Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Nikola Jokic rounding back into form

Fielding your questions on Donovan Mitchell, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and more

Denver’s All-NBA center Nikola Jokic showed up at State Farm Arena Monday noticeably different from the man we saw at the start of training camp.

The svelte and determined Jokic on display against the Atlanta Hawks looks much more like the player many tout as the NBA’s best passing big man and a matchup nightmare who can control the action for his team without scoring at a high clip.

He did that, too, on Monday, finishing with a career-high 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in the Nuggets’ 123-115 win.

“Just the efficiency in which he does it: 16-25 (shooting overall), 4-8 from three, if he would’ve made some more foul shots he would have had his first 50-point game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “[I] just liked how aggressive he was. Obviously we force-fed him, tried to get him the ball in the post. He had it going, from all areas, from earlier on in the game so that was great to see. And the best part about it too, was that all his teammates were finding him.”

Malone is just happy to see Jokic get back to what made him so effective last season, when Denver earned the No. 2 seed in the West before losing Game 7 of the conference semifinals at home to Portland.

Jokic, of course, is working in the moment … especially after Denver was humbled in Washington on Saturday.

“I like the win for us more because we are kind of inconsistent right now, and I think that winning is more important than my career high,” he said. “So, I was aggressive, I was making shots, and I scored a lot, but I think that the win is more important.”

Jokic’s unselfish nature sometimes makes him a reluctant scorer on a Nuggets team that has plenty of other scoring options. (Will Barton smoked Atlanta for a season-high 28 on his 29th birthday, improving Denver to 21-4 when he has 13 or more points.)

The Hawks tried to bait Jokic into taking shots that he missed the first time they played, a 125-121 loss on Nov. 12 when Jokic shot 7-for-19.

He didn’t need a push from Malone or his teammates the second time around.

“You know what’s funny? I don’t think you have to tell Nikola that,” Malone said. “Honestly, you could see early on that Alex Len, they were kind of giving him ‘dare shots’ and they dared him to 47 (points).

“That’s not a knock on them. First time against them, they let him shoot those shots and he wasn’t making them. Tonight, he was and that was a big reason we were able to pull this one out.”

If the Nuggets hope to recapture last season’s magic, they’ll need more yeoman-like work from Jokic. They’ll need more of what they got against an Atlanta team that had no answers for this slimmer, trimmer and much more aggressive version of “The Joker.”

Odds and ends: Devin Booker’s improvement in his fifth NBA season has been evident, even if the Suns’ record hasn’t reflected his gains. Booker has become more of a complete player without sacrificing any of the scoring prowess that has made him one of the league’s toughest covers. He broke a franchise record in a loss to Memphis Sunday, becoming the first player in franchise history to record six consecutive games of 30 or more points. Charles Barkley and Charlie Scott shared the previous mark … Keep an eye on Markelle Fultz in Orlando. The former No. 1 overall pick appears to have found his game again. He scored a career-high 25 points to lead the Magic past Brooklyn Monday, their third win in four games. Fultz has started 15 of the 19 games he’s played in and is averaging a career-best 26.4 minutes. While points and assists are usually the most pertinent numbers for point guards, playing time is the focus for Fultz … Good luck figuring out what’s going on with the Philadelphia 76ers these days, even after they snapped a four-game losing streak with Monday’s win over Oklahoma City. There’s chatter from everywhere, which makes it hard to know who is directing their comments where. Joel Embiid had his say in the finger pointing (before that nasty dislocation Monday night), and Al Horford, Josh Richardson and coach Brett Brown have all weighed in, too. The one guy who hasn’t had much to say is Ben Simmons, the presumed target of much of the scrutiny … Yes, those were “M-V-P” chants you heard in Washington Monday for Wizards backup point guard Ish Smith (technically no relation, but we’re always open to new members of the family). For the second straight game, Smith led the Wizards’ bench mob as they pulled of an upset. This time, they beat the a Celtics squad playing its third straight game without All-Star point guard Kemba Walker. Smith dropped 27 on the Celtics and 32 on Denver Saturday. Over the past two games, Washington’s bench has outscored foes 141-55.

Journey into Luka-land: Just a quick reminder that Luka Doncic does things that apparently only Luka Doncic does. The Mavericks star picked up his league-leading 11th triple-double of the season in Monday’s win over Chicago. He has nine 30-point triple-doubles this season. The rest of the league combined has eight. His 19 (and counting) career triple-doubles — all of which have come before turning 21 — is more than Magic Johnson (7) and LeBron James (5) combined. How many more will Doncic pile up before he turns 21 on Feb. 28?

