Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons on outside looking in

Fielding queries on Khris Middleton, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and more

From a talent standpoint, the Philadelphia 76ers are stacked with the type of it that usually produces elite results. Even to the untrained eye, the Sixers’ raw talent is obvious.

So why haven’t the Sixers been able to consistently perform at the high level their talent suggests they should?

The missing piece, of course, is a chemistry problem. The Sixers don’t have it down yet and they are paying for it in the standings. They’re not the contender they were expected to be. Not even close.

And while All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will represent the franchise at NBA All-Star 2020 in Chicago, neither one of was in the latest Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

In a season dominated by dynamic All-Star duos, the absence of both Simmons and Embiid from the conversation is perplexing.

The Sixers have lost three straight games as well as four straight and 10 of their last 12 on the road. Each of those road losses have been by at least 10 points. They are 15-15 against .500 teams and, as Monday night’s 31-point beating at the hands of Miami showed, nowhere close to figuring out how to right things during this critical stretch of the season.

But Sixers coach Brett Brown understands where his team is right now and where they have to go to get on track with their internal expectations before they worry about any external pressures.

“I don’t think any of us have figured it out perfectly,” Brown said. “This for sure is evolving, at times slower than you wished. But you blink and you’ve got the best home court record in the NBA. We’ve got All-Star [announcement] on the books and there’s tremendous sort of resources to get where we want to go.

I think with Ben and Jo[el], what is it now the third iteration of the, trying to figure out whatever team they’re trying to play with? There hasn’t been a steady diet of a similar group. That counts for something. And the good news is that we play defense. We do play defense. The other side of it is evolving with pace and posting Jo and turning Ben loose and the other fits around it is … evolving.”

Could be.

But it might not be in time for Embiid or Simmons to make any serious headway into the MVP debate.

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Player(s) of the week: Once again it’s on for Damian Lillard, who won Western Conference Player of the Week honors for a second straight week. His current run is nothing short of epic and if he keeps it up, run for cover. Jaylen Brown took home the honors in the East, which I’m sure is no consolation for the gut-punch he received last week when he wasn’t selected as an All-Star reserve (teammate Jayson Tatum was, however).

Foolish to worry about Zion?: So much for being torn about Zion Williamson making his rookie debut 45 games into the season in New Orleans. Zion has made himself extremely comfortable in the lineup in short order. He’s gone from coach Alvin Gentry wanting to bring him along slowly to Gentry fuming over his team’s inability to feed the rookie phenom the ball in critical moments. I apologize for not believing fully in the power of Zion. It won’t happen again.

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

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The case for LeBron over Giannis

From: Henry Horsley

Jan. 28, 2020 | 9:31 p.m.

Before I start saying my opinion on next week’s MVP ladder I would just like to say your columns are my favorite thing about the NBA this season. Each time I read the mailbag you really get me thinking. Anyway here I go: LeBron deserves the MVP.

Watching LeBron and watching Giannis is a whole different sensation. When I watch Giannis to me it looks like a man who is just trying up his stats. There is no doubt Giannis is having a great season, but the saying that he is the entire Bucks team just isn’t true. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are also key factors In Milwaukee’s dominance. But Giannis throws a very big shadow on them. He is not making either of those two any better — just the team. An MVP is a person who is making their whole team much better, not just themselves.

LeBron, on the other hand, is doing just that. You cannot just care about your stats when you are getting 10-plus assists a game. No doubt that the Lakers’ many new additions are making the Lakers better, but without LeBron doing all of this MVP-caliber stuff I could see them only being 5th or 6th seed. The Lakers are all working together to become the best team possible, but you cannot say LeBron is not the center of that.

He is making his teammates better, his team better, himself better, and giving his team a very good chance of getting to the finals this year. And to me that is the definition of an MVP.

Here are my top 5:

1. LeBron James

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

3. James Harden

4. Luka Doncic

5. Kawhi Leonard

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My response: Thanks for kind words Henry, I appreciate it. But I have to disagree with you on the narrative that Giannis is padding stats and that he doesn’t make his teammates better. And I am sure all of his teammates would disagree as well. The Bucks thrive off of the attention he draws offensively. Both Giannis and LeBron fuel their teams, the entire team (and organizations overall]. There’s a reason they’ve been 1-2 what seems like forever on the Ladder the season.

Kawhi two-ways

From: Beverly Giannoni

Jan. 29, 2020 | 12:07 a.m.

Have you taken into account that Kawhi plays both ends of the floor and I do not think any of the players you have above him does this as well as Kawhi. Also, have you remembered that Kawhi has scored 30+ points in EIGHT consecutive games? Perhaps you need to rethink your picks.

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My response: All of that information has been factored into the Kawhi equation, Beverly. With all due respect, I don’t feel like my picks need anything more than the rigors weekly analyzation thy already get. And since when is a top three slot on the Ladder seen as a sign of disrespect?

