Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Can Russell Westbrook move up in the chase?

Fielding queries on Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and more

In light of the recent passing of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and the seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday, we felt it best to keep it brief this week and get straight to your letters regarding the latest Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

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Stumping for the Jazz …

From: Zachary Sandwick

Jan. 21, 2020 | 5:38 p.m.

My name is Zachary, I’m 11 and a huge Utah Jazz fan. I am so happy that Rudy Gobert is on the Ladder, but my attention is on another thing. First, you can’t have a team without good players. But if you have players/a player who scores 40 points a night but doesn’t get his team wins, he’s not MVP material.

I think your MVP Ladders are great and on point. I just think the last five players (like Donovan Mitchell and Domantas Sabonis) are a little off. First, the Pacers are doing great, but it’s not just Sabonis — there‘s still Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner. I also think Kemba Walker should be higher because he has two All-Star players other than him (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown) who are averaging over 20 ppg and Kemba is still putting up numbers like that. Here is my ladder:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. James Harden

4. Luka Doncic

5. Kawhi Leonard

6. Jimmy Butler

7. Rudy Gobert

8. Nikola Jokic

9. Donovan Mitchell

10. Chris Paul

11. Anthony Davis (injuries)

12. Kemba Walker

13. Paul George (injuries)

14. Ben Simmons

15. DeMar DeRozan

Sorry if I was biased toward the Jazz. (Injuries) means that they’re lower because of injuries (either current or old ones).

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My response: Thanks for taking the time Zachary. I always love hearing from future generations of NBA fans. And don’t worry about any bias around here … everyone comes with their own agenda. I agree with you on Kemba’s status this season. I’ve been high on his performance all season (more so maybe than some of my media brethren). It’s not easy to do what he’s done in Boston. Oh, and those last five are always listed in alphabetical order. The numbers run through 10 only.

Too much love for Butler?

From: Ed Adcock

Jan. 21, 2020 | 5:30 p.m.

Looking at your last list I was very much surprised to see Jimmy Butler in 4th place. I feel like this is a case of Miami being a surprise team this year, second in the East, and therefore the need to have someone from the Heat in the list … which I don’t understand at all. The problem with that is that although Jimmy has been playing well, Miami’s success has been based around the entire roster performing. To just drop him in at No. 4 does not make sense.

When you look at Jimmy (20.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.6 bpg) vs. Anthony Davis (26.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.5 bpg) and Kawhi Leonard (27.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.0 spg, 0.6 bpg) his numbers simply don’t stack up. Plus, the overall records of the Lakers (34-9) and LA Clippers (30-13) are equal or better than Miami’s (30-13). If you want to get into games played as well there isn’t much discrepancy there (Butler 40, Davis 39, Leonard 36) and when you look at per 36 minutes stats, the case goes further in favor of Davis and Leonard. You also can’t say Jimmy’s defense is superior to either Davis or Leonard and, in a lot of people’s eyes, Davis is the Defensive Player of the Year.

The way you look at it from any angle is that Jimmy is not a Top 5 candidate. Top 10 may be a stretch, but I wouldn’t have an issue with him being at the bottom of the top 10 list.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

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My response: Lots of folks want to make the Kia MVP Ladder a strictly numerical affair, Ed. And I get that. I just think it does a disservice to the context that has to accompany any conversation about the best of the best. Butler’s impact on the Heat has been everything in Miami. He’s not asked to score the way some other guys are. And Miami’s collective rises because of his presence.

Westbrook on a roll

From: Ryan Tretsky

Jan. 22, 2020 | 5:35 a.m.

I’ve been watching Houston very closely as Russell Westbrook is my favorite player. I have noticed that one of the main reasons that Westbrook is playing so much better is because he has taken less attempts from the 3-point line since the season turned around for him in mid-December. I also notice that Westbrook gets an insane amount of hate from fans that is not deserved as he is a player that tries his hardest day in and day out. What else does Russell Westbrook need to do, besides improve his jump shot, which it seems he is trying to do while taking less of them?

I also am a firm believer that James Harden might needs to have his minutes reduced while he is in his slump and that Westbrook should be the leader of the team until Harden can get back on track. I also think that James Harden is making the same mistake Westbrook made last year and earlier this year: he is taking too many shots with nothing to show and he does not pass enough. I remember Shaquille O’Neal said in the OKC vs. Portland playoff series last year that Paul George and Russ were playing “hero ball.” It seems Harden is doing that now instead of Westbrook and it hurts his chances of winning MVP in my opinion.

Houston has two MVP candidates, but their problems lie in Harden not being able to share and cooperate. Will this affect them in the playoffs in your opinion or will Harden get over this?

