Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: This award chase is far from over

Fielding queries on Chris Paul, LeBron vs. Giannis, Russell Westbrook and more

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are both human. And LeBron James is officially the Benjamin Button of the NBA.

And yes, the chase for the Kia MVP this season is most definitely not over.

Did we learn anything else from the wild weekend tournament at Staples Center?

LeBron and his Lakers faced down a couple of demons that has led to a distinct change in the MVP conversation and the championship debate. If there was any uncertainty about LeBron and the Lakers being worthy of first mention on both fronts, that doubt vanished in a matter of eight dominating quarters from the Lakers.

They hadn’t beaten the Bucks or the Clippers before this weekend, so there is no denying the significance of those triumphs in Lakerland.

How these developments transform the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder will come into better focus in next Friday’s edition of the Ladder. And that’s after things were already tighter than you might think at the top.

Player(s) of the week: LeBron’s monster weekend (he outplayed Antetokounmpo and Leonard in back-to-back games) led the reigning Player of the Month to the Player of the Week podium for the Western Conference. Toronto’s Norman Powell, who has been on a tear of his own, is the Eastern Conference recipient. Don’t forget about the Raptors come playoff time. The reigning NBA champs could very well play spoiler in the postseason, at least in the East.

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Now, let’s get to your emails about the Kia MVP Ladder.

(Editor’s note: Portions of select questions have been condensed and edited).

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Where’s CP3?

From: Jerry White

March 9, 2020 | 6:35 a.m.

I have always thought the MVP award leaned heavily on a team’s success and a player’s contribution to that success. If this is true,where is Chris Paul?

OKC has had the 3rd best record in the league since the end of November and Paul is clearly the the only star on OKC. The Thunder are doing better this year than last even though they traded away Russell Westbrook — who is currently No. 10 in the MVP race this year — and Paul George (who finished third in the 2018-19 MVP voting). In effect, Paul has made up for both of their losses.

How are the following players ahead of Paul? Both Westbrook and Harden are on a team that is fading. Luka Doncic’s team has a poorer record than OKC and he has a better sidekick in Kristaps Porzingis. Neither Anthony Davis nor Khris Middleton has shown the ability to carry his team in their star’s absence. Damian Lillard’s team likely won’t make the playoffs (and he has a good sidekick). Jayson Tatum is probably the Celtics’ top player, but they need Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward for the team to run smoothly.

Rudy Gobert has a better teammate than Paul, but the Jazz do not look as good as OKC. Jimmy Butler has done a lot, but the Heat are not the team the Thunder are. And Nikola Jokic and Denver were expected to be a contender — nobody thought OKC would be doing as well as they are.

My MVP rankings:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo: He is both so good and makes his team so much better.

2. Kawhi Leonard: He’s had to carry the Clips for most of the year because George is just starting to regain his form.

3. Chris Paul: He has probably done more for his team than anybody but Giannis has done for theirs.

4. Jimmy Butler: Possibly rated too high, but Miami would be unlikely to reach the playoffs without him — let alone have a top four seed.

5. Luka Doncic: A key player, but the Mavs are about where they should be with Porzingis as a potent sidekick.

6. Nikola Jokic: The top player for the third-place team in the West.

7. Anthony Davis: He looks better than this, but his floor time without LeBron says he may be too high.

8. James Harden: His stats have always been better than Houston’s results. In the two previous years, his plus/minus rating was always lower than Paul’s was.

9. Jayson Tatum: Will be a top MVP contender with a little more experience.

10. Rudy Gobert: He’s the Jazz’s top player.

11. Pascal Siakam: He and Lowry, since Gasol is injured, are the top two for the East’s No. 2 team.

12. Khris Middleton: The No. 2 player on the league’s best team is a vital part of the Bucks’ success.

13. Kemba Walker: He replaced an All-Star and made all the other players in Boston so much better.

14. Russell Westbrook: Plays extremely hard and would be ranked higher except his lack of outside shooting hurts the offense.

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My response: This is extremely thorough and impressive work from you, Jerry. Your explanation for Paul at No. 4 on your list is valid. Outside of a handful of players, he’s been as impactful as one player could be in terms of changing the bottom line for his team. Whether or not that makes him any more or less valuable than some of the other superstars on the list is subject to interpretation. There is no doubt he belongs on the list, it’s a matter of where that is up for debate.

‘Old man James’

From: Jeremiah Dowd

March 9, 2020 | 12:22 a.m.

