Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Raptors keep rolling behind coach Nick Nurse

Fielding queries on Jayson Tatum, James Harden, Damian Lillard and more

Editor’s note: The weekly Kia MVP Ladder will resume on Feb. 21, but there will not be one on Feb. 14 because of NBA All-Star 2020.

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They don’t do championship hangovers in Toronto.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse has made sure of it with the way he’s pushing buttons for his team this season. Their winning streak (15 games and counting as of this writing) is as impressive as anything that’s been done outside of Milwaukee this season.

The fact Toronto has done this with a shorthanded roster and without the assistance of the reigning Finals MVP makes this encore season all the more impressive. They’ve got two All-Stars in Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, a ridiculously deep roster and perhaps the best player development program in the league right now.

What they also have is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year in Nurse, who has silenced any doubters who thought the 2019 title run was strictly some Kawhi Leonard production and everyone else serving as bit players.

Siakam is an All-Star Game starter and has developed into a legitimate Kia MVP candidate under Nurse’s tutelage. Raptors boss Masai Ujiri, a perennial contender for Executive of the Year honors, clearly did the right thing in handing the keys to the team over to Nurse when he did.

And Nurse has been spot on in driving his team to the longest winning streak in team and Canadian pro sports history.

“I think we’re [in] pretty good spirits, obviously, and we’re trying to keep the streak alive,” Nurse said before Monday’s game vs. Minnesota. “I think that’s helpful to get us to the break. I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it, the break yet, but it’s coming.”

Technically speaking, there is no break for Nurse and his staff. They’ll be coaching Team Giannis this weekend, wiping out any chance for complacency setting in over the All-Star break.

I don’t sense much of that, really, from these guys,” Nurse said. “I think, again, the streak’s keeping it maybe more interesting than maybe it would be, maybe. But we got some hungry guys and obviously we’re down some guys, so the guys are, this is like fresh opportunity for a lot of these guys.”

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Slamming ‘The Process’: The Philadelphia 76ers’ issues this season have been well documented. They have not played up to those lofty preseason expectations that had many picking them as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. But this local takedown of Joel Embiid (courtesy of Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Inquirer) and his “Process” is about as blunt as it gets.

Player(s) of the week: The two biggest risers on last week’s MVP Ladder have captured Players of the Week honors. Nikola Jokic heads into All-Star week with a healthy head of steam for the Denver Nuggets while Jayson Tatum takes the East honors and rolls into his first All-Star weekend representing the present and future of the Boston Celtics.

Congratulations are in order: Welcome to the club Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had an excused absence for the Bucks on Monday night. And welcome to the world Liam Charles.

Tokyo 2020 Finalists announced: There are plenty of familiar faces available for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. USA Basketball announced the 44 finalists for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team Monday, all of whom are recognizable to NBA fans. Tokyo could be the last Olympic ride with the National Team for veterans of the program like LeBron James, Chris Paul and others.

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Now, let’s get into your emails about the Feb. 7 edition of the Kia MVP Ladder.

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Proclivity and production

From: Chris Wheeler

Feb. 4, 2020 | 6:06 p.m

Greetings from fiery Australia. Standard “long-time reader, first-time sender”. Now down to business.

After eagerly awaiting your list on a weekly basis, I have noticed your proclivity (did I use that correctly?) to include more than one person from a team on the list, especially if said team is winning. As in: LeBron and AD, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

With that being said, I was curious to see where you stand on the situation in Beantown.

Having been a long time Celtics man, I was more than happy to see Kemba Walker come in during the offseason based on how he fit in Brad Stevens’ system, and the results this season. Without question he is our MVP … for now. As one of the stronger teams in the league, I would have no problem seeing two Boston players on the list, just as I have no problem seeing two Lakers (ugh) and Rockets players on the list.

Do you see either of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown pushing their way onto this list anytime soon? If so, who do you have with the higher ceiling? Do you side with Jayson’s ability to score, or Jaylen’s two-way play and efficiency?