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My response: Ryan, I think Russ needs to keep doing exactly what he’s been doing recently: continue to play to his strengths and with that fire that few others in the league can match. I’m not as worried about he and Harden working out the details right now. They’ve had half a season to figure it out. Come playoff time, I suspect they’ll be in a much better rhythm as a duo. That narrative about both of these guys being so difficult to play with has been interesting, given all of the success they’ve had (both together earlier in their careers and more recently with other All-Star counterparts). I’m going to trust the process, for now, where the Rockets are concerned.

Where in the world is Lillard?

From: Ann Garrison

Jan. 22, 2020 | 8:08 p.m.

I cannot fathom why Damian Lillard is never in your MVP conversation. This week I saw him put up 61 points to lead the Blazers past the Warriors in the clutch, and that was just the most spectacular of his many spectacular performances. He also seems to be more cool-headed than anyone but Kawhi Leonard, who bleeds antifreeze. Lillard’s team could be doing better, but Trae Young’s team could be doing a lot better — and you’re talking about him.

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My response: That’s a legitimate gripe you bring up, Ann. The slow start in Portland has allowed some of us to sleep on Dame a little bit. But he did join the party last week and will probably be due for a nice bump this week, based on the show he’s been putting on. Like most of the league’s best players, Dame tends to be a (an unwitting) victim of his own greatness. We expect so much from these guys that we sometimes take for granted when they deal with the sort of transition the Trail Blazers have had to this season. I don’t like getting scolded like this, so I vow to do better from this point forward.

Taking the long view on LeBron

From: Bryan

Jan. 23, 2020 | 7:30 p.m.

I have watched basketball for over 60 years through all the eras. First off, I admit there has probably never been any player like LeBron. Having said that I do NOT understand the lust relationship that sports writers have with him. He scores, he rebounds, he passes, he whines, he has NEVER committed a foul, he flops, he dribbles, he travels. Geez, Louise. Watch the recent game versus the Celtics for instance. Watch his face. Watch his moves OFF the ball. Watch his flops, his whines to the refs. I will NEVER support him for MVP for most of the things I have listed that he is good at. He comes to a team and drags another star along (Davis) and immediately they both become MVP candidates? How is that possible? I think the move to PG was a recognition of his inability to play the game as a mere contributor instead of a COACH ON THE FLOOR — which I think is his biggest flaw.

You all love/lust after LeBron. I think he’s a good ballplayer, but his impact on any one particular game is overrated.

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My response: I don’t get the disdain for LeBron’s game, Bryan. I really don’t. For a guy to be as effective as he’s been for as long as he has, even if you’re not a fan, I figure he’d have to have earned your respect by now. And yes, the Lakers lead the Western Conference on the strength of LeBron and AD as a dynamic duo. I think they both belong in the MVP conversation.

Zion’s debut raises eyebrows

From: B.J. Simpson

Jan. 24, 2020 | 12:28 a.m.

My friends and I have had a lot of fun watching this NBA season, especially due to how wide-open the league seemed, even if the true contenders have been slimmed down a bit. Being a Lakers fan, I really hope LeBron is going to win the MVP. (He’s prolly not, considering the amount of love the media has for Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is totally deserved.)

But after the events of last night, it has come to my attention that some of my friends truly believe something: Zion will be a contender for the MVP award. Now, he’s been out for half of the season, making him a hard bet for even the Rookie of the Year award. But MVP sounded outrageous to me. But then I started thinking: This was a player who has been doing outrageous stuff all throughout his life. He may have a 3-point shot now, and more importantly, he has the perfect storyline: Rookie comes back from injury to lead his team to playoffs. Hard to imagine, but yet, still possible. So here’s my question: what would it take in your opinion for Zion to win (or even be in your ladder) for MVP?

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My response: B.J., I was waiting on this email after Zion’s debut. Seriously, I was waiting on someone to dive in. You are right, he faces an uphill battle to get in on the Kia Rookie Ladder given the headstart the rest of the guys in his class have on him. And there’s no one on that list making a dent on the MVP Ladder anytime soon. That’s not to disrespect what the young guys are doing as Ja Morant and his Grizzlies have been balling. But in my humble opinion, Zion in the MVP conversation this season is just not a realistic option. And I’m here for all things Zion. But I’m not going there … not yet.

Leonard over Doncic, Harden makes no sense

From: Ethan

Jan. 24, 2020 | 12:23 p.m.

I follow your MVP Ladder and usually have no qualms with your picks. However, this week has really confused me. How can we put Kawhi over Luka and Harden? As the saying goes, the best ability is availability … and Kawhi has played six less games than Luka and eight less than Harden. These games are times when Luka and Harden have been leading their teams to wins in the Western Conference gauntlet. Independently, all the stats (regular, and advanced) show Doncic and Harden to be having more valuable season.

