Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Trae Young's stardom needs some wins, too

Fielding queries on Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and more

Trae Young is a bona fide star.

That’s not debatable anymore. You don’t do the things the Atlanta Hawks’ second-year point guard does on a regular basis and get excluded from that list.

Young is already a fan favorite and a near-daily viral sensation because of his highlight-worthy skills and penchant for showing out on the competition. He will be an Eastern Conference All-Star in roughly 10 days, and deservedly so.

But is he a legitimate Kia MVP candidate in a season when the players populating the latest Kia MVP list all toil for teams sitting pretty in the Eastern and Western Conference standings?

Young’s Hawks, at 10-34, have — to put it kindly — struggled this season, which casts a bit of a shadow on his brilliant individual season.

Young and his Draft classmate, Dallas guard Luka Doncic, are the only players in the league who rank in the top five in points and assists this season. Doncic is in the top five on the MVP Ladder while Young flirted with a spot in the opening weeks of the season, before injuries and a suspension to John Collins torpedoed things. He hasn’t clawed his way back into the mix since.

Doncic’s Mavs are also fifth in the Western Conference while Young’s Hawks are least in the East.

Young’s fans want him to be judged the same way Luka is, which would require any non-partial observer to ignore the obvious.

If we’re evaluating the league’s best players and using any sort of reasonable criteria for separating them, how can we credit everyone else making their contributions in winning situations and then ignore that component for one player?

It’s not even about penalizing Young for the Hawks’ struggles, because we all know this kind of season isn’t on one player. But it would be disingenuous, at best, to credit him for impressive numbers without any contextual impact on winning. That, after all, is what separates the best of the very best in the Kia MVP chase.

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Fear The Deer: The Milwaukee Bucks don’t care if you are tired of their routine. They’re sticking to their win-them-all-all-the-damn-time mantra. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the Bucks have won seven straight games and are 12-1 since that Christmas Day humbling at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t grinding on his own, he’s riding with an entire group bent on chasing the No. 1 overall seed for a second straight season.

Torn over Zion’s debut: Is it possible to be absolutely giddy and simultaneously mortified about Zion Williamson making his regular season debut Wednesday? Strangely, that’s been the mood here at Headquarters in the lead up to Spurs-Pelicans (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). After Christmas, the idea of Zion sitting out the entire season didn’t irritate me as much as it did weeks ago. Not with Ja Morant and other members of his rookie class holding it down the way they have been this season.

The Pelicans are recently improved (11-5 in their last 16 games after a 13-game skid before that) and any disruption to their flow, even from a talent as dynamic as the No. 1 overall pick, could mess with the mojo. But maybe this is the right time to integrate Zion into the mix. We know he’s anxious to finally get out there. But any setbacks, even a slight one, will fuel panic attacks from Bourbon Street to the bayou and beyond. All I need is for Zion to stay injury-free for the rest of whatever he can salvage from his delayed rookie season. Whatever he does above and beyond that is just fine.

Player(s) of the Week: Joel Embiid’s absence has allowed us to see a much more assertive Ben Simmons, who earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for his work. And who says load management would hold Kawhi Leonard back? The Clippers star claimed the honor in the West, reminding us all that the reigning Finals MVP remains one of the game’s most dangerous players.

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

LeBron No. 1, Giannis No. 2 — for now

From: Timothy Foster

Jan. 15, 2020 | 11:20 a.m.

At this point in the season, LeBron should be leading the MVP race, with Giannis a close second. I created my own analytic system that values players on how well they play their position. It tends to take a more old-school approach to the numbers. In an era where players like Giannis are doing it all, he’s, unfortunately, punished a little bit for dominating his team’s scoring instead of creating more opportunities for others.

Still, by the Lakers moving LeBron to the PG position, he’s done a fantastic job of creating those scoring opportunities for others (Anthony Davis) while also maintaining a high level of scoring output for himself. He still turns the ball over a little too much, but that’s expected for someone who is dictating the offense so much. Finally, he’s doing a great job of drawing fouls without committing them so package that all together and he’s a leader at his position who’s elevating his team to another level (the fact that he’s the best player on the second-best team in the NBA helps).