Also, this was meant as no disrespect to Gordon Hayward, who is balling out at the moment.

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My response: Tatum has already pushed his way into the mix, Christopher. As for who has the higher ceiling between the two of them, that’s a tough one. They’re both All-Star talents and potential two-way monsters as they continue to mature and add to their respective games. It’s a great dilemma for the Celtics to have. That said, the general consensus among most of the league insiders I consult with is that Tatum has the higher ceiling while Brown is regarded as the most complete and more efficient two-way player. Celtics fans should ignore the debate and enjoy having both of them on the roster for years to come.

Is Luka too low?

From: Josh

Feb. 4, 2020 | 5:54 p.m.

I was just wondering why Luka Doncic is only in the No. 4 spot on the MVP Ladder? I’m a big Luka fan and I really think he is out playing LeBron and Kawhi and I don’t think he is that far from out playing Giannis Antetokounmpo. Lebron James is a very good passer, but his numbers are not that great. He’s averaging about 25 ppg, but he is barely getting that every night.

Kawhi Leonard is playing really well now, but earlier in the season he was not that great. I don’t think Kawhi’s streak of 30+ point games is going to go on forever. In a few weeks he’s gonna go back to how he was playing before. Luka, however, has been playing great all season (along with Giannis). Doncic has two 40-point triple-doubles and is leading his team to wins. I will still accept that Giannis is a little ahead, but Luka is not far behind and I believe that Luka has a big chance at winning MVP this year.

Here’s my top 5 in the MVP Ladder:

1: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

2: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

3: LeBron James, Los Angles Lakers

4: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angles Clippers

5: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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My response: Josh, you’ve got to take off your Luka-colored glasses and recognize the work of the guys ahead of him on the list. Strong cases can be made for every one of them. But to suggest that Luka is “outplaying” LeBron and Kawhi is the sort of thing a “big Luka fan” would say. The partisan politics around here has gotten out of control as the season goes along. Everyone is making a case for their guy at the expense of whoever else is in the way.

Lillard over Butler?

From: Jack Harrington

Feb. 4, 2020 | 5:40 p.m.

I am a 12-year-old basketball super-fan and I have some opinions on the MVP Ladder. I completely agree with your top four but I feel that Damian Lillard could be replaced for Jimmy Butler, or maybe even put Anthony Davis in the mix. I think if Dame keeps up his performance lately and the Blazers start winning more games, he has a serious shot in the top three. I love your picks though!

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My response: Greetings, Jack. It’s good to see the next generation locked into the MVP discussion. Damian Lillard has been on fire for weeks now and he’s certainly shoved his way into the top five conversation. Check back on Feb. 21 to see if he’s made another move up.

The classic question remains

From: Brandon Ramos

Feb. 4, 2020 | 4:28 p.m.

Defense or Offense?

I want to start off by saying that I love your lists and your work. You definitely know what you’re talking about, and I find myself agreeing with your points more often than I don’t. Now that I got that out of the way, do you value defense more than offense when it comes to your ladders? Or vice versa? I personally value defense a tad bit more than offense (even though I’m a Rockets fan and Harden is my favorite player). I think Rudy Gobert should be pretty close to the top 5. His defensive impact completely changes the offensive scheme of the opposition and he’s added a nice little hook shot to his repertoire. But here’s what my list looks like …

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: He’s absolutely phenomenal and he impacts the game on both ends of the floor. I know his 3-point shot has regressed a bit from where it was earlier this season, but he’s just playing at a ridiculously high level.

2. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers: Kawhi has somehow managed to increase his offense arsenal just a bit with an improved playmaking ability that I never thought he’d develop (at least at the level it’s at) and he’s still a great defender.

