Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder mailbag: Endorsement season gets rolling in award chase

Fielding queries on Jayson Tatum, Anthony Davis and more

Now that we’re in the thick of campaign season, it should surprise no one when endorsements start rolling in for the frontrunners for the 2019-20 Kia MVP.

It need not be a solicited endorsement, either. Not in this social-media age where a viral clip does as much as (and, often, more than) any words about someone playing at that next level.

Given how Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Russell Westbrook and others are performing down the stretch of 2019-20, we should expect to hear all sorts of arguments made on behalf of the guys vying for space on ballots.

New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry kicked it off over the weekend, after LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers held off a charge from Zion Williamson and his crew at Smoothie King Center.

“I’m just amazed that they talk about anybody other than him for MVP,” Gentry told reporters after LeBron collected his 13th triple-double of the season in the win. “That’s what he does. Every team that he’s been to, every team that he’s gone have a chance to win the championship. To me, I’m not sure what the definition of MVP is, but he makes everyone on his team better, makes it difficult for everybody playing him.”

We’ve heard testimonials all season about the payers filling our the ranks of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, including these 21st birthday shout outs to Doncic last week.

Don’t get caught off guard when the hype train for a particular player cranks up. Just remember, it’s a part of the process.

Don’t hate … Appreciate (like Jared Dudley): Find teammates who appreciate you the way Lakers veteran Jared Dudley does LeBron.

Players of the week: Antetokounmpo and Dallas big man Kristaps Porzingis claimed Player of the Week honors in their respective conferences. “The Greek Freak’s” season-long grind has been well documented. Porzingis had an uneven start to 2019-20, but has gone to another level recently. He’s giving the Mavericks a second matchup nightmare to throw at defenses alongside Doncic and seems to just be getting started.

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

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Concern for Giannis from … Giannis?

From: Giannis

March 2, 2020 | 11:25 a.m.

My name is also Giannis and I am from Greece too! As you can imagine I am a big fan of Anteto…(we call him that for short.)

I have watched every single game of the Bucks since Giannis entered the team and I must say this has been quite a ride so far. I do understand the passion of others towards their own star (Harden, Doncic, LeBron, etc.), but as you have said before: no one affects the game on both sides like Giannis does. What I see in Giannis is a strong will to be the best!

He has struggled a lot in his life and now that he has reached the top, he did not let fame or money get in his brain. We have seen many others do the exact opposite when they reached his level of wealth and fame. I think this year they must win the championship or at least get to The Finals in order for him to stay in Milwaukee.

My honest opinion is that, unfortunately, Giannis is not ready for the playoff intensity and that his jumper will, once again, be an issue. The only thing that might give Milwaukee the championship will be a critical shooting from the rest of the team come playoff time.

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My response: I appreciate your honesty and concerns, Giannis. They are warranted, mostly because we have yet to see Giannis and the Bucks make that breakthrough run in the postseason that would match the success they’ve enjoyed during these past two regular seasons. I will, however, respectfully disagree with your assessment that Antetokounmpo isn’t ready for the playoff intensity. I’d argue that he’s finally ready, particularly after what the Bucks went through against Toronto in the 2019 conference finals. Time will tell, of course.

Plenty of respect for Middleton

From: Stephen Horn

Feb. 25, 2020 | 8:03 p.m.

Averaging 21 ppg, 6 rpg and 4 apg on 51%/43%/91% shooting splits at almost exactly 30 minutes a game! No, I don’t think Khris Middleton is better than Giannis, but he’s a top-five MVP candidate no question! Why do you think he gets absolutely no love for this?

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My response: Middleton gets plenty of love, Stephen. He’s a two-time All-Star and the second best player on the NBA’s best (regular-season) team for the second straight season. He’s a max player and is well respected throughout the league. But a top five MVP candidate?That’s pushing it, don’t you think?

LeBron on top of the Ladder

From: Jumel

Feb. 25, 2020 | 8:16 p.m.

I love your list, but I think LeBron should be No. 1. Have you seen the Lakers without him on the floor? Even without Giannis playing great, the Bucks still overcame Bradley Beal’s 50-point game. LeBron steps off the court for 2 minutes and the Lakers forget how to play.

