Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Many learning from Victor Oladipo's resurgent season

Week 9: Indiana Pacers' star rewriting narrative about his career, trade last summer

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Victor Oladipo’s original plan was to be an All-Star in Orlando, lead the franchise out of the lottery malaise that followed Dwight Howard’s departure and perhaps finish off that championship chase that the Shaquille O’Neal-and Howard-era Magic teams never could.

You remember that look in his eye on Draft night 2013, when the Magic made him the No. 2 overall pick and the hopes of a city and franchise were planted firmly on the shoulders of the dynamic shooting guard from Indiana.

Well, Oladipo has that look again … five years, two teams and plenty of trials and tribulations later, he’s finally back to his plan. He’s doing it on familiar ground, too, back in Indiana with the Pacers and in the middle of a surprising rebuild the franchise kicked into high gear over the summer, when they traded All-Star and face of the franchise Paul George to Oklahoma City for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

It was a deal that signaled yet another shift in Oladipo’s career. After three decent seasons in Orlando, he was traded to the Thunder where he took up residence as Russell Westbrook’s No. 2 — only to have that experiment never really take off the way anyone expected.

* Aschburner: Oladipo helping Pacers move on from George

But that’s all history now for Oladipo, whose NBA existence came full circle this week with him earning his second Eastern Conference Player of the Week award just in time for George’s first game back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday in a Thunder uniform to matchup with the new face of the franchise.

Oladipo was fresh off of a career-high 47-point night in a Sunday win over Denver, which came two days after he smoked LeBron James and Cleveland for 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists to help the Pacers end the Cavaliers’ win streak at 13 games.

The Pacers couldn’t finish it off right, though, falling 100-95 in a supercharged atmosphere to a Thunder team desperate to turn their season around. Oladipo finished 9-for-26 from the floor (19 points), the loss spoiling what had the makings of a huge party had they won, what with the the Pacers announcing that they’ll host the 2021 NBA All-Star Game before Wednesday night’s opening tip.

“We might have wanted it, too bad,” Oladipo told reporters from a seat in front of his locker after the game. “Maybe, in that aspect … I’m not sure about the moment getting to us. We got a little too antsy. I think I was moving way too fast out there at times, didn’t do a good job of changing up my speeds and stuff like that. Sometimes you can get a little overhyped. That might have trickled in. But it’s a learning experience for us.”

Oladipo’s story should be a learning experience, too, a lesson for anyone who refuses to believe in the power of patience. He’s living proof that it’s never too late to find the right fit, to chase the elite destiny you believed was in you.

People wrote him off when he struggled to find his rhythm playing alongside Westbrook. Even more did when the Thunder traded him to the Pacers.

Cleary, he never stopped believing.

He’s posting career-bests across the board — points (24.3), rebounds (5.3), assists (4.1), steals (1.9), blocks (1.0), field goal percentage (.478) and 3-point percentage (.426) — and should be included in any conversation about the Kia Most Improved Player award.

“Vic is the face of Indiana.Vic is the future,” George said after the game, trying to put his seven years with the Pacers in the proper context and allow everyone to move on to the Oladipo era. “He’s going to be great here. He’s blessed. He’s talented. He’s what you want in a guy for a franchise.”

Oladipo also makes his debut on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, coming in at No. 9, and goes into tonight’s matchup against Central Division rival Detroit (7 ET, NBA League Pass) with a fresh perspective after being locked in an individual battle with George Wednesday night.

“It was the first time I’ve had a defender guard me like that since I’ve been on this team,” Oladipo said. “I wasn’t ready for what the Thunder threw at me. I guarantee I’ll be ready next time.”

Lessons learned for all involved.

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The top five in the Week 9 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.6 points, 9.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds

What Harden and Chris Paul are doing in Mike D’Antoni’s system defies logic. You knew they had a chance to be next-level good with two of the league’s best playmakers sharing a backcourt. The fact that D’Antoni can have one or both of them on the floor basically at all times , the way he did in Wednesday’s win over Charlotte, is what makes the Rockets so difficult to defend. Harden was great, as always (21 points, eight assists and four rebounds). But Paul was spectacular (season-high 31 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds). Most of us assumed there’d be some growing pains, some sort of transition period that would give the Rockers at least a few moments of pause. Not with these two brilliant floor leaders at the controls. Harden and the Rockets take their 11-game win streak into tonight’s test (9:30 ET, ESPN) against a Spurs team that ended their season in the playoffs last season.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 28.2 points, 9.0 assists, 8.2 rebounds