Through this same system, Giannis wouldn’t be too far behind. And even though he’s the best player on the best team in the NBA, he gets knocked a little bit because he’s committing so many fouls and he’s turning the ball over a little too much for his position. If Giannis can tighten up those aspects of his game, he’ll pass LeBron in my book.

My top 5 (only following this metric) would be:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

2. Giannis Atentokuompo, Milwaukee Bucks

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

5. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

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My response: Timothy, I’m going to respectfully disagree with your notion that Giannis doesn’t create as much as he could or should for the rest of the Bucks. Everything they do is predicated on the power of Giannis being able to draw attention and open the floor for the rest of the team, whoever he he plays on the floor. Of all of the things people use to nit-pick his game, that might be the most misunderstood aspects of what it means to have a player of that ilk as the epicenter of everything a team does.

It’s Luka’s world … right?

From: Ritvik Chintha

Jan. 15, 2020 | 11:06 a.m.

What’s up, baby? It’s me again! How do you do! You didn’t feature me on the MVP mailbag! My opinion is very important and good and my feelings are hurt! Why is Harden even in the race? All he does is draw fouls. Anthony Davis always gets injured. Lebron’s old. Giannis chokes in the playoffs. Luka should win this time and you know it.

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My response: Let me be clear — bruised feeling are never the intended result here. A healthy dialogue about our collective favorite game (the NBA) is the main focus. I apologize for missing your previous missive. As for your question (forgive me, but it seemed rhetorical), James Harden is in this race because he’s scoring at a historic clip, and has been on that sort of ride for a while now. He does draw a ridiculous amount of fouls, but I cannot hold it against him just because he’s found a way to the rules work for him. And finally, Luka is in the mix. We’ll see where he finishes.

More than words

From: Rikki D

Jan. 15, 2020 | 9:22 a.m.

First, I would like to thank you for continuing to bring us this beautiful concoction that we refer to as the MVP Ladder every week for as long as you have.

Having followed you for years, I have never written to you because … well, I don’t write. See, I am a Mavericks fan and somehow we don’t do things like that, where we plead for our best players to be hoisted to the top of lists and forego all logic as we surrender to our biases. I wish we acted more like James Harden fans, who can whole-heartedly claim that he is the best player since Michael Jordan. I wish we could be as adamant as LeBron James fans, who think he should have won every MVP award except the last. Somehow, we were never taught that.

I am here simply to make a humble request: please don’t punish Luka Doncic because a large contingent of his fans are like me — ones who never learned how to show dogmatic fanaticism to try and convince NBA pundits to change their lists. Now, I know that you will not be swayed by some of these ridiculous emails that come your way but I also understand that even someone as supremely talented and breathtakingly good-looking as yourself are still mortal and might get rattled into a bad decision.

In those moments of weakness, please remember people like me, who, behind the aforementioned raucous crowd, have formed a silent army and simply show up and read every article, mailbag, or list that you publish expecting you to have done it justice. We don’t complain, we don’t get bitter, and we definitely don’t call you names. We respect the platform too much and don’t think of our own opinions so highly. I think Dirk trained us too well.

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My response: Rikki D with the email of the year! I appreciate your approach. You don’t have to lobby for your guy when he’s doing the work he is doing this season. Luka has earned his spot on this list, like everyone else. Where he finishes ultimately will be based on his overall performance, not some persuasive argument made on his behalf by anyone. I wouldn’t fall for that and most folks who understand how this process works understands that a player’s body of work is his case and not some passionate campaign from hi supporters.

The legend proves true

From: Damon Smith

Jan. 17, 2020 | 2 p.m.

“What these young bloods have to understand is that this game has always been, and will always be, about buckets.” – Bill Russell to Uncle Drew in that old Pepsi commercial.


Sekou, winning basketball is defined by outscoring the opponent, and that depends on maximizing AND optimizing a team’s possessions. Simply put, there are only two ways to score more points in a game: (1) score more points per possession, and (2) create extra possessions. True Shooting percentage (TS%) is a good indicator of the first measure, since it takes into account the value differentials associated with a successful scoring possession. For your readers, the basic concept is that a 3-pointer is 50% more valuable than a 2-pointer, even as both attempts “cost” the team exactly one possession. As such, TS% can be used to represent overall shooting efficiency by combining a team’s FG%, 3PT FG% and FT% into a single metric.