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My response: The separation between Giannis and LeBron is as razor thin as it’s been all season. They’re both playing to their zenith in their respective situations. Any argument for LeBron to top your personal MVP list is valid. There’s still enough of the regular season for LeBron or someone else in the top five to make a serious push to catch and pass Giannis. Doing it is another story. But the opportunity remains.

MVP is more than just a scoring champ

From: Da Ta

Feb. 25, 2020 | 6:45 p.m.

To be an MVP, does the player only need to score as much as they can? Or do they also need to get more rebounds and assists? My favorite player is LeBron James, who always tries to pass the ball.

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My response: Great question. And yes, the Kia MVP needs to be so much more than just the guy who scores the most points. Not that scoring should be devalued in anyone’s evaluation what makes a worthy MVP candidate. But it’s only part of the game, an extremely important part of the game, of course. But far from the only one. They give out a trophy for the scoring champion every year. It’s not the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Attacking the narrative

From: Brandon Cole

Feb. 25, 2020 | 6:22 p.m.

Anthony Davis leads the Lakers in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, PER and other categories. But, of course, Sekou being Sekou, you somehow manage to make LeBron an MVP front runner when he is not even the best player on his own team. You manage to make LeBron an MVP front runner when he has another Top 5 player on his stacked team yet again, but you wouldn’t afford those same luxuries to Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant and penalized them for joining forces.

You move the goalpost for LeBron every year in order to keep him in the running. Since when did “being in year 17” and “35 years old” have anything to do with being the MVP? And I GUARANTEE you, that if the roles were reversed, and LeBron led the Lakers in virtually EVERY STAT and metric, and AD led the NBA in REBOUNDS, you would not even attempt to make an argument for AD being the MVP. You would make sure to force the narrative that Lebron is “carrying” the Lakers by leading them in basically every category. You have GOT to have more journalistic integrity, Sekou. It’s disgusting to watch.

This is the media “groupie” stuff that KD was talking about when it comes to the toxicity surrounding LeBron. It’s a disgrace that AD’s tremendous season is being set aside as a footnote, just so you can push the LeBron narrative.

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My response: That fantasyland you live in where the media drinks the LeBron Kool-Aid every day and carries out the mission to create this narrative that he’s a leading MVP candidate seems like a scary place. To let you tell it, LeBron’s the one who’s been riding coattails and we’ve all just dreamed up the last 16-plus seasons of his career. LeBron’s successes, failures, accomplishments, deficiencies, milestones and missteps have all been carefully chronicled since he was 16 years old. He doesn’t need an assist from me or anyone else. So you’re disappointment is aimed in the wrong direction. It’s funny: whenever folks don’t get it their way, they want to blame the media and the narrative. It’s weak, Brandon, especially coming from someone who says you played overseas like you have.

Down to the wire

From: Elijah Henein

Feb. 26, 2020 | 9:35 a.m.

I don’t have many complaints about your list this week, but after watching LeBron tear through the Pelicans almost single-handedly I believe that he should be at the top. LeBron has lead the league in assists all season and has showed how he can make everyone around him better, but last night he dominated like it was 2009! He showed his insane athleticism in year 17 of his career and got the dub.

The scariest thing about this is it’s not even the playoffs yet. Don’t get me wrong: Giannis is one of the most elite players I’ve ever seen, and he is the core of the historic season the Bucks are having. But the Lakers are not far behind and my opinion is that the Bucks have a better team around their two All-Stars then the Lakers do. But that’s just my opinion. With that being said, I think it’s gonna go right down to the wire between LeBron and Giannis this season as the best two players with the best two teams.

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My response: I agreee, Elijah, this race is going down to the wire. Both Giannis and LeBron are putting on the show you’d expect from the top two candidates. But the field is going hard down the stretch, too. This race is deeper than we’ve seen in recent seasons and again, should stay interesting right up until the final night of the regular season.

What about Tatum?

From: Ernesto Marquez

Feb. 26, 2020 | 9:31 a.m.