I have a question about one 35-year-old, 17-year NBA veteran and current No. 2 on your latest Ladder. After watching LeBron James lead his team past the Bucks and Clippers, what more does he need to do to be considered the MVP? I understand that Giannis Antetokounmpo is doing amazing things, but I believe that LeBron’s impact has been great in ways that I could’ve never imagined.

The plus-minus of when LeBron is on the floor versus when he is off is astonishing. On top of that, I’m not sure anybody expected LeBron to be the monster he has been this season after last season’s disaster. And with an all new team and coaching staff, I’m not sure anybody expected the Lakers to be so successful as quickly as they have been. So, for holding everything together (and excelling) in the face of lack of continuity, “old age”, and doubt from the outside, I believe that LeBron deserves to be the MVP.

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My response: If you watched that 35-year-old, 17-year NBA veteran over the weekend, you saw exactly what he needed to do. Not every voter will be swayed by one monstrous weekend, but I suspect there will be some who point to those events as the turning point in the race. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just pointing out that each voter brings their own values to the voting process. What resonates for some might not for others (and vice versa). But remember that weekend double in a few weeks when the ballots are due. I guarantee you plenty of voters will.

No narrative needed

From: Dennis

March 3, 2020 | 8:43 p.m.

That (last MVP Ladder) was hard to read, Sekou. I always thought there was too much narrative for LeBron, but this year he doesn’t need a narrative. He gives the Lakers just what they need night in and night out .As good as Davis has been throughout his career, it was Rondo who got him into the playoffs (in New Orleans). I could never see him leading a team and being an MVP of the league.

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My response: I’ve been saying it all season, Dennis. The narratives tend to take care of themselves over the course of an 82-game season. If a player operates at that consistently elite level and his team rides the wave with him, entry into the Kia MVP conversation usually follows.

Harden’s skill advantage

From: Charles Blalock

March 3, 2020 | 5:09 p.m.

What about “The Beard?” He is the best one-on-one player of all time and perhaps the best offensive player in history. Now he’s with Westbrook, who has been crazy ever since the the small-ball lineup started. Giannis is good because of his length, speed and athleticism, but Harden is more skilled.

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My response: I get the argument, Charles. Harden is an offensive machine, no doubt about it. There’s another side to the game that requires plenty of skill and effort as well. But we don’t seem to use that in calculating the MVP worthiness of some, which I think is a half-baked argument. There’s a scoring title for the man who scores the most points. That doesn’t make said player an automatic for MVP.

The time of this Bucks fan’s life

From: Jackson Straulin

March 3, 2020 | 3:48 p.m.

As a lifelong Bucks fan, I am of course having the time of my life this season watching them play at such a high caliber. Watching Giannis’ dominance on both ends of the floor and his growth throughout his career has been astounding to be a part of. My argument for why he should be over LeBron is multifaceted.

For starters, I believe that there is a little bit too much weight put on LeBron being in his 17th season and I don’t think that should weigh in to this season’s debate. Don’t get me wrong: I put LeBron second to Michael Jordan in career comparisons. But, him doing this in his 17th season has more to do with his amazing career and less to do with the race to be the MVP to his team. I also agree that the addition of Davis has helped the Lakers greatly this season, as Khris Middleton has done for the Bucks (but Middleton is no AD).

Yes, the Bucks still look like a top-tier team with Giannis off the floor, but the energy and confidence having Antetokounmpo on a team and what he has been able to do the past two seasons has a lot to do with that. I think Giannis has shown more dominance in nearly every facet of his game than LeBron this season and, at this point in the season, deserves the MVP more.

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My response: Bury the lead next time, Jackson, and your argument for Giannis telegraphed in a way that gives away your point. You don’t have to be a Bucks fans to make a case for Giannis. Just like you don’t have to be a fan of any one team to recognize the guys who are having the most outstanding seasons in the league. I do love the passion for your team. Don’t get me wrong: I completely understand it and know it has to be sweet to see your guy come from such humble basketball beginnings to now be talked about as one of the game’s greats. Whatever happens with the rest of the season, it’s already been a heck of a ride for the fans of “The Greek Freak”.

Factoring in the weak East

From: Vaughn Miller Jr

March 3, 2020 | 11:51 a.m.

Giannis and LeBron are very close in statistics so I think other factors should decide MVP, not stats. LeBron doesn’t average as many points or rebounds as Giannis because he splits those stats with Anthony Davis. Giannis doesn’t have anyone else take away touches or rebounds unless he needs them to. LeBron has found a way to let AD eat, get his own numbers, and lead the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in possibly the toughest conference in NBA history.

