Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: LeBron's climb coincides with Lakers' rise in West

Lakers seem to be turning corner as James asserts dominance

LeBron James doesn’t just do milestones. He does milestones on the big stage about as good as anyone ever has in the NBA.

And with all of the chart climbing he’s done throughout his career, particularly in the past few seasons, it’s no wonder he turned in the showcase effort he did Wednesday night in passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time scoring list, joining a fab five of all-time great scorers that starts with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

As historic as LeBron’s monstrous 44-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist effort in the win over Portland was, and with Hollywood’s biggest stars either in attendance or quick to praise the city’s biggest current star for yet another show-stopping performance, it also served as a reminder that he and the Lakers are clearly a threat to the order of things in the Western Conference.

And that goes for both this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder and the Western Conference playoff chase that they were watching from the outside as recently as a week ago.

LeBron moved up seven spots to second in this week’s MVP Ladder, just behind Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. (You pass Wilt Chamberlain on any career list and it has to put you in another stratosphere.) The Lakers are doing the same. They sit at 8-6 heading into Saturday’s game in Orlando, the first of a three-game road swing that makes stops in both Miami (Sunday) and Cleveland (Wednesday, 8 ET on ESPN), the only other NBA cities LeBron has called home during his career. A successful trip could provide an opportunity to make some serious noise in the standings.

Despite some early hiccups that should have been expected, LeBron’s obviously making himself at home with the franchise Chamberlain helped to a title before the new No. 5 on the scoring list was born.

Those conversations from a few weeks ago, about what the Lakers lacked in ready-for-primetime personnel have shifted; the addition of veteran center Tyson Chandler no doubt providing a boost.

All that chatter about LeBron being more interested in being a Hollywood mogul than the most dominant force in the league faded as he turned in his most efficient performance (13-of-19 from the floor and a wicked 5-fo-6 from beyond the 3-point line) of the season in that takedown of the Trail Blazers.

Now the rest of the league has to be wondering: Can LeBron impose his will strongly enough and long enough to push these Lakers into the upper echelon of the Western Conference standings?

If LeBron’s history is any indication, the rest of the league already has its answer.

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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: 25.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 blocks

Even in defeat it’s hard to look beyond Antetokounmpo’s impact for the Bucks. When they suffered their first defeat at Fiserv Forum Wednesday night against the surprising Memphis Grizzlies, Antetokounmpo was once again outstanding. He shredded the Grizzlies for 31 points on an insane 10-for-14 shooting from the floor (11-for-12 from the free-throw line) to go with his nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. His spectacular footwork and preposterous catch radius makes him a threat from outside the 3-point line and far above the rim, which makes him impossible to prepare for defensively because he stretches the floor in every way imaginable. How many players in NBA history could claim to be a legitimate threat from 3-point range while shooting as poorly (.071) as the Greek Freak has from distance this season? The Bucks have figured out the right formula in surrounding him with pieces that fit perfectly. And to his credit, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has adjusted his scheme to work for Antetokounmpo, rather than attempting to try it the other way around.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 9

Season stats: 27.6 point, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.5 steals

A record-setting week for LeBron James, passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, comes in the midst of a season-altering turn for the Lakers. Winners of four straight games, and six of their last seven, LeBron’s Lakers have gone from a huge question mark to exactly where many people felt they would be in the Western Conference playoff landscape. The Lakers have earned that 8-6 overall record and have weathered plenty of drama (the fight and suspensions stemming from that Oct. 20 loss to Houston, the Magic Johnson-Luke Walton meeting fallout, etc.) as the league calendar shifts into the holiday season. This is roughly the same point in the season LeBron’s first Miami Heat turned a corner. Walton has managed to get the very best from LeBron while deftly managing his minutes (33.3 in six games this month). That could be a critical move for the Lakers as this season progresses, given the finishing kick that will likely be needed to maintain playoff positioning in the deep Western Conference.

3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 26.4 points, 6.2 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Lillard and the Trail Blazers are not going away. So anyone expecting some drop-off from their early-season surge is wasting time looking for cracks in their foundation. The Trail Blazers were the forgotten team in the offseason, when everyone was forecasting the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and others as contenders for that No. 3 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase that the Trail Blazers locked up last season. But Lillard’s leadership has been stellar as he and C.J. McCollum’s supporting cast has stepped up to help balance the attack. Lillard had a tough shooting night (8-for-23 from the floor) in Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers but still almost finished with a triple-double (31 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds). It was a testament to his ability to impact a game by doing more than just scoring, which remains his most dynamic skill. Portland will need to lean on all that he brings as they continue their six-game road trip tonight at Target Center against the Minnesota Timberwolves. They finish this current swing with another statement game the day after Thanksgiving in Lillard’s hometown (Oakland).

4. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists

We didn’t get to see Leonard in the Raptors’ previous measuring stick game, when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo both sat out of Milwaukee’s Oct. 29 win over Toronto. But we’ll get to see him in action tonight (7 ET, ESPN) against a Boston Celtics team most pundits and fans alike picked as the preseason favorite in the Eastern Conference. While the Celtics are still sorting through some things with the return of their veteran All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Raptors continue to shine with Leonard firmly entrenched as their No. 1 option. He scored a season-high 31 points in the Raptors’ Oct. 19 win over the Celtics at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors still have the same energized bench they had roughly a month ago, so they’ll hit the floor at TD Garden tonight knowing exactly who and what they are and perhaps more importantly knowing exactly what they have in Leonard, who is sure to be eager to hit the floor again after a late-game turnover cost him a chance at a potential game-winning shot opportunity in Wednesday’s home loss to Detroit.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 29.5 points, 6.1 assists, 5.0 assists

Curry’s value to the Warriors couldn’t be more obvious right now, given the tumultuous week the defending two-time champions have had without their fuel cell in uniform due to a groin injury that has cost him the past four games. He’s going to miss at least three more before being evaluated again, but he’s traveling with the team as they try to steady themselves after losing three of their past five games, including Thursday night’s pasting from the Rockets in Houston. Curry is not only on the mend, the Warriors need him to help mend fences between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, whose dust-up at the end of regulation Monday night in Los Angeles thrust the entire organization into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The fact is, the harmonious vibe the Warriors stay locked into on and off the court starts with Curry and his steady and selfless work as the true face of the Warriors machine. Before they hit the floor against the Rockets, Durant and Green vowed that they’d be fine and that the pursuit of a third title would not be undone by one emotional incident. But they didn’t look like a team that had moved on while the Rockets ran them ragged at Toyota Center. They looked like a team in need of its leader, on and off the court.

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The Next Five

6. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia

9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

10. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

And five more: James Harden, Houston Rockets; 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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