Players of the Week: The committee didn’t have to deliberate over its selections this week, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are no-brainers. They’ve both been at their wicked best from the start of the season and started 2020 in style. Forget their individual numbers (which are outstanding, of course). Look instead at the numbers both of them are focused on: wins and losses. The Bucks (32-6) and Lakers (29-7) are locked in a season-long chase for the NBA’s top record and the home-court advantage throughout The Finals that comes with it. That’s a real prize.

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

Why LeBron deserves MVP

From: Zaya

Jan. 5, 2020 | 2:07 a.m.

I want to confidently vote LeBron James for 2019 MVP. This is because he is now at 35 years old and has played 17 seasons whilst always being contested by high-level fellow candidates. Although I know the rest of the guys are all outstanding players, however, they’re all too young and lacking experience. They are not qualified enough this time and don’t make the cut simply because they don’t match the basketball mindset LeBron has.

For the last 25 years I’ve been playing, watching, and analyzing basketball players. I have always thought that LeBron was a star player that was ahead of the game, and I have no doubt that he is worthy of 2019 MVP.

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My response: Happy New Year, Zaya. As you might already be aware, you are not the first person to correspond here in support of LeBron James. It is an outstanding group of MVP candidates we’re working with this season. And given the injuries to regulars — such as two-time Kia MVP Stephen Curry and fellow Kia MVP Kevin Durant — it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see guys like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and others join the party. But LeBron rejoining the top group after an injury-plagued 2018-19 season should have been expected.

Rhetoric keeping Harden down?

From: Doreynoldstx

Jan. 1, 2020 | 5:31 p.m.

I have to laugh at all the idiotic rhetoric used against Harden in this list. “Abusing the power of free throws” … LOL. Giannis is averaging more free throws per drive! Take away Harden’s free throws and he still is the scoring leader. I’m tired of this stuff you media shills spin.

He’s the best player in the NBA and it’s laughable it’s even close to you guys. He’s averaging more points per game since Wilt Chamberlain on incredible efficiency! His field goal percentage was low to kick off the season, but has been scorching since — despite being full-on double teamed every game. The media is missing out on the best player since Michael Jordan because it’s cool to spew garbage non-facts. Stop hating the best. The only reason he doesn’t have rings right now is because of the legendary stacked Warriors teams.

Remove your blinders and do some actual fact-searching. Nobody is touching Harden this year — and he’s also playing respectable defense, too.

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My response: I don’t think it’s the rhetoric being used against Harden that is behind the backlash you are talking about. And we “media shills” are not united in our belief that there are others who are more worthy of the Kia MVP hardware based on anyone’s rhetoric. Harden’s greatest successes (his MVP, leading the Rockets to the best record in the league and the West finals two years ago) have all been tempered by the fact that he’s seemed to come up short at the end of those seasons. You can debate it all you want, blame whoever you’d like and cry foul forever. But the facts are the facts. And as good as Harden is and has been, your assertion that he’s the “best player since Jordan” is a statement I’m sure plenty of folks would love to debate you on.

MVP voting? It ain’t easy

From: Hollis Pettway

Dec. 31, 2019 | 10:19 p.m.

My issue is the non-specific nature of the MVP award. The criteria is so subjective that it’s hard, as a fan, to be satisfied with the result most of the time. Harden should be going for his second or third MVP right now. The process is more frustrating than satisfying. Such a prestigious award should have more clearly defined guidelines for the voters, who are often all over the place when expressing the reasons for their choice. What are your thoughts / explanation?

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My response: You nailed it, Hollis. The biggest frustration for voters such as myself and many of my fellow voters is that we don’t have a set criteria to use as an evaluation tool or guideline. We’re all coming from different value sets to try and come up with the right choice. No one’s viewpoint is wrong necessarily, but each of our definitions for what constitutes a true MVP is going to be wildly different when you are talking about a constituency of 120 or so voters. For the most part I think we get it right. How we get there, though, remains the murkiest part of the process. Thanks for bringing up such a salient point.

Title dreams in Milwaukee

From: Happy

Jan. 1, 2020 | 1:50 p.m.

It is going to be hard this season to determine which player is gonna win MVP this year. Luka Doncic is putting up crazy numbers every night. James Harden is practically putting up 40-plus points a night. And Giannis leading the Bucks to the No. 1 seed the East. Here is my list for MVP:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Luka Doncic

3. James Harden

4. LeBron James

5. Anthony Davis

6. Jimmy Butler

7. Pascal Siakam

8. Nikola Jokic

9. Kemba Walker

10. Donovan Mitchell

Lastly, do you think the Bucks could pull off winning the championship this year?

