Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: LeBron James, Kevin Durant not about to fade in chase

Week 11: Pair of past MVPs creeping up on James Harden's lofty perch

The two-man race that became the case for the Kia MVP last season — when Russell Westbrook outpaced James Harden at the finish — appears to be a bit more crowded as this NBA season crosses over from calendar year 2017 to 2018.

Harden and Russell remain in the mix, the former at the top of the final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of 2017 and the latter just outside of the top five. This time a year ago, the former Thunder teammates had already created some space between themselves and the rest of the field.

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But there are two other familiar faces that could provide the real intrigue moving forward. Four-time Kia MVP LeBron James and 2014 Kia MVP Kevin Durant are tied at No. 2 this week and coming off yet another Durant win in their ongoing head-to-head battles in the Golden State Warriors’ Christmas Day win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

For anyone keeping score, that’s a 6-2 head-to-head edge in games to Durant, The Finals included, since he joined the Warriors.

LeBron isn’t ready to pass any torch to Durant, Harden, Westbrook (No. 6 this week), teammate-turned-foe Kyrie Irving (No. 4), Central Division rival Giannis Antetokounmpo (No. 5) or anyone else. His performance in the months leading up to his 33rd birthday (Saturday) have shown him to be anything but willing to cede his position as the “best player on the planet.”

Both he and Durant will welcome their All-Star point guards to the mix in the coming days, adding yet another layer to this evolving story as Isaiah Thomas makes his Cavaliers debut and Curry comes back from a sprained ankle that has sidelined him since Dec. 6.

We already know what the Durant-Curry dynamic looks like … it’s championship-level great. LeBron and Thomas have their chemistry to work on and develop, but the expectation is that eventually they will function much like LeBron and Kyrie did during their three seasons together.

That means the 2018 portion of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder should deliver plenty of twists and turns between now and mid-April, when we could all witness a much more crowded photo finish for the crown.

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The top five in the Week 11 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 32.4 points, 9.2 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Harden must have gotten his dates mixed up this year. Christmas was Monday, on the 25th like always. But Harden was still giving away presents Thursday night in Boston. His two offensive fouls in the final seven seconds of a game the Rockets led by 26 points will go down as one of the strangest finishes of the season to date (Boston’s Dec. 18 win in Indiana, courtesy of a Terry Rozier steal and dunk in the finals second, is an extremely close second). Harden’s 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds were wasted in a game the Rockets simply could not put away, due in large part to the final two of Harden’s eight giveaways. The Rockets have now lost four straight, despite Harden’s 41.2 points, 10.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game during that stretch. They are clearly on the other side of the hoops karma that saw them win 14 straight prior to this current tailspin. And you know John Wall and Bradley Beal can’t wait to take their shots at them tonight at Capital One Arena (7 ET, NBA TV).

T-2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 26.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists

Durant’s ride without Stephen Curry healthy and in uniform is coming to an end, the Warriors have targeted Saturday’s game vs. Memphis as his return from his ankle injury. That means tonight’s game against Charlotte at Oracle Arena (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass) could be the last reminder of what Durant can do as the anchor for this team since Curry went down on Dec. 6. That 10-game sample for Durant — 29.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists per game and a game-changing 3.1 blocks per game — could wind up being the strongest evidence yet that he is deserving of the top spot on this list. As much fun as it has been watching Durant go off like this, it is easy to forget how good these Warriors are as individuals sometimes. Warriors coach Steve Kerr surely wants to see his bunch back at full strength.

T-2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 27.8 points, 9.3 assists, 8.2 rebounds

LeBron’s 33rd birthday week didn’t start the way he wanted. Back-to-back losses to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas followed by a rough outing (he did record a triple-double — but shot just 6-for-17 from the floor) in a loss at Sacramento Wednesday. LeBron will get a chance to get his groove back on his birthday Saturday night in Utah (8 ET, NBA League Pass). And after suffering back-to-back losses for the first time since Nov. 1, you better believe he will try to blow out the candles on the Jazz with a signature performance. He’ll get some relief in the near future with All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas getting closer to make his Cavaliers debut. Then, and only then, will we know exactly how that dynamic between the two stars will work this season. If LeBron can maintain his December production — 27.4 points, 10.6 assists and 8.2 rebounds — things will be just fine for the Cavaliers in 2018.

4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 24.6 points, 5.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds

Maybe there is just a little of that early-season magic left in these Celtics after all. Irving helped the home team battle back from a 26-point deficit Thursday night to steal one from James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Irving’s 26 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals proved crucial for a Celtics team desperate to piece together back-to-back wins (they won on the road in Charlotte Wednesday) after humbled a bit lately. Irving’s leadership has also been huge for the young Celtics, who have reclaimed the Eastern Conference’s top spot. He’s going to finish off a wild 2017 with a new team, new responsibilities as the face of the franchise and a chance to potentially upset the order of things in the East for his old team. Irving’s December numbers — 26.6 points on 50 percent shooting (45.7 percent on 3-pointers) and 94.2 percent from the free throw line — were exactly what you’d expect from one of the league true offensive assassins. But his improved effort and presence on defensive has been just as impressive.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 29.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists

Bucks coach Jason Kidd grumbled earlier this week about expectations being a bit too high for what he termed Milwaukee’s “Big Three or Brew Three.” But the internal expectations Antetekounmpo put on himself and his teammate this season seem to be just about right. Whatever the collective expectation is for this group since Eric Bledsoe arrived, there is no denying that Antetokounmpo has played up to his own hype. He hasn’t been perfect, no one has, but he’s carried a huge load for the Bucks all season. He’s been on a tear this month — 30.2 points on 54 percent shooting and 80.3 percent from the free throw line, 10.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.9 steals. But he’s at his best when the Bucks need him most, like they did his 22 points, 10 rebounds and three assists as the Bucks rebounded from a brutal start and 20-point deficit to knock off the Minnesota Timberwolves at home Thursday night.

The next five:

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

7. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

9. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

10. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

And five more …: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola jokic, Denver Nuggets

Next up?

An Inside Look at Russell Westbrook from an Eastern Conference scout:

“You don’t have Russ in the top five? Seriously? Well, you better make room for him because he’s rolling now and he’s not going to stop. I told you that they were going to turn a corner around this time of the season. People have been talking about these guys since training camp, like they were supposed to have it figured out overnight. It takes time. But you cannot tell me Russ hasn’t been one of the best players in the league to this point. And yes, I’m a Russ guy, I love how hard he goes every single night. So he takes some bad shots.

“People act like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and great players from other eras didn’t take bad shots. Of course, they did. I think it’s ridiculous the way he gets criticized, the standard he’s being held to. I really do. You’re asking him to go from being basically a one-man band to making it work with Carmelo [Anthony] and Paul George basically overnight. There’s no way you figure that out on the fly. They needed time. A player like Russell was going to need some time to adjust and now that he’s done that, I don’t think he’s going to slow down for anyone. He’s right back near that triple-double level he was at last year. And when he’s in attack mode and can kick it out to a spot up shooter of Carmelo’s quality and another guy with Paul’s range versatility, that’s a different monster the Thunder are working with. I think they are just getting started. And it all starts with Russ. The same way people were banging on him when they were struggling, you’ve got to give his due now. There’s no way he is isn’t in your top five.”

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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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