The young Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have time for hero worship. Not with the player they grew up idolizing stalking them in the flesh Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron dished out some licks and lessons, tying Larry Bird for sixth on the all-time triple-double list with 59. The Cavaliers needed his 25 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists and two blocks to fend off Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the crew. It’s been a good week for LeBron, who matched his career-high in assists (17) in Tuesday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks. The turnaround for the Cavaliers has been spectacular. They’ve won 16 of their last 17 games after that 5-7 start, and they’ve done it following LeBron’s lead. He’s averaging a triple-double (28.2 points on .553 shooting, 11.8 assists and 10.6 rebounds) in his last five games, showing no signs of slowing down as his 33rd birthday approaches.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 24.0 points, 4.9 assists, 3.0 rebounds

Kyrie delivered his eighth 30-point effort of the season in Wednesday’s home win over the Denver Nuggets, a game the Celtics played without Al Horford. Kyrie’s ability to raise his level of play every time the Celtics need it is what has made his season special. In Cleveland, he was always operating the in the vast shadow cast by LeBron James. And when the Cavaliers struggled without LeBron in the lineup, there was plenty of finger pointing at the young point guard. He doesn’t have that cloud hanging over him anymore and it’s a freedom that clearly agrees with him. His 33 points (on 12-for-19 shooting, 4-for-9 from deep), seven assists and two blocks helped fuel the Celtics to a season-high 124 points. Kyrie’s shooting from the floor (49.7 percent) is a career-best and he’s shooting 40 percent or better from 3-point range for the second straight season (and just the third time in his career).

4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 26.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists

Durant continues to shine … no matter who the Warriors have in the lineup alongside him. He powered the Warriors to their eighth straight win after notching 36 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists against the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors were missing three starters (Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia) as well as reserve shooting guard Nick Young. That didn’t help the Mavericks, who couldn’t contain Durant in any capacity. Getting this kind of work out of Durant with Curry out of the lineup benefits the Warriors the same way seeing Curry operate when Durant was out of the lineup for a long stretch last season recovering from a knee injury. Coach Steve Kerr gets a chance to tinker with all the different lineups around Durant that he wouldn’t normally see with a fully healthy roster. Durant’s averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebound, 6.8 assists and 2.6 blocks in the Warriors’ last five games.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 29.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists

Watching Antetokounmpo work against a wide array of defenders in a given week has turned into one of the more entertaining study sessions in the pre-Christmas portion of this season. His continuous adjustments from night to night have been tremendous. He’s currently working on a streak of 17 straight games where he’s scored 20 or more points and he’s scored 32 or more in four of his last six outings. That’s a pretty remarkable roll for a player who does so much more than just score, not to mention one who barely shoots from beyond the 3-point line and doesn’t camp out around the basket to get his buckets. It’s also a testament to the work Giannis has put in on his dribble-drive game, though it helps that he has the length and athleticism to finish around, above or through any individual defender a team might use to try to stop him. And don’t underestimate Eric Bledsoe’s impact on Giannis and on the Bucks overall.

The next five:

6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

9. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

10. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

And five more …: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Next Up?

An inside look at Kevin Love from an Eastern Conference scout:

“Let’s get this out of the way first, right now, Kevin Love is an absolute lock Eastern Conference All-Star this season. A runaway pick. And that’s not something a lot of people would have said about him last season or even the season before. A lot of people got down on his talent, felt like he’d gotten exposed a bit and maybe wasn’t ever going to get back a truly elite level. He’s so much more comfortable in his role on that [Cleveland] team right now that it’s scary.

“Maybe I didn’t realize just how tough it might have been for him to get in a groove when LeBron and Kyrie were on that roster. Love wasn’t getting the ball in certain situations and in the sweet spots where he could do his best work. No one had ever doubted his talent. We all saw what he could do individually in Minnesota. He could have piled up those 26 (points) and 15 (rebounds) nights forever on a bad team. All of the different ways that Tyronn Lue can use him now, ways he couldn’t when you had Kyrie as your second option, and sometimes your first, are available now.

“Kevin is such a great passer and rebounder that you get to see the value of his entire game now. You can play him in the high pick-and-roll or you can allow him to post out on the wing and face up and work outside in and it’s a pick your poison situation, because he’s such a good shooter all the way out to and beyond the 3-point line. There are just so many ways you can exploit some of those mismatches when he’s your second option and not just an afterthought. The key is going to be finding a way to keep Kevin locked in like this when Isaiah Thomas comes back. That’s where that coaching staff is going to earn their keep. Because Love is back where you want him to be.”

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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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