3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat: I know he might seem a bit high for some people, but his impact doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. If you watch the games, you see his leadership, tenacity, and absolutely relentless competitiveness that is infectious to his other teammates.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: He’s completely stepped up his offensive game to a level I didn’t see coming this season. And he’s carrying a higher offensive load than I thought he would considering how inconsistent Kristaps Porzingis has been this season. I think he deserves high praise for his efforts.

5. James Harden/LeBron James: I’m not too high on their individual seasons this year, but they’re amazing nonetheless. Both also have the assistance of a fellow superstar (Westbrook/AD) and are fantastic offensive players.

6. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

7. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

9. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

10. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

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My response: Thanks for the kind words, Brandon, but I knew there was a catch. I guess like most people, I tend to place a higher value on offense than I do defense. I think we’ve been conditioned to value offense over defense throughout the years, even if it wasn’t done on purpose. But the scoring leader always seems to draw more attention than the Kia Defensive Player of the Year. I’m not sure if you can eliminate that subconscious bias that is routinely applied. But I appreciate you raising the question.

A new formula …

From: Joseph Paolino

Feb. 4, 2020 | 6:44 p.m.

I wanted to share how I have been evaluating the MVP race based solely on numbers.

I begin by extracting the statistics of all NBA players this season. Then I remove all players who currently do not qualify for MVP voting (58 out of 82 games (~70.7%) is required, so any player who hasn’t played 70.7% of their team’s games is removed. I also remove any player averaging less than 24 mpg, as I am really only looking to compare the players who are making a significant impact every game they play. After doing this based on the most up to date stats, there were 149 players remaining.

I focus only on five per-game statistics: Points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. I sort each of the categories and assign point values from 149 to 1. So, the guy with the highest ppg gets a value of 149, the second-highest gets 148 and so on. I do this for all five categories, then add up the totals and see who’s on top.

To factor in winning, I multiply the final player value by the team’s winning percentage (plus 1). For instance, Giannis had a total value of 660 and the Bucks have a winning percentage of 85.7. So, I multiply 660 x 1.857 to get Giannis’ total consideration for MVP.

I also am a big believer in the best ability is availability, so I like to factor in games played as well. I take the above value and multiply it by the percentage of games the player has played for his team. (FYI, Kawhi has played in 76% of the Clippers’ games this year, and anybody who doesn’t play in one out of every four games should receive much less consideration than guys who impact 90+% of their team’s games).

It’s not perfect and I’m still tweaking the formula to try to make it more accurate, but here is how my ladder looks based on the stats:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 1126 pts

2. LeBron James: 1079 pts

3. James Harden: 1029 pts

4. Nikola Jokic: 1023 pts

5. Bam Adebayo: 1015 pts

6. Anthony Davis: 977 pts

7. Ben Simmons: 961 pts

8. Jimmy Butler: 926 pts

9. Jayson Tatum: 901 pts

10. Russell Westbrook: 879 pts

11. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 851 pts

12. Kawhi Leonard: 836 pts

13. Domantas Sabonis: 787 pts

14. Will Barton: 777 pts

15. Pascal Siakam: 775 pts

(Luka Doncic was No. 16, Rudy Gobert No. 20, Donovan Mitchell No. 22, Chris Paul No. 23, Damian Lillard No. 24 and Kemba Walker No. 25 by my calculations.)

I think the top end is decently accurate and I will keep tweaking it to see if it gets any better.

One side note: I am a hardcore Celtics fan, and watch every minute of every game. If you are going to consider any Celtic for MVP, it should be Tatum. He has truly been the best player for them factoring in both ends of the floor and games played.

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My response: That’s a lot to digest, Joseph. Thanks for putting in the work because it was a nice empirical wrinkle to add to an already full load of data that we all consume trying to understand the game. It is interesting to see how high guys like Adebayo and Gilgeous-Alexander are on your list. Again, I think there is something to be said for the alternative views (something other than just raw or simple advanced stats). The best part is that there really is no wrong answer. We can all apply whatever elements we’d like to make a case. Perhaps some enterprising genius such as yourself with come up with a foolproof formula for picking the Kia MVP. When you do, I want to see it here first.

