Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: LeBron James' longevity something to behold

Fielding your questions on James Harden, Kemba Walker, Domantas Sabonis and more

While his critics rarely take a day off in their eternal evisceration of his every move, I’m going to take a minute to tip the cap to LeBron James.

It’s his birthday week, after all (he turned 35 on Monday), so show the old man some love. Even if you don’t root for him, you must appreciate what he’s done.

Instead of nit-picking his every move (on and off the floor), his game and legacy or complaining about him comping up short in a huge moment (as in the end of a Christmas Day showdown with the LA Clippers), I’m going to ring in 2020 with newfound appreciation for a man who has spent literally half his life providing memories for everyone.

Where LeBron ranks in several key stats — before he turned 35 — is mind-blowing.

He’s second to Kobe Bryant (1,239) in games played at 1,230. He’s second to Tony Parker (830) in wins with 815 and ranks ahead of ranks first, ahead of Bryant, in points (33,347) and minutes (47,354).

James’ career quality and longevity is something we might not see for generations, given all the things that can impact any career.

Sure, you may not like the way he does some things. Or, you think putting him on par with Michael Jordan (or even Bryant) shouldn’t be done due to his lack of titles or whatever. That’s your prerogative.

But there’s no hate for LeBron as 2020 begins — despite what some of his most ardent supporters and admirers accused me of in the latest Kia MVP Ladder.

Congratulate LeBron on a marvelous career to date and we’ll see what he has left in the tank during the remainder of his 17th NBA season.

Odds and ends: Save the venom you’ve been aiming at Chris Paul for someone else. While plenty assumed he wouldn’t last this long in Oklahoma City, it’s Paul who is getting the last word on how his Thunder career plays out. He’s been vital to the development of youngsters like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder and led OKC on a thus-far improbable playoff chase. There is something to be said for a player who exudes class and professionalism in a tough situation … The sight of Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball draining 3-pointers like he was an honorary Splash Brother was a sight to see. His 27-point explosion in Sunday’s win vs. Houston continues a hot stretch for Ball, who is shooting 39.7% on 3-pointers over his last 10 games. His outstanding game vs. Houston — seven 3-pointers, 10 rebounds, eight assists, two steals — was a reminder of why he went No. 2 overall in the 2017 draft. … Hands off Luka. That’s the message sent loud and clear to Golden State’s Marquese Chriss, who was fined $35,000 for shoving the Mavs’ star in Saturday’s game. As much as Draymond Green loved it, those high fives won’t pay that fine. And the league is better with Luka healthy and on his feet.

Players of the Week: Youth is being served as Boston’s Jaylen Brown and New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram collect the honors. Brown has been on a tear recently, scoring 30 points in a Christmas Day win in Toronto and then a career-high 34 in a win vs. Cleveland on Friday. Both he and Jayson Tatum should be strong contenders for All-Star honors this season. Ingram has been on fire during the Pelicans’ four-game win streak. An otherwise tough season turned up with a win over Portland two days before Christmas. Three wins later, Ingram was huge in an upset of the Rockets (27 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals).

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

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A quick question … or four

From: Jesse Heighway

Dec. 28, 2019 | 6:21 a.m.

1. Can Kawhi or Paul George win MVP while playing just 60 odd matches — think of that as they start to tear up the court and dominate?

2. What does James Harden have to do to win the MVP? He’s stepped up his defense, he’s racking up dimes and collecting boards while ranking 6th in the NBA in steals. Do you reckon James Harden is taking too many shots and carrying too much of the load for the Rockets? And, do you reckon this style of play could work during The Finals?

3. Where would Ja Morant be ranked on your MVP ratings, cause I believe that he’s ahead of a few of those players you’ve put down (such as Chris Paul).What do you think of this?

4. In that Christmas Day game against the Warriors (and in many others where teams decide to double team Harden when he crosses half court), he flicks out passes to people like Russell Westbrook, Danuel House Jr. and Ben McLemore. They’ve got open 3-point shots. But when they receive those sorts of passes, they don’t usually look to take the open shot. Instead they unbearably drive into a clogged lane and either kick it out (to repeat all this) or they take unnecessary shots against taller opponents. Why do you think this happens?

How should the Rockets counter this and what does a championship-winning or Western Conference finals-winning Rockets team look like? How will they have to play? Do they have the right players?

And, lastly, would Chris Paul have been better beside Harden than Westbrook.

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My response: Wow. This feels like a test. But anyone who comes up with all these questions should get some answers.