What do you think about Jayson Tatum?

He improved a lot and is having the best season of his young career. His scoring average is up almost 5 ppg (in only three more minutes per game), he’s taking about seven 3-pointers a game and shooting around 40% from deep. Not only that, but he doesn’t disappear in clutch moments and is leading Boston in clutch stats, improving his accuracy in field goals and 3-pointers in those moments.

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My response: Tatum has been on a tear recently, Ernesto, and that’s been reflected in his rise up the ranks on the Ladder. The Celtics took a while to sort out roles with the addition of Kemba Walker, so Tatum didn’t really get into a groove until we were already deep into this season. But if this is his new normal, I have a feeling he’ll be a regular on the Kia Race to the MVP for Ladder for years to come.

More Tatum love

From: GP

Feb. 26, 2020 | 9:49 a.m.

I appreciate your responsiveness and transparency as it relates to your MVP Ladder. With that said, I’m looking forward to seeing how high you have Tatum climbing on the proverbial ladder. Since his All-Star selection, he’s been basically unstoppable and was the hands down best player on the court against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Anthony Davis (all of whom were previously in your Top 5 at some point).

Prior to the All-Star break, Tatum gave Leonard a dose of his own medicine: locking him down defensively while scoring at will against him and the Clippers in a double-overtime instant classic. Following his 41-point masterpiece in the Staples Center on Sunday — and paying respects to his mentor, Kobe Bryant, on Monday — Tatum barely broke a sweat while dropping 36 points on a career high 8-for-12 shooting night on 3-pointer vs. Portland. In the loss to the Lakers, they had to trap him 25 feet from the basket to slow him down. While Walker has been sidelined with an injury, Tatum has put the Celtics on his shoulders during their post-All-Star break, West Coast trip. Accordingly, I look forward to seeing you and the media show Tatum some of that MVP love that he rightfully deserves.

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My response: Tatum is delivering on all of that talent we saw from him as a rookie in the 2018 playoffs, GP. Tatum has got everything you want in an offensive catalyst as well as the size and athleticism to play four positions. The fact that he works on both ends at this early stage of his career is yet another reason why folks around the league feel like he’s legitimate MVP candidate for years to come.

A two-man race?

From: Tommy LaVine

Feb. 26, 2020 | 8 p.m.

After LeBron’s 40-point spectacle and Giannis going for 19 and 19, it has become crystal clear who the top two MVP finishers this year will be. The thing to me that really gives LeBron the edge — statistics aside in a neck-and-neck race — is just how genuinely good the Lakers’ roster has looked compared to last year’s disaster. I The addition of a talent like AD makes everything easier for everyone. But anyone who consistently watches the Lakers can tell that LeBron is by far the reason. This is the best version of his floor-general self that we have ever seen. Passes are always crisp and on point and his energizing highlight plays are the reason Lakers faithful have a reason to look forward to playoffs again.

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My response: I think it’s still more a of crowd right now than just a two-man race, Tommy. But Giannis and LeBron are clearly at the front of the pack. It’s about finishing now. Who goes hard until the very end. And that’s a good thing for all of us.

Some thoughts on double standards

From: Jennifer Kanaski

Feb. 29, 2020 | 7 p.m.

While Durant and Curry played together on the Warriors, the analysts all said that neither could ever win MVP while playing together. Both Harden and Westbrook are more recent MVPs, but this has not been said once in regards to them. Everyone loves to play both sides of the fence and say the Warriors were a championship team before Durant so it’s unfair (and that they needed Durant to win). The Rockets made it quite clear that they felt they were robbed of a championship, making them a championship-caliber team before Westbrook arrived. Whether a player goes somewhere in free agency or is traded, why are the situations clearly viewed differently?

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My response: I was not one of those analysts who felt like Steph and KD canceled one another out. They were both regulars on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder while they played together with the Warriors. We’re in an era of dynamic duos and if Steph and KD were still together and healthy, they’d be right in the MVP mix. In defense of all my fellow analysts, we’ve had to recalculate some things in order to make the proper evaluations on what we’re seeing now. Thanks for raising a very good point, though.

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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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