An intriguing idea

From: Nick

Feb. 3, 2020 | 10:42 p.m.

Love your MVP lists and questions and I’m a loyal reader every week. Was curious to get your thoughts on a variation of the Kia MVP question: who are the top 10 ‘best’ NBA players in the game right now? Here are my stipulations:

1. Pretend you get the player starting now for rest of season. The rest of roster around him will be random.

2. Don’t include Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant.

Here’s my list:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. Kawhi Leonard

4. James Harden

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Anthony Davis

7. Luka Doncic

8. Damian Lillard

9. Nikola Jokic

10. Paul George

Next up: Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid

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My response: This is a great exercise, Nick and it’s totally subjective, of course, But I like it and I’ll play along: Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, Paul George, AD, Luka, Lillard, Harden, Jokic, Butler. My next up: Tatum, Russell Westbrook, Siakam, Kemba, Trae Young

In defense of Giannis

From: MacLean Delehanty

Feb. 5, 2020 | 9:06 p.m.

I first of all would like to say that I think you do a great job with your MVP Ladder. But, I have seen some people hate on Giannis in some of the Mailbag issues and I would like to comment. Giannis has stats that no one has ever averaged, with per 36 stats of 35 ppg, 15 rpg and 6.5 apg. These numbers are better than the players he is often compared to like Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain. The best per-36 season Chamberlain had was as follows: 37 ppg, 19 rpg and 2 apg. These numbers are very comparable and Giannis is one of the most dominant players inside since Wilt. He also helps his team get better and he creates plenty of opportunities for his teammates.

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My response: You are preaching to the choir, MacLean. I don’t get the folks always trying to poke holes in “The Greek Freak’s” game. He’s doing crazy things on the regular and his consistency is what really sticks out. He’s doing it without being a proficient shooter from distance in an era where that’s become the real game-changer for the bulk of the league’s superstars.

Another round with Xander

From: Xander

Feb. 7, 2020 | 1:17 p.m.

Ouch! Alright, you got me there on the last MVP mailbag mail. That was my bad. But I’m back to talk about a guy who I asked you about before: Brandon Ingram.

He’s officially an All-Star, a strong candidate for Kia Most Improved Player, and to this day I still believe he deserves to be on that MVP Ladder. Last time I asked you about him, the Pelicans were 6-21 and needed to win more games. Now they are 21-31(by the time I’m writing this) and, with Zion Williamson back, have a great chance to make a playoff push. Brandon’s 24.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 4.3 apg (and his improving field goal percentage) means he definitely deserves another look into his case for a spot on the MVP Ladder.

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My response: It’s all in good fun, Xander. And Ingram has done nothing but turn heads with his play this season. He’s very deserving of the All-Star bid he earned and I’m looking forward to see how he performs in the big game. I’m even more intrigued by what he and Zion can become as a tandem in New Orleans the rest of this season and into the future. I know coach Alvin Gentry has to be just as intrigued by what can be done with two guys with their unique talents.

Quick query about Jokic

From: Noah Forman

Feb. 7, 2020 | 6:34 p.m.

I’m a big Jokic fan and I saw your interview and profile of him before the season (that man does not like to be interviewed) and I noticed how you kept him on your MVP ladder even as he stumbled to a slow start this season. Was that out of respect and faith that he would regain his form? Were you avoiding backing off of your take in the profile? Or did you really feel he was playing like a top 15 guy?

In Wednesday’s win over the Jazz — after key injuries and Denver’s trades — the Nuggets rolled with five rotation players plus two backups off the literal end of their bench against Gobert and a fully healthy Jazz rotation as “The Joker” had 30-20-10. I was disappointed that it was overshadowed by other NBA news, but lo and behold, you put him in the top five of your latest MVP Ladder.