The Eastern Conference is so weak right now it’s not even funny. LeBron has recorded 30-point triple-doubles Denver and New Orleans and Giannis scores 40 and 20 in 35 minutes against Charlotte! New Orleans is not even a West playoff team, but they would be No. 7 in the East! Giannis plays bad teams twice as often as LeBron, and he gets to grab every rebound and shoot every shot without having to get anyone involved. The Lakers without LeBron would be No. 10 in the West. The Bucks without Giannis are a No. 4 or 5 seed in the East. Therefore, LeBron James is the MVP of the NBA.

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My response: I don’t know, Vaughn. The East doesn’t seem as weak as you (and many others) suggest. Six-deep is rather stout and I’ll grant you No. 7-15 are a bit tender right now. But this notion that which side of the league you play on should be a determining factor in the MVP race isn’t one I subscribe to. I should be able to make the case for whomever I think the winner should be without using that category.

Complaining to the wrong folks …

From: Anthony L

March 4, 2020 | 10:10 a.m.

I’m emailing to let you know that as a fan of the game of basketball, I thought that it was completely unfair that LeBron was given the February Player of the Month award over Russell Westbrook.

LeBron has been playing at a phenomenal level this season, but during the month of February, Westbrook was a notch higher in terms of how he was able to carry the Rockets to an 8-1 record. He averaged 33.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 54.9% and had a higher true shooting percentage than James. He also led the Rockets to an impressive win over the Lakers that month, which helps prove why he deserved the Player of the Month award.

I understand the media is infatuated with LeBron is trying to push this agenda that it’s a close race between LeBron and Giannis for MVP, but this isn’t the way to do it. Robbing Westbrook of a POTM when YOU KNOW he clearly deserved it over LeBron is absolutely WRONG. You don;t have to sabotage what other players are doing just to push a narrative about LeBron still being great in his 17th season. You have ignored the contributions of Anthony Davis just to prop up LeBron like he’s doing it all by himself and that is unfair. You have to put away your bias towards LeBron and do the right thing. I didn’t agree with Jayson Tatum winning the East Player of the Month over Antetokounmpo.

You and the rest of the media pundits are flat out wrong on this and its absolutely disgraceful. You’re not fooling fans with your bias and its making the people think more and more that the NBA is rigged. You robbed Westbrook of that award … there’s no integrity in the world of journalism and sports media anymore. SMH!

My response: The media has nothing to do with the Player of the Week award. Oh, the conspiracy theories never fade away … SMH!

‘The King should reign supreme’

From: Jay-R

March 4, 2020 | 10:35 a.m.

Hi I’m Jay-R from the Philippines. I love The Greek Freak — he is one of a kind, but The King should reign supreme this season.

The Greek Freak is young, long, strong and athletic. He’s in the prime of his physical gifts which he effectively translates to his stats and this is the time he should be dominating, statistically. He has an insane PER and all, but it is not everything. The Bucks have built organically and have come to their success piece by piece — not just because of Antetokounmpo. He is the centerpiece and the argument is that he is better now than his he was in his MVP season of 2018-19.

LeBron is on a different level — he’s in his own spectrum, honestly. He’s not as athletic as he once was, but his body of work made us forget he is getting old. He’s dominating with his skills not just athleticism, and that amazes me more. He’s just as unguardable as Giannis or any other superstar and he successfully hides his weakness with his skills. The Lakers are succeeding because he made them gel. Yes, he does have Anthony Davis alongside him, but take LeBron off the Lakers and they’d be more or less the Pelicans. LeBron is like the ECU of a car: what is the use of a 1000 horsepower engine without the ECU? Maybe a lot of people in the media is still having a greatness hangover, but if the narrative is Giannis’ season is better than his last one, what about that same narrative for LeBron?

In his 17th season, LeBron is leading the league in assists, has logged 13 triple-doubles and done all this with basically a new set of teammates. He’s made the Lakers look like they’ve been playing together for years and helped them to the second-best record in the NBA. Now, what narrative should we still want?

Here’s my MVP list:

1. LeBron James

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

3. Kawhi Leonard

4. Luka Doncic

5. James Harden

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My response: Your argument and list are fine, Nilo. LeBron is on a different level than we’ve ever seen a superstar this deep int his career. That’s impressive enough. I’m sure there are AD fans who would argue that he’s done as much for the Lakers this season and has actually been the key to LeBron operating at the level he has this season. I know better than to go there. Shout out to you and all the NBA fans in the Philippines … I know you all love the game with a passion.

More support for Davis

From: Neel Aggarwal

March 4, 2020 | 12 p.m.