1. I think it’s very difficult for Kawhi, PG or anyone to win MVP playing so few games, mostly because there are others in the field who will undoubtedly play more and that will carry more weight with voters.

2. Harden must keep doing what he’s doing and hope for some serious slippage in Milwaukee to mount a serious challenge. He’s stuck in that strange space where the MVP is concerned. People acknowledge his greatness … but it’s almost like it’s expected (and not celebrated) after all these seasons of seeing his crazy scoring feats. That said, if he averages 40 for the season, he’ll sway some voters for sure.

3. Ja is having a monster rookie season and should be the frontrunner for Kia Rookie of the Year. He’s not on my MVP radar yet, which is normal for a rookie. We need to see a whole lot more before we throw him into that Kia MVP mix. But he’s clearly on the right track.

4. More Rockets stuff, huh? Cool. They play the way they do because that’s what works around Harden. They are a team crafted specifically to function in Harden’s orbit. The Rockets must be better defensively if they want to challenge for the West crown. Come the West finals (if they make it there), the defensive competition will be elite. Unfortunately for them, the Rockets’ biggest deficiency is in that area.

We know how successful the Rockets were a couple of seasons ago with CP3 and Harden together. There’s nothing that tells me they can’t be every bit as good with Westbrook and Harden. And yet it doesn’t mean I think this group is capable of winning a championship. They’re flawed but capable of the unthinkable under the right set of circumstances — like several teams in the league.

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Impressed with Embiid

From: Josh May

Dec. 26, 2019 | 9:44 a.m.

I’m writing this after the Christmas Day games, so some things have changed but Joel Embiid clearly should be in the top 10 after the Sixers’ convincing win over the Bucks. JoJo is back to his form from last season and is not letting people forget about him. In his last 16 games, the Sixers are 12-4, with Embiid averaging 23.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game on 46.1% from the field. Once the Sixers pass the Heat and Celtics in the standings, Embiid should be right there in the MVP conversation. Thanks again for your work on this and have a wonderful holiday season!

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My response: You must be careful with your Embiid praise, Josh. Take it from someone who knows. Every time I get a good vibe from Embiid, he and the Sixers follow it up with the performance they delivered in that Friday night loss in Orlando. He was back to his focused best in Saturday’s overtime loss in Miami. But the Sixers can’t afford the sort of inconsistency they’ve gotten from the big fella this season and expect to go beyond where they did in the 2019 playoffs. Embiid is on probation until further notice with the Kia MVP Ladder committee.

Some love for Kemba?

From: Coran B

Dec. 26, 2019 | 11 a.m.

First of all, Sekou, I would like to take a moment to agree with you. Giannis is obviously at the top, LeBron is averaging close to a triple-double, Luka is cooling down because of his injury and I don’t see much room for Harden in the top 5. Harden may be good, but as we saw in the game against the Warriors that he can’t do much if you actually defend him. The MVP is the most valuable player. Harden is valuable to the Rockets, but he is not more valuable than Kemba Walker is to the Celtics right now. I think that the Celtics are such a better team with him. Kemba’s priority is winning and whatever he has to do to make that happen – scoring, getting assists or whatever — he is going to do it. He is taking the Celtics much farther than Harden will take the Rockets. I think that mentality – along with his skill — makes him an MVP candidate.

From: Cooper Hansen

Dec. 27, 2019 | 1:44 p.m.

Hi Sekou, my name is Cooper and I want to say that I think Kemba Walker should be higher up on this list! he has slightly lower numbers then a few people up there, but his impact on the Celtics is very good. He has led the team to the 2nd seed in the East — something Kyrie Irving couldn’t do in Boston.

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My response: Fellas, you are preaching to the choir about Kemba. (If you don’t believe me, check out this Kia MVP Mailbag where I got grief for having him in the top 5). He’s been everything the Celtics could have hoped when they went after him in free agency to replace Kyrie. The final grade, of course, comes in the postseason. Will he be able to take the Celtics somewhere Kyrie couldn’t? There will be lingering questions no matter how well he performs between now and mid-April.

You say you want a revolution

From: Cooper Hansen

Dec. 24, 2019 | 12:12 p.m.