Thanks for giving the Joker his props. Commentators often say that the great small-market team is being underestimated, but it’s more that they’re forgotten. Since December, Jokic’s stats and impact have been climbing steadily. His recent play is MVP stuff. Butler has been great all season, so I understand him getting a spot above Jokic this week, but if Jokic keeps lifting his team up like this, that’s my MVP.

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My response: I hadn’t given any though to keeping Jokic or anyone on the Ladder based on any story I’ve done about them. But your question is good one. I felt like Jokic was still performing at a high level even when he clearly wasn’t in the sort of physical condition anyone expected from him, given the expectations that come with being a first-team All-NBA pick. I wish I had the foresight to be as calculating as your questions suggests. Unfortunately, that was not the case here. Jokic is the best big man in the league right now, in my estimation.

Too high for Harden?

From: An NBA Fan

Feb. 7, 2020 | 5:39 p.m.

I am a frequent visitor of and wanted to reach out to you regarding the latest iteration of the MVP Ladder.

I think James Harden is ranked too high at No. 11. His team is just in fourth place in the West and he’s averaging 35 ppg — which is down from last year. He’s not even the second-best player on his own team. I think PJ Tucker is the second-best player behind Russell Westbrook because he plays center vs other team’s big men every night.

You are a veteran NBA writer, of course, and have the leeway to do the hard thing and remove James Harden from your rankings altogether.

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My response: It gets confusing around here sometimes. Harden is too high. Harden is too low. Harden doesn’t belong on the list at all. And Harden is the clear cut No. 1 player in the league. I’ll let the Feb. 21 MVP Ladder speak for itself.

Two points to ponder

From: Jack Keane

Feb. 7, 2020 | 5:31 p.m.

The list is pretty good this week, but I have 2 questions: Why is Damian so low on the list after his past tear? I get that his team should be producing a little more but you have to acknowledge the numbers he’s been putting up. Also, why Kawhi is so low when he doesn’t play a ton of games because of load management? He got a triple-double recently … so what? A couple players in the league are almost averaging a triple-double.

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My response: Lillard is rising based on his performance and the strength of him leading the Trail Blazers back into the playoff picture. Kawhi’s abilities should be above reproach by now.

Lobbying for Westbrook, Tatum

From: Mason Pelletier

Feb. 7, 2020 | 4:13 p.m.

Your list is pretty spot on but Russell Westbrook is very low on this list and Jayson Tatum deserves more recognition.

Westbrook has been the catalyst for the Rockets for most of 2020. At the time of this email, the Rockets are in fourth place in the West and just beat the Lakers for their fourth straight win. Westbrook has been the biggest reason why Houston has been surging recently, and will most likely continue this streak as he is the perfect player that fits in this new small-ball system. Westbrook has not gotten the credit he deserves since moving over to Houston, and now that Harden is in a slump, it’s given him a chance to put up MVP numbers.

Tatum has been the best player on the Celtics. His offensive output has been incredible in the past month and his defense is criminally underrated. Advanced stats love him, and his impact goes even farther than that. Boston is exceeding expectations, and so is Tatum. I know he is not the sole reason that the Celtics are winning, but he is by far their most impactful player.

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My response: You are a Westbrook guy, Mason, that’s clear. Hard to argue against what he’s done the past month or so as he looks extremely comfortable in that Rockets uniform. To think: there were many who wondered how he and Harden would co-exist. I maintain that when great players — true superstars — are forced to work together they always find a way. The Rockets’ superstars have done exactly that.

Where’s the punchline?

From: Adnan

Feb. 7, 2020 | 5:26 p.m.

I always check your MVP ladder and then I look at team records and individual stats to form my own opinion. But this week I had to try to get a hold of you. You do not have Harden in the top 10!? This has to be a joke. He is first in scoring by a wide margin, second in efficiency and his team is in the top four in the tough West! Harden is top five … if not top three.