The formula for calculating TS% is:

TS% = PTS/(2x(FGA+0.44*FTA))

The .44 multiplier is because not all FTAs take up a possession. Technical foul shots and ‘And-Ones’ do not, while there are more than two free throws on one possession with a three-shot foul. About 44% of all free throws take up possessions, so .44 is used as the multiplier.

I invented a new metric called Scoring Contribution percentage (SC%), which is simply TS% adjusted for extra possessions created by offensive rebounds, steals and blocked shots and for posses-sions lost from turnovers.

The formula for calculating SC% is:

SC% = PTS/(2*(FGA+0.44*FTA)-OREB-STL-(0.57*BLK)+TOV)

The .57 multiplier is applied to blocked shots because 57% of blocks result in a change of possession.

I re-ranked your Kia MVP Ladder for January 17 based on Scoring Contribution % and the surprise winner (by a lot) is … Rudy Gobert! He’s scoring 15 ppg on a ridiculously efficient 8.6 FGAs. He leads the group in OREBs and is second in BLKs, and he has the fewest TOVs. Here are the complete ranking by SC% with your current Kia MVP Ladder ranking in parenthesis.

R. Gobert (8) | 80.8%

A. Davis (6) | 64.6%

G. Antetokounmpo (1) | 62.5%

J. Harden (5) | 61.4%

J. Butler (4) | 61.0%

N. Jokic (9) | 60.7%

C. Paul (10) | 59.2%

K. Leonard (7) | 57.5%

L. Doncic (3) | 57.4%

L. James (2) | 56.0%

Of course, assists and defense still matter, and there’s admittedly some bias to forwards versus guards since they generally take higher percentage shots, get more OREBs and BLKs, and create fewer TOVs, but I still think it’s an interesting lens. Anyway, this is all just for fun. We all know the real MVP is: Luka Magic! Go Mavs!

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My response: I’ll have to check with my elders to make sure it’s cool, but you’re being adopted into my wing of the Smith family after this e-mail, Damon. We don’t have anyone else in the family with the math skills you’ve displayed. It’s a fascinating look at a metric that basically emphasizes we’re on the right track on the Ladder. That’s always a good thing. Welcome to the family!

So much LeBron love

From: Shane Scully

Jan. 17, 2020 | 2 p.m.

It really baffles me why LeBron gets so much love in the MVP conversation. The fact that he has Davis and that the Lakers seem to play sub-.500 teams every other night should go against him. Kevin Durant got no love for MVP when playing in Golden State and he was playing at an elite level on both sides of the ball. The same can’t be said for LBJ this season. Assisting is overrated — there are always a couple guys each year averaging 10 or more assists per game. How many guys average 40 ppg while for the most part winning games?

Also that Lakers team is stacked. They’re not Golden State-in-its-prime stacked, but it is definitely loaded. There are four past or current All-Stars (James, Davis, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard), plus a poor man’s Klay Thompson (Danny Green) and legit NBA talent (Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma). The media bias is something else this season.

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My response: I don’t know why you’re baffled, Shane. LeBron’s being doing his thing for years and being celebrated and shredded every step of the way. I don’t see this media bias in his favor that you speak of. Not for a player who has stacked up the accomplishments the way LeBron has throughout his career. He’s in the same predicament as everyone else on the Ladder. It’s like Janet Jackson sang once, “What have you done for me lately?” Ask Lakers fans who have been clamoring for a winner since Kobe Bryant’s championship heyday if LeBron’s impact is legit or just a product of media hype.

Where’s Westbrook?

From: Christopher Marlton

Jan. 20, 2020 | 12:23 a.m.

I was wondering, based on how this season is progressing, how Westbrook is getting absolutely zero press for how his season has been so far. After coming off a knee surgery which obviously hampered his first month, he’s been averaging insane numbers and shooting at an excellent percentage. When the Rockets played the Clippers on Dec. 19 — with Leonard, George and Harden all on the court — it was clear who the most dominant player in the game was.

