Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: ​​​​​​​Christmas offers another showcase for future MVP hopefuls

Fielding your questions on Jimmy Butler, Spencer Dinwiddie and more

Christmas Eve’s blank slate on the NBA calendar offers a chance to catch our collective breath before Wednesday’s season reboot.

That’s right, you get this entire day to step back and wipe your glasses and refocus for the wild ride ahead.

Kicking off the next leg of the journey is a five-game Christmas Day slate that may or may not include some of the biggest stars who are currently locked in on this season’s Kia MVP chase. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis are listed as questionable for the Los Angeles Lakers’ showdown with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers.

We will get the reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid on center stage when the Bucks and Sixers square off (2:30 ET, ABC). Two-time Kia MVP and Golden State star Stephen Curry will be in street clothes for his team’s tilt against the Houston Rockets and their MVP duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook (5 ET, ABC). And Denvers All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic will be in uniform for the nightcap when the Nuggets host the New Orleans Pelicans (10:30 ET, ESPN), who are still waiting on Zion Williamson to make his debut.

It’s the opening act on Christmas, the Celtics at the Raptors (Noon ET, ESPN), that features the rising MVP hopefuls that need your scrutiny. Toronto’s Pascal Siakam is out with an injury but Boston’s Kemba Walker is already on the list for the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

It’s Walker’s two young teammates, however, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are poised to steal the spotlight on this day. They are playing lights out heading into the big day and they are both back on the trajectory they were before last season’s Kyrie Irving experience interrupted things.

The Celtics have moved up into the top three of John Schuhmann’s Week 10 Power Rankings on the strength of Tatum and Brown surging at the same time. Tatum dropped a career-high 39 points against Charlotte Sunday and is averaging 29.7 points on 51% shooting over his last three games, all Boston wins. And Brown is averaging 22.7 points on 53% shooting over that same span.

They should both be in consideration for Eastern Conference All-Star honors this season and much more in the years to come.

So while we await word on the status of some of the other key players on Wednesday’s schedule, know that the future will be on display. Make sure you tune in early!

Trade Season: So it begins. The Dante Exum experience in Utah ends with his trade to Cleveland for Jordan Clarkson. This is also the official kickoff of trade season, which usually brings a few interesting twists to the season. With so much emphasis on the free agent summer of 2021, most of the scouts and front office executives queried so far this season seem to think things will be unusually quiet on the trade front. As for Exum, who has battled injuries throughout his career, he joins a crowded group of young backcourt performers in need of the player development that John Beilein and his staff can provide. Clarkson, meanwhile, returns to the Western Conference and the playoff chase with the Jazz, who like every other team in the league is always on the lookout for a boost in its wing rotation.

Welcome Back: First it was DeAndre Ayton making his long-awaited return from suspension for the Phoenix Suns. And now it’s John Collins, who has finally found his way back to the Hawks’ rotation after serving his 25-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Collins wasted no time getting back to his high-flying ways, but is it too late for the Hawks and their own MVP, Trae Young, to salvage this season? We’ll see. But having Collins back in the mix certainly helps the cause.

Player(s) of the Week: Here’s a Christmas surprise for you. Kyle Lowry and Dennis Schroder winning Eastern and Western Conference Player of the Week honors, respectively, in the lead up to the league’s holiday showcase. It’s a well-deserved honor for two guards who have played significant roles in their respective teams making some surprising noise in the standings to this point. None of us really knew what to expect from Lowry and the Raptors after Kawhi Leonard vacated the premises after last season’t title run. And Schroder and the Thunder weren’t given much thought after both Paul George and Russell Westbrook were traded away over the summer. Both the Raptors and Thunder go into the holiday in a great spot in the standings, much more prominent spaces than any of the pundits predicted. Take that for data!.

Now, let’s get into your comments about last week’s Kia MVP Ladder.

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Right five, wrong order

From: SpotOn96057010

Dec. 21, 2019 | 12:55 a.m.

Overall good names there, bad order I’m getting used to some NBA patterns. Luka been snubbed over and over. LeBron getting priced for past achievements and good tempering last summer.






I took away points for tempering and past years achievements.

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My response: The notion that LeBron is being rewarded for past achievements spits in the eye of the work he’s doing right now with the Lakers. Even on the heels of their three-game losing streak, LeBron is balling out this season just days away from his 35th birthday and in his 17th season in the league. There’s no need to artificially inflate what’s going on with LeBron. The proof is in his performance.

Dinwiddie deserving

From: Maurice Nicholson

Dec. 23, 2019 | 7:28 p.m.

Spencer Dinwiddie?

What’s the rationale? Spencer has been carrying the Nets since Kyrie went down. Better numbers, and a better record.