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My response: Harden’s struggled for weeks Adnan. If you’re as big a Harden fan as your email suggests, you know that better than any casual observer who is eyeballing his raw stats and scanning box scores. That’s not to say he won’t work his way back into that top five mix. But as of last week’s update, he wasn’t in the top 10. It happens, even to the guy leading the league in scoring (which last I checked was part of the game but not everything).

Respect for Middleton

From: Landon Bangerter

Feb. 7, 2020 | 2:44 p.m.

I still disagree with your Middleton assessment. He deserves to be mentioned in the conversation after seeing how valuable he is for the Bucks. But I won’t cross that bridge again.

My biggest disagreement this week is where Harden is. I understood why he was lower on your list (even though I disagreed), being completely out of the top 10 this week is crazy. I understand Westbrook has been great this past week or so, but over the course of the whole season, Harden has been comfortably Houston’s most valuable player and still should be in the top 5.

Here are my rankings:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. James Harden

3. LeBron James

4. Anthony Davis

5. Nikola Jokic

6. Kawhi Leonard

7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

8. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

9. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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My response: You consistency is impressive, Landon. Few people weigh in as thoroughly and consistently as you have this season. Hope you don’t get in trouble at your day job for all you do for the MVP ecosystem we’ve cultivated around here. We’re going to agree to disagree on both Middleton and Harden, for now. And I think you’re underrating both Butler and Lillard on your list.

No Harden hate here

From: Mike

Feb. 7, 2020 | 11:52 a.m.

Do you hate Harden? I don’t know how you set the ranking, but a guy who averages 35 ppg this season with the Rockets as the fourth seed in the West and you put him out if top 10? Sorry, but I don’t understand you.

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My response: You are not alone, Mike. I’m often misunderstood. But I was serious with the top 10 last week. No one is slotted on the Ladder based on reputation without a body of current work to bolster their cause. Harden saw some major slippage in his performance for an extended stretch. Several other guys stepped up dramatically and the top 10 reflected as much. No hate.

That’s a mouthful

From: Ilyas Munzir

Feb. 8, 2020 | 1:19 p.m.

I would like to inform you that there may have a mistake with your recent MVP Ladder: Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard was not placed in the top five. Considering his recent performances, one cannot simply fail to include him in their top 5. So, I wanted to bring this mishap to your attention, just as any self-respecting NBA fan would.

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My response: Any time you hit us with the man’s legal name, Ilyas, I know it’s serious.

A new kind of Ladder next?

From: Kaden Schroeder

Feb. 8, 2020 | 12 p.m.

I just wanted to say I love your articles and that you should continue writing them! I don’t always agree with you (because I’m a Rockets fan), but it’s always fun to see your predictions. I also wanted to request an article — your seven award predictions and your playoff predictions!

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My response: I won’t even begin to predict what happens on Wednesday night, let alone the entire awards season and the entire playoffs. Whatever transpires between now and mid-April, we should all buckle up for what should be a wild postseason.

More love for Lillard

From: Noah Bodzin

Feb. 8, 2020 | 11:17 a.m.

How is Dame not higher on the MVP ladder? He has been scoring 40-plus almost every night for a while now and they have beat multiple opponents with winning records recently. I feel like his impact and performance this season definitely deserves a spot in the top five if not the top three. Other players, like Jokic, can have a really good night and move up multiple spots on the ladder. But with Lillard playing as consistently amazing as he has been, I feel like he doesn’t get enough recognition.

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My response: Noah, thanks for writing. Dame has been unreal lately. But I cannot in good faith vault him over guys who have been crushing it all season compared to his recent torrid stretch. I think he’s slotted appropriately, given where the Blazers were a month ago. And if he keeps it up, he’ll find himself in the top five when it’s all said and done. But you can’t ignore the work the guys above him have done all season, either. This is a competitive and fluid competition, for sure. Check out the Kia MVP Ladder on Feb. 21 to see where Lillard is slotted.

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Got thoughts on the Kia MVP chase? Hit me up via e-mail or send me a tweet and I’ll get back to you!

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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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