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My response: Solid list, Happy. And yes, the Bucks absolutely could win it all this season. The Raptors showed us last season that a team with a single superstar (Kawhi Leonard) and a supporting cast cooking at the right time can get there and do the unthinkable. You need a willing dance partner in The Finals, too. The Warriors literally crumbling under the weight of five straight Finals trips certainly worked in the Raptors’ favor.

In the prime of their lives

From: Noam Eber

Jan. 1, 2020 | 11:56 a.m.

I get that you want to praise LeBron for how good he is playing at his age. But the MVP is the best player — not the player that is doing the best for their age or height. You also have completely disrespected Harden, too.

I like most of your lists, but I think you sometimes over-highlight rising stars for public opinion and you overlook those who are actually in their prime. I think you should probably swap Harden and LeBron and your list would be good. I also think you need to look at people who are good — not those who have potential or are good for their age.

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My response: I hear you, Noam. The top group can get a bit stagnant. But there’s a reason for that; those are the best players, the guys who do it night in and night out. It’s difficult to crack into that top group of candidates because not everyone is as consistently great. I say it all the time, people don’t have an adequate appreciation for just how difficult it is to play at an elite level over a sustained period of time, let alone year after year. Ask some of the players who flash, guys who have a good five or six game stretch but cannot consistently perform at the highest level. There are levels to this stuff.

A LeBron vs. Davis argument

From: David Rosen

Jan. 1, 2020 | 11:31 a.m.

I am a big fan of your MVP ladders. My only concern is that this week you put LeBron at No. 5. He is the anchor of the team and he orchestrates the Lakers’ offense. Then, you have Anthony Davis at No. 4 … I don’t believe AD is doing more than LeBron to have him ahead of him in the rankings.

Here is my ladder:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. James Harden

4. Luka Doncic

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Kemba Walker

7. Anthony Davis

8. Kawhi Leonard

9. Paul George

10. Domantas Sabonis

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My response: David, I’m not going to argue the AD/LeBron issue, not after looking at your list. It’s obvious there is little that could be done to change your mind. In fact, given the number of players you have ranked ahead of Davis, there’s little that anyone could say or do to convince you otherwise. I believe Davis and LeBron belong in the top tier of candidates. The Lakers’ overall success with those two superstars is at the center of everything they do. I’ll continue to let their results prove the point.

LeBron continues to amaze

From: Trace Edinborough

Dec. 31, 2019 | 1:26 p.m.

Good afternoon. Firstly, season’s greetings and a prosperous New Year to you and yours.

Just a quick comment pertaining to the current and ongoing NBA MVP discussion. (As a disclaimer, I am a huge LeBron fan for both his efforts on and off the court.)

I firmly believe that at this stage in the season, LeBron should the leading candidate for MVP. Firstly, although he is playing with AD, his “team” is basically brand new without a legitimate third opinion. He has become their point guard and his defense is significantly better this year. The Lakers are No. 1 in the Western Conference and many reporters (including you) have always factored the importance of the leading team in the West when considering the MVP.

Equally important, what he is doing at this stage of his career is simply amazing. LeBron’s team with its current roster needs him more than they perhaps realize.

I am not taking anything away from Giannis and James Harden, but what LeBron is doing — and if it continues — should solidify his selection as the MVP.

I would also like to note that he has been robbed in previous years. Thus, I hope writers truly give this man a fair and reasonable chance on this year’s MVP selection.

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My response: Not a whole lot to argue with there, Trace. I can imagine there are others who would love to debate you point for point. Some people love a good fight above all else. I’m about peace this year and not arguing for the sake of arguing. I’ll let the community speak on it …

I think someone is missing

From: Bas Ali

Dec. 31, 2019 | 6:20 p.m.

Hold the heck up! Here is my MVP Ladder

1.LeBron James

2.Luka Doncic

3.Giannis Antetokounmpo

4.Anthony Davis

5. Jimmy Butler

6. Kawhi Leonard

7. Kemba Walker

8. Paul George

9. Joel Embiid

10. Chris Paul

I didn’t put Harden in it because he travels and flops and the refs don’t care.

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My response: Short and sweet, huh? Back at you, Ali.

What’s in a name?

From: Christopher Habrelewicz

Dec. 31, 2019 | 7:25 p.m.

