Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Difficult decision awaits voters as season nears its finale

Voter opinions can overshadow on-court work from Harden, Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have done their part.

They’ve turned in unbelievable performances so often that the individual brilliance for both frontrunners for this season’s Kia NBA MVP has become a bit of a blur.

They’ve piled up historic stat lines and outlandish scoring nights while adding in superstar efforts in the biggest moments, all of which are requisite for anyone chasing the league’s most prestigious individual honor.

They’ve even saved some of their very best stuff for the end of the regular season.

Antetokounmpo was at his Greek Freak-iest in a huge win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, a win that clinched the league’s best overall record for his Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden turned in yet another 50-point triple-double, the fifth of his career, in Saturday’s win against the Sacramento Kings and has his Houston Rockets rolling as the playoffs near.

All these exclamation points matter. Surely, they’ve been tremendously helpful for anyone wrestling with their voting decision down to the deadline.

And yet, for all of the work they’ve put in this season, the ultimate decision on who will walk away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is in the hands of the voters (both the fans and the media panel, which will be revealed later).

Essentially, it’s on all of us to decide whose body of work wins out in one of the tightest MVP races ever. And with the final week of the season upon us, this remains an extremely difficult choice to make for many.

Is there one factor that weighs heaviest in your evaluation of what separates the MVP in your mind? I doubt it’s that simple for anyone. Trying to boil this debate we’ve been having all season down to just one factor … there’s just no way.

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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: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks

Giannis can go ahead and rest a little bit now. He earned a momentary breather with a wicked performance Thursday night in Philadelphia, outplaying Sixers center Joel Embiid. That victory gave the Bucks the NBA’s best overall record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Antetokounmpo did it in a showdown game in a hostile environment with the Bucks still reeling from injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. Oh, and he did it essentially without point guard Eric Bledsoe, who went to the showers three minutes into the game after drawing two quick technicals for his dust-up with Embiid. None of it slowed Antetokounmpo down as he worked the Sixers for 45 points, 13 rebonds, six assists and five blocks (one a monster swat on Embiid late) in 35 carefully controlled minutes. The Sixers were extra physical with “The Greek Freak,” doing their best to crowd him to limit his effectiveness. None of it worked. Antetokounmpo zoned in on making sure the Bucks left the building with the prize they’ve worked all season to attain.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 36.5 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals

Harden and the Rockets have been so good of late — an NBA-best 18-4 since Feb. 18 — that you could almost forget the dismal start to 2018-19 they rebounded from. No one has been better or more important to the revival effort than Harden, who continues to make it look easy. He needed just 15 shots for his latest 30-point effort, served up in Wednesday’s rout on the road of the LA Clippers. The Rockets have been talking for weeks now about the collective confidence they believe will fuel a playoff run like last season’s. Harden and his crew are not done this season, though. They showed that in rocking the Clippers (who could wind up being Houston’s first-round foe). How Harden and Chris Paul unloaded (a combined 61 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds) on a red-hot Clippers team could prove effective should they meet again in a week or so. Harden’s improved defense and leadership has been evident this season. And he and Paul are in a groove right now that could change the tenor of the playoff chase if they can keep it up.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 28.0 points 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals

The Thunder finally got off the schneid with Tuesday’s win against the Los Angeles Lakers, a much-needed win after losses in three of four prior to Russell Westbrook’s historic 20-20-20 game. George provided the ideal complement to Westbrook’s inspired effort against the Lakers, finishing with 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals. It’s the sixth time this season he’s collected five or more steals in a game. George’s work on the defensive end, which could very well land him in the thick of things in the Kia Defensive Player of the Year balloting, has helped shape the finest season of his career. It’s a huge component in the comprehensive improvement he said (on the latest Hang Time Podcast) that he locked in on during the offseason. With coach Billy Donovan’s announcement that Andre Roberson’s is unlikely to return anytime soon, George’s defensive prowess might come into focus in the playoffs, too. Both he and Westbrook must tote a greater load now in the absence of the team’s defensive specialist. It’s work George is clearly built for.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 27.4 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals

Curry only played 29 minutes in the Warriors’ rout of the Lakers last night, his third straight game with somewhat limited minutes. Whether it’s by design or just circumstance, Warriors coach Steve Kerr is doing the right thing to manipulate the minutes for his superstar. That Curry enters the playoffs healthy and focused is far more important than anything he’ll do in the remaining regular-season games. Even in limited minutes, Curry always finds a way to drop jaws (see his insane, behind-the-back pass to Kevin Durant). The Warriors still have business to handle in the conference standings. Securing the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference is reason enough for Curry and the Warriors’ stars to run through the regular season tape. But by no means do they need to push it with the prospect of a fifth straight run to The Finals afoot. As presumptuous as that sounds for any team to look that far down the road, it’s an appropriate posture for Curry and the Warriors.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 blocks

Embiid turned in a spectacular 34-point, 13-rebound, 13-assist triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks last night. He also scored perhaps his biggest blow just three minutes into that game, when Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe got two technical fouls and was ejected after a scuffle with Embiid. But things didn’t go as well for Embiid when he matched up with someone his own size (or as close to it as possible). In a duel of Kia MVP candidates, Embiid’s cardio wasn’t up to standard with the relentless Antetokounmpo. Embiid’s penchant on offense for drifting out to the 3-point line negated his impact around the basket, repeatedly playing right into the hands of the Bucks throughout the game. With all that said, Embiid had his moments where looked every bit like the most dominant force on the floor. Truth be told, that’s where Embiid’s greatest room for individual improvement will come from now, this postseason and beyond. Embiid’s so good already (don’t believe it? Then just ask him.) that he must be careful to not get too comfortable dabbling in his perimeter game at the expense of his around-the-rim game.

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The Next Five

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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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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