Houston should be a problem

From: Cameron Smith

Jan. 29, 2020 | 8:24 a.m.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden can be one of the biggest threats with such a strong big man (Clint Capela) and even the bench. They all can score and sometimes they do that better than others. But, with that being said, if Harden does not end his slump it is just like Devin Booker and the Suns. In the West, it takes more than one star to make noise. The Rockets have the assets to win The Finals, but coach Mike D’Antoni needs to put together a equilibrium between Westbrook and Harden and then the rest of the team also.

So with that being said, right now I would say Westbrook is moving up the list to become an MVP candidate and Harden is moving down. We also know that the Rockets are just a talented team in general. For example, Eric Gordon just came back and he had been scoring 20 and 25 points almost every night. Then, we saw him drop a career-high 50 on Utah when Westbrook and Harden sat out. That is an example of backup leadership and is exactly what you need from a benched veteran. With that being said my top 5 for MVP is:

1. LeBron James

2. Luka Doncic

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

4. Kawhi Leonard

5. James Harden (maybe)

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My response: With all the trade rumblings right now involving Capela’s name, we’ll have to see if is still a fit for the Rockets moving forward before factor Capela into this equation. You had to know Harden would shoot his way out of that January funk eventually, Cameron. I agree, though, that the development of the core group beyond James and Russ is of vital importance to the Rockets’ longterm outlook this season. If they don’t have those roles clearly defined by the time the playoffs hit, it could be a problem for Mike D’Antoni and his crew.

Who’s No. 1 … and why

From: Victor Andrades

Jan. 29, 2020 | 4:14 p.m.

I believe you got it right this time Sekou. Even though I am biased toward Kawhi, I see where I can add a few things:

No. 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo — Has lived up to his name “Greek Freak” numbers and done amazing as a player and leading his team.

No. 2: LeBron James — Gets credit over Kawhi for playing every day, putting up great numbers and again leading his team.

No. 3: Kawhi Leonard — The reigning Finals MVP (enough said), he impacts an leads his team and is a “stealth assassin.” I just saw him have very meek (for him) against my Miami Heat. And the guy sitting next to him criticized him at halftime. My response to him was the last thing anybody in this game needs worry about is whether Kawhi will show up. He will show up and he will be heard from loud and clear before it’s over. He finished that game with his first career triple-double.

No. 4: Luka Doncic — An amazing talent and competitor, his time is coming. He’s fun to watch and is having amazing impact on his team and made them a contender.

No. 5: Jimmy Butler — My man all the way! Amazing impact on this team. Reminds me of one of my favorite sermons by preacher named Russ Ewell (“what can one man do? Anything God wants him to do!”) He has had the most impact because of how much he has lifted the Heat to elite status. All the others here had All-Star support and championship expectations when 2019-20 started … except Butler

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My response: No arguments from me, sir. The floor was yours and you stomped all over it!

MVP awards for winners only

From: Pieter de Winter

Jan. 30, 2020 | 12:43 a.m.

I regularly read your MVP Ladder and I enjoy all the thoughts of you and others that are being put out there. But, there is one thing that is been bugging me ever since I started reading your conversation: that you (and others) also consider players with losing records as possible MVP candidates. Of course, I agree that some of these players — like Damian Lillard and Trae Young — are very good players. But if their teams don’t win games, they shouldn’t be in the MVP conversation.

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My response: I do have a hard time ignoring the team’s overall record when making my MVP evaluations, Pieter. So don’t feel all alone out there my man. It’s rare that you will find someone on the Ladder from a team that’s struggling the way the Hawks are and the Trail Blazers were before Lillard went nuclear. Both of those guys made the cut on the latest Ladder. .

Giannis or LeBron … with eyes on Zion

From: Paul Ngwilimi

Jan. 30, 2020 | 2:30 a.m.

This season has been magnificent! From the start, players have been playing to make a statement for themselves and for their teams as championship contenders.

In my opinion, the MVP should mostly be either Giannis or LeBron James. This is because these two have showed max effort in giving their teams more wins in the regular season rather than playing for self glory (sorry, Mr. Harden). With Lakers and Bucks having the best records in the NBA so far this season, I believe the MVP should go to either one of them — but I mostly favor Giannis

Here’s my top 5

1: Giannis Antetokounmpo

2: LeBron James

3: Luka Doncic

4: Kawhi Leonard

5: Jimmy Butler

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My response: You are clearly on right track right now, Paul. Giannis and LeBron have established themselves as the true frontrunners heading into the trade deadline and All-Star break. Zion is a fantasy MVP play right now, though. It’s nice to dream about it but he’s barely scratched the surface of what he’s going to do. We need to see what sort of dent he can make in Ja Morant’s lead in the Rookie of the Year race before we talk about anything else.