Give the man his props.

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My response: Dinwiddie has played his tail off since Kyrie Irving went down and you are right Maurice, he deserves his props. That will be reflected in the next Ladder after Christmas.

Harden over (almost) everything

From: Bball__Fanatic

Dec. 20, 2019 | 4:54 p.m.

It’s Giannis, Harden, Luka, Bron, AD

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My response: I understand any argument made for James Harden. He’s an absolute offensive machine and is flirting with rarified air, averaging close to 40 points per game this season. And if the MVP matrix was strictly about how many points a guy scores, he’d definitely be at the top of the list. But a scoring title and a Kia MVP are two very different things. Harden’s locked in on one and certainly in the mix for the other one.

Ask and you shall receive

From: Luke Zwayne

Dec. 20, 2019, 12:51 p.m.

Hi Sekou!

My name’s Luke (you included my email in the last MVP ladder mailbag),

Last week you asked me to share my version of the ladder so here it is:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Lebron James

3. Luka Doncic

4. James Harden

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Anthony Davis

7. Pascal Siakam

8. Kawhi Leonard

9. Kemba Walker

10. Paul George

As you can see, I put Jimmy Butler in the number five spot over AD. Here’s the key word: “Valuable.” I believe Jimmy is more “valuable” to the heat than Davis is to the Lakers. I mean, we are taking about the “Kia Most Valuable Player“ award aren’t we? Jimmys value is in every aspect of the game: passing, scoring, defense. He seems to be the heart beat of the team in all of these areas. Though Anthony Davis has a major impact on both ends of the floor, Lebron is the one calling the shots and playing the role of “captain.” So what I’m saying is that Jimmy Butler has that Dame Lillard, CP3, Lebron James leadership, floor general, “win at all costs” mentality and I’m loving it!

Thanks again Sekou!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

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My response: Thanks again Luke. I appreciate you taking the time to elaborate for the rest of us. And Happy Holidays to you and yours. The emphasis you placed on Jimmy Butler is warranted. He’s playing his role to perfection in Miami. He’s the All-Star anchor and face of the franchise Pat Riley hoped he would be when the Heat put their free agent fortunes in him over the summer. Both sides clearly did their homework in researching each other and making sure it would be a good fit. But I have to imagine what they’ve done thus far is above and beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

The analytics agree, for the most part

From: Konstantinos Politis

Dec. 18, 2019 | 7:14 a.m.

Dear Mr. Sekou,

First of all, we would like to say that you are doing amazing work with the MVP Ladder list. We are Kostas Politis & Michael Roussis from Athens, Greece.

As we read the mailbags, we realize that most of the fans losing the point and the reason of winning the MVP trophy. If anyone search the stats, everything is clear.

MVP trophy goes to Most Valuable Player, which means that we should check a combination of things to set an MVP list (Ranks: Team, Stats), not only the points.

Some players have outstanding numbers as individuals (e.g. James Harden) but his team (Houston Rockets) is 5th in the West and 9th among all the teams in NBA, based on PCT percentage.

Based on season stats, we represent our top 5 list (until now):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (PER: 34.65, 1st in NBA | his team: 1st in NBA | 85.7% PCT)

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (PER: 32.01, 2st in NBA | his team: 6th in NBA | 69.2% PCT )

3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (PER: 29.43, 4th in NBA | his team: 1st in NBA | 85.7% PCT)

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets (PER: 31.67, 3rd in NBA | his team: 9th in NBA | 66.7% PCT)

5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (PER: 26.90 6th in NBA | his team: 1st in NBA | 85.7% PCT)

PER: Player Efficiency Rating

PCT: Winning Percentage

The figures based on ESPN & NBA stats.

Thanks for your time.

Greetings from Greece.

Yours sincerely,

Kostas & Michael

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My response: Greetings my Greek friends and thanks for weighing in from the other side of the world. While‘s analytics guru John Schuhmann is always my first call on these matters, I trust your work in this case. The slight differences in your order and mine doesn’t mean one is more accurate than the other. And as I continue to hammer home as often as possible, the order on anyone’s MVP Ladder will be heavily influenced by the components one deems most valuable. If you prioritize the analytics or whatever you use, it’s coloring your perception of the MVP conversation. And we welcome all opinions around here.

More, more, more …

From: tim lizaso

Dec. 18, 2019 | 8:36 a.m.

Hi Sekou,

Good day. Im a fan and avid reader of your article, this takes me off from the wild season game stories and updates into focusing on players who are doing their best and excel.