This is Christopher Habrelewicz (known as Madness With A Twist on YouTube) and I feel as if most people are overrating some of these players on this list and not giving others their just due. My MVP list would be as follows:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Anthony Davis

3. Luka Doncic

4. James Harden

5. Kawhi Leonard

6. LeBron James

7. Paul George

8. Nikola Jokic

9. Jimmy Butler

10. Jayson Tatum

Honestly, this ranking is based on everyone being healthy and playing how they currently are. Giannis is unstoppable and a monster. Anthony Davis deserves more love based on how improved his stats are becoming by being on a playoff-caliber roster. Luka is having an incredible sophomore season, despite most players during their second year going through a sophomore slump. James Harden’s numbers are incredible … and also kinda overrated based on the fact of him getting to the free-throw line so much.

Kawhi Leonard should be top 5 for his great defense and incredible efficiency. LeBron is deserving of No. 6 because AD is making him the best passer so far in the league. Paul George was an MVP candidate last season and is doing great on this Clippers team alongside Kawhi. Jokic is highly underrated and on this Denver Nuggets team, they might be heading for a better record than last season. Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum are also under the radar a lot because of their numbers and media coverage, but Jayson especially deserves his fair share of the credit for how well he has come into his playing style this year.

Any thoughts on this list? It would be greatly appreciated if you can do so.

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My response: Great nickname, MWAT (we need a shorter nickname or at least an acronym). Excellent breakdown on who you have where and why. You didn’t seem to struggle with the one thing that I do every week, which is trying to weigh the contributions of stars on the same team. You went with the same set of teammates in your top 10 that I have in my top 15. Some people would argue that it’s too much. However, I tend to agree with you, particularly with the pair we are talking about (LeBron and AD, Kawhi and PG). You went with Tatum and I’ve got Kemba Walker on my list. I don’t see much to quibble with otherwise. Each of us is allowed to bring our own set of values to the process and you did that.

Stumping for Mitchell

From: Justin Gabriel Wibisono

Jan. 4, 2020 | 12:19 a.m.

My name is Justin and I am a big fan of your articles here in Indonesia. I want to express my thanks to you for the amazing work you’ve done with your interesting writings.

First, I want to say that I am a Donovan Mitchell (and Utah Jazz) fan. That being said, I’m so excited to see my man Donovan climb your ladder in the last few weeks. However, finishing outside the top 5, I think, won’t show the full potential he has. What do you think Mitchell has to do to climb to that top five spot?

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My response: Thanks for the email, Justin. And shout out to you and all the NBA fans in Indonesia. Donovan always seems to turn it on the second half of the regular season (same as the Jazz the past couple seasons), so it remains to be seen how he’ll handle the next few critical weeks. He’s certainly in that MVP mix and there is still a pretty big group of guys who can legitimately make that claim. We’ll know more about who is legit as we get closer to All-Star weekend next month.

Time to do the right thing

From: Dylan Miller

Jan. 1, 2020 | 3:31 p.m.

I feel you can make a case for LeBron ahead of any of the top 5. For example:

Anthony Davis: LeBron has been the best player and most valuable player on the Lakers. He passes, he scores, he rebounds, he plays defense, he leads in assists and is still averaging 25 points per game. I feel that’s better than Davis averaging 27 points, nine rebounds and playing defense.

James Harden: I feel all Harden does is score. He doesn’t pass he, he doesn’t get his teammates involved and he doesn’t play defense. Last year, no one produced for him so he got away with not passing. But now, he has Westbrook. LeBron gets Davis, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and other guys involved while still scoring and playing defense. And, he is the best player on the No. 1 team in the West.

Luka Doncic: LeBron is the focal point of a team with more than one star. He is the best player on the West’s best team. Luka, who is the best player on his team, doesn’t have another star to give him competition. Plus, the Mavs aren’t as good as the Lakers. Luka and LeBron have similar stats, but these separate them in my opinion. Voters put Harden over LeBron for the MVP because Harden won more.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I feel like it is Giannis vs. LeBron this year for the MVP … it’s very similar to LeBron vs. Harden in 2018. They’re both putting up strong numbers and both teams are winning. I know Giannis is winning more, so this case is weaker and would lead to LeBron being No. 2.

Here’s my top 5:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. LeBron James

3. Luka Doncic

4. James Harden

5. Anthony Davis

Do the right thing this week and put LeBron at No. 2.

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My response: I’m going to take your advice, Dylan, and do my best to do the right thing on the next Kia Race to the MVP Ladder (Friday in this same space). That same case you claim can be made for LeBron over anyone in the top five is the same case I could make for each and every guy. We can bend the numbers and narrative all we want. The fact that the same five guys are mentioned most often is an indicator that the race is coming into focus as the season goes on. The more season we chew up, the easier it is to identify the strongest candidates. I still think we need another month or so to see who of this current group can keep up the pace. but we’re close … so close.

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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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