When the Rockets lost to the Lakers recently, despite the Houston role-players poor shooting and Lakers’ successful disruption tactics — flopping, Dwight eliminating Tucker with a screen, kicking the ball, etc — it was clear out of LeBron, Harden and Russ that the most dominant player on the court was Westbrook.

How does this get ignored? My dad hadn’t watch many games this season, but had read a lot of articles and media and was dumbfounded when watching the game that, to quote him, “everyone was saying Westbrook has gotten worse or isn’t the player he used to be … but he’s dominating.”

His January numbers — 30.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 8.3 apg, 53.6% shooting — are as good as anyone in the league, right? Or am I missing something?

I’m not saying he should be MVP. But to not even be mentioned in the conversation at any point, is kind of bizarre when he outshines other MVP candidates in head-to-head games.

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My response: You make a great point, Chris. The lack of love for Russell Westbrook’s contributions in Houston this season have not garnered the sort of attention they would if it was someone else. I think we in the media need to own that one. Russ put up such crazy numbers in his final three seasons in Oklahoma City that I feel like he desensitized us to what has become the norm for him. I know, it sounds like an excuse … but it’s not. It’s my opinion about what was once a regularly debated topic among my media brethren. But you are right, we need to check ourselves on this one.

And what about Towns and Ingram …?

From: Declan Thornton

Jan. 18, 2020 | 2:05 p.m.

Where is Karl Anthony Towns on the Ladder? He should beat out guys like Jokic, Gobert and Sabonis. Also, should Brandon Ingram be in the mix as well?

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My response: Towns just came back from a long absence, Declan, so I’d give it some time before stumping for him to dive back into the MVP mix. Ingram has been outstanding and certainly deserves a second look. We’ll see what he does with Zion Williamson added to the mix. But he’s definitely played his way into the radar.

Best offensive player ever?

From: Zach

Jan. 17, 2020 | 11:55 p.m.

I would like to discuss how you are treating my boy, James Harden, who is — I’m gonna say it — the best offensive player ever. The numbers speak for themselves.

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My response: Well, Zach, I’m going to pass on any argument made for Harden as the best offensive player ever. He is still in the midst of an absolutely crazy run and is not done yet. But I am not going to ignore the fact that as good as he is on one end of the floor, he’s woefully deficient on the other — particularly when you put it in the context of a MVP chase that includes so many other proficient two-way guys.

Shades of Magic in Dallas?

From: Ned Einstein

Jan. 17, 2020 | 4:46 p.m.

Giannis, Harden and Davis are clearly the most unstoppable, and Harden, Paul and Luka are the best at maintaining their dribble (which is very overlooked today). But Luka is the only terrific player on a team with no other even excellent-level players on it (Porzingis and Hardaway, Jr. are good players on some nights). So Luka is clearly the MVP. But it’s important to note that this is not the best player. Only the most-valuable.

Insofar as skill at his age, Luka is like Magic Johnson with more offense and a better basic defensive player, too. He’s not yet the passer Magic was, but he’s a better ball-handler in traffic and can keep his dribble to weave into the paint better. (He doesn’t have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or James Worthy to pass off to, or Jamaal Wilkes at Magic’s early stages.) Magic was a bit stronger; Luka shows the pain of getting knocked around a lot. But two years in the Euroleague are more valuable training than two years of college in the U.S. Luka is quicker, but Magic was faster. There are lots of interesting comparisons.

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My response: Ned, I have to admit I’ve never exchanged words with an Einstein. That said, I’m pushing back on any Luka-Magic comparisons given what we saw from Magic as a rookie. I get how good Luka has been and no one can dispute that he’s a true prodigy. But go back and look at how Magic mastered his game and fueled the “Showtime” Lakers. Watch that one more time before making the argument about Luka being a better a better ball-handler or more a more impactful player than Magic was in his first two years in the league. I think we need to be careful getting caught up in the moment and metrics when making those kinds of comparisons.

More than numbers

From: Samuel Hunter

Jan. 17, 2020 | 4:12 p.m.

I love your MVP Ladders and agree with almost everything on them. This week however, I have seen two things that I do not agree with you on.