Maybe I put a little more weight into BPM and VORP/WS and other advanced statistics than you, but I really feel like you are using Leonard’s past playoff heroics to put him over players having superior statistical seasons. With all that being said, my top 5 are:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. Luka Doncic

4. James Harden

T-5. Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard

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My response: I’m going to make it simple, Ethan: Kawhi’s ability to dominate the game on both ends will not be compromised by his availability, or lack thereof. I think we’re being extremely shortsighted in our evaluation of him when we hold his “injury management” program against him. It has to be factored into the equation, no doubt. But not to the point where we ignore the obvious.

You almost had me …

From: Carson

Jan. 24, 2020 | 12:55 p.m.

I gotta admit, your Top 5 gets more and more convincing every week.

There are a number of players that someone could make a Top 3 case for, but I don’t see how ANYONE can justify not having Giannis at No. 1.

Sure, there may be a wide variety of criteria that can be used to determine the MVP, but Giannis checks off all the boxes! His offensive stats this season are phenomenal. He is one of the elite defenders in the league. He is on arguably the best team in the league, while simultaneously being the CLEAR best player on the team. Not to mention, he possesses tier-1 character and gives his full effort night in and night out.

When it comes to the MVP award, it shouldn’t matter how good a player is for how old they are or how young they are. If Giannis’ performance in the first half of the season holds true to the end, the decision should be unanimous. Anyway, here’s my Top 5:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. Luka Doncic

4. Kawhi Leonard

5. Tacko Fall

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My response: I was rocking with you Carson, right up until No. 5 … SMH!

LeBron over Giannis Part I …

From: Dylan Miller

Jan. 24, 2020 | 3:29 p.m.

Although Giannis has more wins and has LeBron beat in points, boards and blocks, LeBron is about to be No. 3 on the all-time scoring list. He clearly is a scorer and he leads the league in assists and he also has Giannis beat in triple-doubles. I think next week the list should be:

1. LeBron James

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

3. Luka Doncic

4. Jimmy Butler

5. Kawhi Leonard

LeBron over Giannis, Part II …

From: Preston Smith

Jan. 25, 2020 | 8:23 a.m.

LeBron James, I believe, is making just as good a case for MVP as Giannis. First of all, even though the Bucks have had a better record overall they’ve played easier teams. Second of all, behind AD and Danny Green, the Lakers just have mostly good role players. I was looking at plus/minus and LeBron still leads the league in real plus minus. He also assists or scores on 52 points a game for the Lakers. I think that not many other players in the league would be able to do that in their prime … especially not at 35. I think that LeBron deserves the MVP just as much as Giannis because they are both playing outstanding basketball. I just think LeBron deserves to be in the lead a little more than Giannis.

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My response: If it was a career milestone MVP, Dylan, we could cancel the race now and just give it to LeBron every season until he retires. No one will hit more milestones in the near future than LeBron. But Giannis isn’t giving up the hardware without a fight this season. Someone will have to turn up (as you youngsters say), Preston, in a major way down the stretch of the season to snatch the No. 1 spot. It’s not impossible. There’s plenty of time left for this race to go through some significant changes. It just won’t be easy with Giannis playing the way he’s played all season.

Consistency matters

From: Faizullah Faizullah

Jan. 27, 2020 | 9:23 a.m.

I been a constant viewer of your page, and I like the way you put things and give replies. I do agree with you with your list, but my doubt is so far Giannis is the fore runner and he had always been. Isn’t that dominance enough to show who the MVP is?

Most valuable player itself means the effect he is having from the very start to the end, and so far the only player to do it is LeBron. He had set backs when AD was having his streak, and Luka is been magnificent only after midseason or something. Harden is putting up incredible number but lacks wins. Kawhi doesn’t have the fuel to continue for long and he is lacks that consistency. So, that leaves us with the last top contender: Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is promising that consistency everyone lacks.

I’m always ready for your advice and correction. I’m a 17-year-old school-level players and not into as much technical things as you are in. I’m hoping to get a reply and anything’s expected — advice, correction or criticism. And, I am joining all of those mourning the great loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter. Rest in peace to all those in the tragic accident.

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My response: Thanks for emailing, Faizullah (check your inbox for a point-by-point response). We’ll end the mailbag this week with your final thought, which I think is one that is shared universally by folks around the globe. It has been a rough couple of days for the entire NBA family. And I’m sure Kobe’s family and all of the other families affected appreciate the prayers and love.

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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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