I do think that James Harden should be above guys like LeBron. You could argue that LeBron has more talent and a more diverse game, but Harden is still handing out 7.5 apg while averaging almost 40 ppg. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but Harden has revolutionized the game as we haven’t seen a great scorer like him for a while. To me, the rankings should be:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. James Harden

3. LeBron James

4. Luka Doncic (provided he’s healthy)

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Anthony Davis

7. Pascal Siakam

8. Kemba Walker

9. Paul George

10. Kawhi Leonard

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My response: Coop, my man, (I hope I can call you that because Cooper sounds so formal). I don’t know if I agree with Harden as a hoops revolutionary. He’s pushed it, no doubt, with his singular approach to scoring in creative, new ways. But LeBron is far more revolutionary than Harden over the course of his career. And Harden’s rise has come after and overlapped with a couple of other scoring revolutionaries (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) who might hear their names brought up before Harden’s when we revisit this topic years from now. We’ve got to stop with the blatant disrespect for LeBron. He’s earned that much … hasn’t he?

Wins always matter

From: Ashton Phoenix

Dec. 25, 2019 | 11:22 a.m.

Hey Sekou, Ashton from the Philippines here. Just wondering … what place do you have Trae Young now? I mean the Hawks aren’t winning, but where do you have him? If wins don’t matter in the MVP race, will you put him in the top 5?

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My response: His wicked numbers haven’t moved the needle, Ashton. Those numbers with no context are tougher to evaluate for some folks. For me, the numbers and impact must correlate in some way. Otherwise, what are these guys playing for?

Davis is good, but …

From: Emmett Dunn

Dec. 24, 2019 | 5:30 p.m.

Hey Sekou. I personally feel like the Lakers rely on AD much more than LeBron, and it’s unfair to keep LeBron this high when he’s not even the best player on his team. Of course, he’s still a great player, but his impact and level of play isn’t nearly as high as some of the other candidates. I also feel like we overlook Harden’s greatness right now because of what some feel like is a poor style of play. Also, when Kawhi is on the floor he is a definite candidate, too. However, I understand punishing his rank for load management. My ladder would look like this:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. James Harden

3. Anthony Davis

4. Luka Doncic

5. Kawhi Leonard

6. LeBron James

7. Jimmy Butler

8. Joel Embiid

9. Nikola Jokic

10. Spencer Dinwiddie

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My response: NOPE! I’m not going through this again, Emmitt. Scroll back up and please read those words again.

Harden, Butler deserve more love

From: Wizz PlayZ

Dec. 24, 2019 | 3:54 p.m.

I think that Butler and Harden should be higher on the list because of their value to their team. For example, without Butler, the Heat wouldn’t even be a playoff team. Without Harden, the Rockets would be struggling for a playoff spot. Here’s my list:

1.James Harden

2.Giannis Antetokounmpo

3. LeBron James

4. Jimmy Butler

5. Anthony Davis

Luka is injured, but if healthy, he would be on the list, too.

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My response: Luka has returned since you wrote this Wizz, so I’ll give you a pass on that one. I disagree, though. I think Luka belongs in the top five. And you are correct, there is an extremely strong case to be made for Jimmy to join that top group as well. Come back Friday and see if that’s the case.

Time for Sabonis to rise up

From: Alexander Roedeske

Dec. 24, 2019 | 4:23 p.m.

Hello again, Sekou. Thank you for responding to my last MVP ladder mailbag question.

I know that winning matters. That being said, Domantas Sabonis has been a star in Indiana. Not only is he posting 17.4 ppg, 13.4 rpg and 50.4% shooting, but the Pacers are 21-12 as December ends – all of this done without Victor Oladipo. I believe Sabonis should be ranked higher than 15. He may not reach the Top 10 yet, but from what he’s doing he’s ranked 12 in my ladder. Here’s the Top 15 on my Ladder (it’s my dream to be an NBA analyst …):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Luka Doncic

3. James Harden

4. LeBron James

5. Pascal Siakam

6. Anthony Davis

7. Jimmy Butler

8. Kawhi Leonard

9. Kemba Walker

10. Paul George

11. Donavan Mitchell

12. Domantas Sabonis

13. Joel Embiid

14. Nikola Jokic

15. Chris Paul

The most difficult choice I had in this ladder was LeBron. Despite his age, he’s still doing very well, and Luka’s injury might hurt his chances. And it’s hard to put Harden so high up knowing he’s abusing the power of drawing fouls. But it’s also smart. What should I change? I hope you can agree with most of the players on here and again thank you.

— Xander

My response: This is good stuff, Xander. And for the record, I need a little more time before you come take my job. But you were thorough here. I appreciate you putting your own spin on the MVP race. That’s the point, after all. Happy New Year to you as well.

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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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