I’m from India and I agree with your list, but my only concern is Anthony Davis. I’m not a Lakers fan, but his stats (26.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 3.2 apg) are quite good considering his PF position. The improvement in his game over the years as he joined the Lakers is also visible. The role he’s playing for his team is really crucial and the support that LeBron has been getting from Davis is kinda ignored. The duo is respected, but we often forget that AD is the one who has been a moral support for LeBron all along this season. Because of that, LeBron has been at the top of his game. Davis may not deserve one of the top three spots, but I think he definitely deserves to be in the top 5

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My response: As I mentioned to Jay-R above, I knew someone would make the AD argument. We have more empirical data to suggest that LeBron (historically and in the flesh) brings the winning edge in more ways than AD does. But strong arguments can be made for both guys this season. I’ve always been a believer that the player who shoulders the bulk of the shot and play creation responsibility tends to be the more valuable one, by virtue of what’s being asked of him.

That’s a wide gap, there

From: Emmett Dunn

March 4, 2020 | 11:30 p.m.

Let me start by saying this: has there ever been an MVP, nevermind a candidate, who hasn’t led his team in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, field goal percentage or 3-point percentage? LeBron is still a fantastic player, but to even consider him to be anywhere near Giannis right now is asinine. I really hope Antetokounmpo isn’t robbed of this award because of the narrative that is growing, and growing exponentially.

My ladder as of March 4:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo


2. James Harden

3. Kawhi Leonard

4. Anthony Davis

5. LeBron

6. Russell Westbrook

7. Nikola Jokic

8. Luka Doncic

9. Jayson Tatum

10. Damian Lillard

Seeing as LeBron just won Player of the Month over Westbrook, I’m starting to think it’s too late and that the league and media have already begun pushing him forward. I truly want to know why he is as high as he is for you, despite the fact Anthony Davis leads the Lakers in almost all major categories. Not trying to sound hateful at all BTW … I love your work.

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My response: I don’t know about the size of that gap between the top two guys, Emmett. In fact, I am sure it’s much closer than that and actually has been for quite some time. I’ve had conversations with some of my media brethren who feel like this race remains out of reach for anyone other than Giannis. I don’t agree with that. We have enough basketball left to play this season for gaps to be closed.

Age and the game

From: Kang Mufasared

March 7, 2020 | 5:05 p.m.

I’m writing to you again about LeBron James, this season’s MVP, and, in my opinion, the greatest player of all time. No player reflects the character of the game — team play — more than him.

The MVP race is between LeBron and Giannis — not Kawhi and LeBron — no matter what happens against the Clippers. LeBron clearly established in the game against the Bucks who the MVP is by winning the individual battle and the game itself, too. After watching Giannis physically abuse Davis, LeBron matched up against Giannis, which changed the look and feel of the whole game. Giannis still scored, but the physicality that we are accustomed to seeing from Giannis was matched by LeBron, thus lessening the impact of Antetokounmpo’s scoring.

LeBron outplayed him, outscored him and won the game. By doing so, LeBron snatched the MVP from Giannis. This attempt to remove age from the narrative of determining the MVP is hypocritical and nonsensical. Once you see a 35-year-old man in his 17th season outplay and defeat the reigning 25-year-old MVP you can’t act like you didn’t see it.

The MVP discussion has shifted. Those who say age doesn’t matter are lying to themselves. If you played basketball in any capacity, you know that you can’t at 35 do what you did at 25 because age matters. You have to work harder at 35 to play at an elite level than you do at 25. Giannis is doing what is expected given his skill set, and his age. LeBron however, at 35, is doing the unexpected.

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My response: Thanks for the detail, Kang, as context always helps. While I can see your argument for MVP this season, I’ll reserve a seat for you in our GOAT debate forum in the future. For the record, the age argument for LeBron makes sense. What he’s doing at 35 (and this deep in his career) is an amazing feat. That said, I don’t know if a player’s age (whether he’s 21 like Luka or 35 like LeBron) should be used to swing the vote one way or another.

Say his name!

From: Martin Cole

March 6, 2020 | 9:20 p.m.

You can’t be playing part of the time and be an MVP candidate, especially when you have morphed from the best two-way player to an offensive player. Getting up for the Lakers and giving up 120-plus points to lesser teams is not impressive. Also, when did Doc become an elite coach?

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My response: Thanks, Martin, and I assume you are speaking about Kawhi Leonard. As for Doc Rivers, he became an elite coach when he blended a remade Boston team — one that featured Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — and turned it into a 66-win juggernaut that won the title in their first season together. He’s been an elite coach ever since.

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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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