changes have worked wonders for both his best player and the roster at large. Look no further than the Bucks’ (somewhat) surprising rout of the Golden State Warriors Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Antetokounmpo led the way with 24 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals as the Bucks snapped the Warriors’ eight-game win streak on a night that saw Warriors star Stephen Curry leave the game early with an adductor injury. It wasn’t the Bucks’ only statement win during this early stretch of the season but it was easily their biggest to date, sending a message to the rest of the league that what they’ve seen so far from Antetokounmpo and his crew is very real.

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 29.5 point, 6.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds

That collective gasp you heard late Thursday night was Warriors Nation reacting to the announcement that Curry, after just 26 minutes, was done for the night after suffering a groin injury. An assortment of injuries are the only thing that has slowed Curry down in recent seasons. The Warriors have been able to manage without Curry in the past and will no doubt be able to do so this time around (if that’s needed). But the two-time Kia MVP was off to a raucous start to this season and didn’t need anything getting in the way of what had the makings of yet another monster MVP campaign. The Warriors certainly felt his absence down the stretch against the Bucks, who limited Curry to just 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting (0-for-4 on 3-pointers) before he exited the floor for the locker room. Meanwhile, the Warriors can only wait for word from the medical staff on Curry’s situation.

3. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists

If this NBA-best 11-1 start to the season has seen Leonard operating at half speed as he gets comfortable in coach Nick Nurse’s system — as Leonard claimed after Wednesday’s win against the Sacramento Kings — it’s scary to think about just how good the Raptors will be when Leonard finally finds his groove. As it stands, Leonard has operated beautifully in the Raptors’ engine this season and All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry is making an MVP case of his own. The Raptors’ depth at every position has allowed them to maintain an elite level of play with or without Leonard on the floor so far this season. (Toronto easily handled the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz on their current road trip without Leonard in the mix because of a foot injury). He returned to the lineup in the win in Sacramento with an efficient 25 points, 11 rebounds and two assists. The true beauty of his fit with the Raptors is that he’s been able to fit in seamlessly without even knowing the ins and outs of the system yet.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 26.6 points, 5.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds

The Trail Blazers have won three straight games and six of their last seven riding the wave that Lillard and his backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum, have created with their attacking style early this season. The Blazers have done something that’s often hard to do in this league: improve dramatically without an infusion of star talent. Much of what’s working for them right now is the comfort that continuity provides. Without leaders like Lillard and McCollum, a youngster like Zach Collins might not be empowered to contribute the way he has in his second season. But with the tone being set in the offseason, there is no confusion about the roles every Blazer has. Lillard remains the true catalyst, the alpha if you will, and the man charged with finishing games the way he did Thursday night at Moda Center against the LA Clippers. That bench boost will come in handy when the Boston Celtics come to town Sunday night for a duel between two of the game’s best finishers in Lillard and Kyrie Irving.

5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 24.4 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 3.3 blocks

Davis should be the easiest player in the league to evaluate on a game-by-game basis because of how the Pelicans’ bottom line rests on him. And it’s not his performance that dictates their fortunes, because he’s operating at the highest level on the regular. It’s his availability that is the true measure for the Pelicans. They lost six straight games after a 4-0 start to this season, a slide that coincided with an elbow sprain that cost Davis three games and sapped the entire group of much of that early energy. Davis turned in a 32-point, 15-rebound, four-block masterpiece in Wednesday’s win over Chicago, snapping that losing streak and snapping out of an individual funk on the same night. Davis missed his first five shots against the Bulls before going on a tear and making eight straight to post his first 30-point game since Oct. 23. The Pelicans were desperate for a win in their first game back home after an ugly 0-5 road trip. If you subscribe to the theory that the true gauge for a player’s value to his team is how they fare without him or when he’s at something less than full strength, Davis has to be on any short list of the most valuable player candidates in this league.

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The next five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

10. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

And five more: DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets; 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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