Trouble with Harden on the list

From: Madeleine Halverson

Jan. 29, 2020 | 1:42 p.m.

I’ve always been really happy with your picks, but I’ve been having some trouble whenever James Harden is on the list. I think consistency is very important. He has a lot of nights where he goes off, but he also has a lot of night when he is like 1-for-17. I don’t think he should be on the list. I have to agree that he can be a great shooter but a lot of the time he has horrible nights. I don’t think he should be in the running I’m glad that Rudy Gobert has been making the list. He is super dominant on the floor and is very consistent.

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My response: I know you came with the best of intentions, Madeline. But you don’t think Harden even belongs on the list? Come on now. That’s harsh even for the toughest Harden critic even after a tough shooting month. As you might have seen, he’s bounced back here recently. Don’t count him out. He could easily go on another tear or two and make a move back up into the top tier.

LeBron love? No, but some LeBron respect

From: James Denning

Jan. 30, 2020 | 9:38 p.m.

I know it seems wrong to all the people out there who love LeBron. I will admit, I am a Kawhi lover, but I would not send this if I did not think it was true. I see what LeBron can do, and I see that he is a leader of that team. I personally dislike him, but I respect his game. I think Kawhi has shown himself to be the bigger difference-maker though. Part of this belief is based on the matchups so far. Both times the Lakers and Clippers faced off, LeBron and AD were unable to finish games or show up (figuratively) when needed.

LeBron said he re-aggravated a groin injury, but when you’re on the court, you’re healthy (especially when you are running across the court to sit in someone’s lap). Kawhi has had to do a lot of stuff without his superstar pair. Paul George has been having a bad season from an injury standpoint. None of the Clippers’ other guys are a two-way threat in the same universe as AD.

One thing people bring up a lot is Leonard’s injury management. Well, he only missed maybe one or two games that were not part of a back-to-back. I do not care too much for that, though I will admit that can be a deciding factor for who gets second and third between those two.

To sum it up, I believe he should be higher than LeBron because he has had to do more and dominates LeBron when they match up. I can’t say much about Giannis and Jimmy Butler deserves to be where he is, I believe.

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My response: I’m sorry, James, I got lost after you professed love for Kawhi and respect for LeBron. That’s a rarity: fans of one player doling out respect like that for a hated rival. Then again, you seemed to weave all the way back to some serious shade for LeBron (and that’s much more like it). I have a hard rule in these situations: if I have to tear down someone else to make a case for my guy (whoever that might be), then it’s a pretty weak case to begin with. All of these guys have strong resumes. So feel free to tout your guy and let him stand on his own merits.

Middleton in the mix?

From: Landon Bangerter

Jan. 31, 2020 | 4:11 p.m.

Hey Sekou! You’re friendly neighborhood MVP pal Landon is here and a month or so long hiatus. Let’s get right back into it!

I really like your list this week. And being a Jazz man myself, I’m really glad you have Gobert in your top 10. Keep up the good work!

We really only have two big disagreements this week. My first is the lack of Khris Middleton. In my opinion, you can’t only put one player from a team of only six losses on an MVP list out of 15. Middleton has been balling, and scored 50-plus a couple of nights ago for a win. He’s been valuable to Milwaukee and should at least get a mention.

My second is how high Damian Lillard is. I have him barely in my honorable mentions, but to put him in the top 10 when he has a losing record. Granted, he’s been incredible. But he’s not win-ning his team as many games as he should be.

With all that said, here’s my personal ladder this week:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

6. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

8. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

9. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

10. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

And five more: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

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My response: Thanks for coming back, sir. And your points are duly noted. But just so we’re clear, I can absolutely include just one member of any team. If we’re being completely fair — which I’ll admit is a standard we don’t always meet in the season-long MVP chase — we probably shouldn’t allow teammates on the Ladder and should make hard choices. No sharing of anything, one MVP candidate per team as a standard. Since that’s not our reality, I’ll save that theory for another day. And your second complaint doesn’t hold up well given Dame Dolla’s current tear. You need him on your list, pronto!

Some thoughts on Trae …

From: A ustin Duff

Jan. 31, 2020 | 2:56 p.m.

Where’s Trae Young in your MVP race? He’s third in scoring and second in assists … and he can’t crack your top 15? What do you have against him?

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My response: I hear you Austin. I debate it every week: what to do with Trae? As outlandish as some of his performances have been, how do you rate him ahead of guys who are impacting winning at a much higher level than he is? He’s a starter on the All-Star team, which I think is ample recognition for what’s doing statistically. But around here, there has to be some winning going on as well. That’s non-negotiable.

… and more thoughts on Trae

From: Tyler Fielder

Jan. 31, 2020 | 5:17 p.m.