I saw in your article, maybe last week? That you were considering a list for the sixth man ladder which was suggested by another fan. I immediately thought, why not also talk about defensive player ladder and talk about their significant value(s) on their team. I think defensive players have an edge (in overall team value) have specific contributions than other players that are labeled as role players and or fillers. These are just thoughts and I think I just give it a shot and mention this to you.

Thank you and keep it coming.


from the Philippines

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My response: Tim, shout out to you and all the NBA fans in the Philippines. I know how passionate you all are about the game and believe me when I tell you, it’s appreciated. I agree that we don’t spend nearly as much time as needed on the league’s elite defensive players and the impact they make on their teams in particular and the game overall. It’s not the sexy part of basketball for many (people like 3-pointers, dunks and offensive highlights more, what can I say?). But any list of the league’s top individual defenders has to include the reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and my personal favorite perimeter defensive agitator (sorry Pat Bev) Marcus Smart. Since I’ve already got more than enough on my plate with the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, I’ll leave this defensive list up to you. Have at it!

Make room for JB

From: Jon Christensen

Dec. 18, 2019 | 10:35 a.m.

Hey Sekou,

Thanks for your great commenting on NBA TV first of all. But I think there is one important piece missing in the top 5 mix for the MVP race. Jimmy Butler has been on an absolute tear. From all the question marks around him from his time in Minnesota, to just coming up short to Toronto in the playoffs, people had discredited him as not being an all-star. Now this year, he has a legitimate case to be on the starting roster as SF for the eastern conference all star team. While his shooting percentages are not fantastic, and 21 ppg is a little lackluster for an MVP candidate, he has been better for them than what the stat sheets say. He has not only reinvented himself as even MORE of a do it all kind of guy, but he has turned that Miami Heat team into a legit contender in the Eastern Conference. Of course Bam’s development along with their rookies has helped but Jimmy has been the glue, and I’m not sure if they are even a 6 or 7 seed without him. I just think the narrative surrounding him this year has not been talked about enough and he has put up some good numbers alongside the effort you see from him on both sides of the ball. So my top 5 is as follows.

1.Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Lebron James

3. Luka Doncic (Barring his injury doesn’t leave him out for too long)

4. James Harden

5. Jimmy Butler


Jon Christensen

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My response: I appreciate the kind words, Jon. Jimmy isn’t necessarily missing from the mix (he’s parked just outside of the top five on the most recent Ladder), he’s tapping on the glass trying to get in. He deserves credit, as I mentioned above, for lifting the fortunes of the Heat and their entire group with his play and leadership this season. Stay tuned to see where he fits this week.

The formula

From: Fikri Avci

Dec. 18, 2019 | 11:34 a.m.

Dear Sekou,

I couldn’t help notice your effort/desire with doing a fair job and yet making everyone happy (including the superstar players with influence!) and came up with a formula to justify an MVP rank that would make most if not everyone happy.

Here is the formula: Efficiency per 48 minutes (x) Win% (of the team the player plays for) + Narrative factor (scale of 1-10)

There is more… Only players in teams >0.65 Win% qualifies to enter into this formula. And one more..the narrative factor that you and others always talk about: This is for you to give your flavor to the rankings from a scale of 1 to 10.

And one last: You can use the team’s Win% for the games the player actually played to reflect the player’s impact more accurately. You can also exclude from the ranking players that played less than 75% of the team’s games.

Below is the rankings minus (-) the Narrative factor. I didn’t went down in the Eff rankings to generate this list. Some players from high Win% teams may pop up if you reach below in Eff rankings. And the narrative factor is all yours to add human touch:)

Aren’t you surprised that the top five players in this list are the usual suspects at your lists! All you need to do do is add your narrative factor and explain this to your readers ( team is new, the coach is new, player is achieving these at a young age, at an old age, clutch shots, wizard in defense/offense, without him the team sucks.. etc etc).



Player Eff %Wins EFF*Wins
Giannis Antetokounmpo 54 0.857 46.278
Anthony Davis 42.9 0.857 36.7653
LeBron James 41.2 0.857 35.3084
Luka Doncic 48.8 0.692 33.7696
James Harden 43.8 0.667 29.2146
Nikola Jokic 37.7 0.68 25.636
Domantis Sabonis 36.4 0.679 24.7156

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My response: Just so you know, Fikri, I gave up on making everyone happy a long time ago. I simply don’t think it’s possible to please everyone, not with so many competing interests in the MVP conversation. But every bit of constructive criticism helps. Your formula makes a ton of sense. There’s so much quality data analysis involved in the game these days that you have to consider all sources. And I’m glad all of the names you have listed can be found on the Ladder somewhere. We’re on the same page, even if we’re not exactly perfectly aligned.

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Got MVP thoughts? Send Sekou an email!

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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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