First, why is James Harden below Jimmy Butler? He is averaging more points this season than Michael Jordan ever did, and more rebounds and assists than most of MJ’s seasons. Butler is averaging good stats (20 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals) but not as good stats as Harden.

Second, I have wondered this for a long time: why is Domantas Sabonis even in the top 15? His only notable stats are 17.8 ppg and 12.9 rpg. I know of several other players who are better — D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Trae Young, and Joel Embiid among them — and they’re not on the list. I will be much obliged if you answer these questions.

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My response: Thank you, Samuel, for the questions. It’s not just about numbers or scoring numbers in particular. The Kia MVP isn’t an award for the guy who scores the most. I believe in evaluating the entire game a player brings to the party, that includes all of the numbers they compile and the impact that has on their respective team, and ranking it accordingly. That’s where Sabonis enters the conversation for me as well. You are welcome to disagree with my methods. I have no problem with that.

The rise of Kawhi

From: Luke Zwayne

Jan. 17, 2020 | 2:47 p.m.

Great ladder like always, Sekou! But I think it’s time we start talking about Kawhi. His team is higher in the standings than Harden and Doncic’s teams. I know those two guys are putting up monster numbers, but Kawhi has also been without Paul George and he’s put up a 43-point game and a couple of 30+ pointers. He’s just flat-out amazing on offense.

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My response: Keen observations, Luke. And Kawhi’s recent surge will be reflected on the next update of the Ladder. There’s no denying the reigning Finals MVP when he plays the way he has recently.

Another one on Westbrook

From: Ryan Tretsky

Jan. 12, 2020 | 2:36 a.m.

Do you think that the overall improvement of Russell Westbrook on offense (versus the beginning of the season) over the past few weeks can make him a viable MVP candidate by the end of the year if he keeps this up? I was also surprised to see how little he has turned in over, too. It seems that he really is improving everywhere (except for 3-point shooting) since the beginning of the season.

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My response: If he keeps it up Ryan, yes, I think Russ can play his way into the MVP conver-sation. But even if he does, it would be hard to see him supplant James Harden as the Rockets’ most viable candidate for MVP. It’s Harden’s team and the voters understand that. Russ is cer-tainly capable of making things interesting, though, provided he continues to play as well as he has recently.

A different take at the top

From: David Lau

Jan. 20, 2020 | 11:37 a.m.

Many thanks for your weekly MVP Ladders, which I enjoy very much. Admittedly, you have a tough job and I could probably build a MVP case for any of the players ranked in your (at least) Top 5. While I could sign off on your ranking right away, I will nonetheless give it try and explain to you my personal ranking:

1. Luka Doncic

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

3. Lebron James

4. James Harden

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Kawhi Leonard

7. Nikola Jokic

8. Chris Paul

9. Anthony Davis

10. Donovan Mitchell

I acknowledge that there are potentially many many different criteria and weights one could apply. I am applying the following main criteria: (i) individual performance, (ii) expectations ahead of the seasons and (iii) the player’s “value” to the team, i.e. what would the team be like if you subtracted that player from the roster.

Without Giannis the Bucks still have All-Star-caliber players like Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe plus experienced role players like Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill. The Lakers have Davis AND James plus experienced role players like Green, Rondo, Kuzma, Howard and McGee. The Rockets still have Westbrook, Gordon and Clint Capela. The Clippers have a very strong roster with George, Williams, Harrell and Beverely.

At least I hadn’t expected the Heat and Mavericks to be that strong this season, but I love this surprise! I may have underestimated the Mavericks’ roster, but I strongly believe that without Doncic the Mavericks wouldn’t be a playoff contender. Not only is Doncic playing an outstanding season so far, but he is also lifting the Mavericks beyond all expectations and is making his teammates (much) better, which is why he is the “Most Valuable Player” to me.


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My response: I’ve heard a lot of people make a similar argument, David, that the Bucks would be just fine without Giannis or that there is enough firepower on that roster without him that they’d still be one of the league’s truly elite teams regardless. I bet Mike Budenholzer would disagree with you. I know I do. I’m always careful with that subtract-a-player argument. It’s just too con-venient a theory that has nothing but hypotheticals to back it up.

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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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