I am a huge fan of your rankings and a die-hard NBA fan. I’m a first-time writer and long-time fan, but really just wanted to make a comment about Trae Young. To be a second year player in the top three in points and assists is unprecedented. The burden he carries as a second-year player with little to no supporting cast is incredible. I know that record has a lot to do with the regular season MVP, and I don’t expect Young to be anywhere near the top 5. But I do think he deserves some love at least in the top 15. His stats are arguably as good, or better, than Doncic’s. He has also been playing with considerably less help yet he was voted as an All-Star starter (and the top vote-getter among East guards) despite his team’s struggles. I know it takes a lot for someone on a bad team with a horrible record to be given consideration, but I think it is time to realize the greatness we are seeing and throwing some credit his way. Have a peek at some advanced stats of his and feel free to give me a shout of what you think!

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My response: Glad you joined us Tyler, welcome. See the response directly above about Trae. And I don’t like the hypocrisy of using his stats as a case for his inclusion on the list while also denigrating his help (or lack thereof) as a way of explaining why his team is suffering. That burden, at least some of it, has to fall on the dude dominating the ball if you want to give him all the credit when things go right. Trae’s time will come if he is as good as we all think he is. It’s just not right now.

Lillard rising the ranks

From: Mactastic Ent

Feb. 1, 2020 | 1:25 a.m.

First off, I want to say I love checking in on your weekly MVP posts. The literature is quite entertaining, yet educational. My question/comment is: how could you not put Dame higher on your list? He’s literally demanded our respect year in and year out. People talk about Russell Westbrook (among others) saying he never cheats the game as far as effort. But even beyond just the stats, Dame should clearly be mentioned higher on your list. He’s literally carried the load and put the team on his back night in and night out And if that’s not MVP-worthy, I don’t know what is. Anyways keep up the great work, and I can’t wait to see your list next week.

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My response: Dame’s sure to be on the move, Eul. Trust me, he’s squarely in the mix after back-to-back Western Conference Player of the Week nods. There’s no lobbying necessary. His play is doing all the talking for him right now. #NoHypeManNeeded

A simple question

From: Dario Garcia Segura

Feb. 2, 2020 | 11:46 a.m.

My name is Dario and I love basketball. I am from Spain and I want to ask you one question: What must LeBron do to rise to No. 1 on your MVP Ladder? Thank you and hugs!

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My response: LeBron needs a monster stretch and a simultaneous struggle stretch from Gian-nis to push his way to the top. At least that’s a good place to start. And you are welcome and hugs back to you!

A new top five (with explanations)

From: Yuval Sharon

Feb. 2, 2020 | 3:42 p.m.

To expand on my previous email, I will rank my new top five with my reasoning and then the next five.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo: No explanation needed

2. Kemba Walker: He has made the Celtics one of the best teams in the East and he is also putting up good individual stats even when facing really good defenses.

3. Luka Doncic: He’s averaging a near triple-double and leading his team to the sixth seed in the West.

4. Kawhi Leonard: He has been on a hot streak and is averaging very good stats on a team with other stars.

5. LeBron James: Again, no explanation needed.

6. Jimmy Butler

7. Anthony Davis

8. James Harden

9. Damian Lillard

10. Jayson Tatum

11. Pascal Siakam

12. Nikola Jokic

13. Rudy Gobert

14. Domantas Sabonis

15. Trae Young

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My response: Your appreciation for Kemba warms my basketball heart, Yuval. I suspect you’ll have plenty of folks disagreeing with placing him that high. And in turn there will be plenty of folks upset that you have LeBron all the way down in the fifth spot.

The only reason Luka can slip …

From: Alexander Roedeske

Feb. 3, 2020 | 11:20 a.m.

I’m back, Sekou, and this time I’m bringing heat!

Why do you have Kawhi over Luka? Kawhi definitely has been hot over the last month, getting his first career triple-double. Meanwhile, Luka has 20 triple-doubles so far in two seasons and is almost averaging one this season. He hasn’t missed a game yet due to load management — only because of an actual injury. That and that injury alone should be the only reason Kawhi can possibly be over him in the MVP ladder.

I’m sorry for being a little harsh, but I just don’t see why that is.

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My response: I’m a big boy, Xander. I can take a little constructive criticism. Luka’s been fantastic this season, no question. But having more triple-doubles than Kawhi or anyone else doesn’t qualify him for a higher spot in my eyes. That’s just one component of the evaluation process. Kawhi is a far superior defensive player, which makes him a better two-way player by a significant margin. But I guess if you only use offensive numbers in your calculation, Kawhi’s defensive prowess doesn’t factor in his favor. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If you’re going to evaluate parts of someone’s game to make your case, then your “heat” doesn’t turn the temperature up around here.

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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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