Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans surging toward new goals together

In driving Pelicans' seven-game win streak, big man has shown MVP chops

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

After toiling on the fringes of the Kia MVP conversation for months, Anthony Davis has shoved his way into the discussion now.

A healthy byproduct of the All-Star big man’s historic month has been a surprising late-season playoff push for his New Orleans Pelicans, who sit in the sixth spot in the Western Conference (and just a game out of third place) this morning.

That’s similar territory Davis occupies in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder (No. 5), his first time in the top five this season.

* Davis operating on another level of late

It’s the perfect storm for Davis and the Pelicans, who were written off by some after his fellow All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season to an Achilles injury Jan. 26.

The Pelicans lost five of their first six games without Cousins, but have since rebounded for seven straight wins, their longest such streak in the Davis era. Davis has been off the charts during the streak, averaging 39.3 points and 15 rebounds to help change the Pelicans’ season with one scintillating performance after another.

His monster February — he joined Hall of Famer Moses Malone as the only player in the past 40 seasons to average at least 35 points and 13 rebounds for an entire month — earned him Kia Player of the Month honors for the Western Conference.

That’s impressive, considering James Harden, who remains atop the Kia MVP Ladder, is busy leading his Houston Rockets to their second win streak of 14 or more games this season.

But it makes sense when you consider that only two other players over the last 10 years — Kevin Durant (35.9 in January 2014) and Stephen Curry (36.7 in February 2016) — have managed scoring averages that high for an entire month (with a minimum of 10 games played).

If anyone was sleeping on Davis, they should be wide awake heading into the season’s final six weeks. He’s been at the forefront of a talented group of 25-and-under NBA superstars for some time. But now he’s got his team, after that 8-3 month, primed to take advantage of his status as one of the game’s very best.

He finished February ranked first in scoring, third in rebounding, second in steals (2.5) and tied for third in blocks (2.2), making him the first player in NBA history to reach those marks in a calendar month since 1973-74 (when steals and blocks became official statistics). Those kinds of numbers make it easy to make a case for plenty of awards.

And, yes, that includes a late rush for Kia MVP.

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The top five in the Week 20 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 31.3 points, 9.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds

The brilliance of Harden’s season isn’t just the highlights plays, of which he has many (see his crossover destruction of Wesley Johnson on Wednesday). It’s the consistency of his excellence during the course of a season that has seen the Rockets challenge the Golden State Warriors for the top spot in the Western Conference. Only once during the Rockets’ current 14-game win streak has Harden failed to score 25 or more points. And he has a 60-point effort, two 41-point outings and six games with 31-plus points during that stretch. The Rockets’ sterling 31-1 mark with Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup this season remains the most remarkable run by any trio in the league. It’s also something the Rockets will draw on as they transition from the regular season to the postseason. Any notion that Harden and the Rockets will ease up as the regular season comes to a close is fool’s gold. Harden believes “this is the year” for Houston and that means leaving nothing to chance. He wants that No. 1 seed, the Kia MVP and everything else. He’s playing like a man who wants it all.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.7 points, 9.0 assists, 8.4 rebounds

LeBron’s week was already spectacular, what with him becoming the first player in NBA history to pile up 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. That milestone (one of the many LeBron has reached this season) comes on the heels of the first month of his career in which he averaged a triple-double (27 points, 10.5 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game in February). Not bad for an elder statesman doing his best to hold off a crowd of younger stars challenging for his crown as the best player in the game. LeBron’s 30 points in Thursday night’s loss to Philadelphia was his 927th career game scoring 20 or more points — milestone alert! — moving him ahead of Michael Jordan for fourth place in that statistical feat. Only Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant have more career 20-plus point scoring games. Perhaps most important, though, is the scoring surge (29 points per game) LeBron has produced since Cleveland general manager Koby Altman reshaped the team at the trade deadline. Prior to Tuesday’s win over Brooklyn — when George Hill finished with 26 points — no other player on the roster since the deadline had scored 20 or more points.

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists

For a guy who has washed his hands of the whole awards chase, Durant sure seems to be doing his reluctant best to keep his name in this season’s MVP mix. Sure, he’s already been a Kia MVP (2014) and he is the reigning Finals MVP, so it’s not like he’s chasing something he hasn’t already achieved before. But his play since the All-Star break has been stellar: 26.5 points, 53.8 percent shooting and 57.8 percent shooting on 3-pointers in wins against the LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks and Durant’s hometown Washington Wizards. It’s the sort of reset Warriors coach Steve Kerr had to be hoping for coming out of the break. The Warriors have a fight on their hands for No. 1 in the West from the Houston Rockets. It’s the first time since they’ve ascended to the top of the Western Conference heap that they’ve had to deal with this sort of challenger (no offense to the Spurs). Having a motivated and focused Durant on his side has to provide Kerr some comfort for these finals weeks of the regular season.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 26.7 points, 6.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds

During a week when the focus could have been abut everything other than basketball — the Warriors were making their lone visit to Washington, D.C. — Curry has kept his focus on the basketball business at hand. Rather than turning the trip into a week-long political statement, Curry and the Warriors are continuing the roll they have been on since the All-Star break. He’s been locked, especially from 3-point range, knocking down 21 of his 41 shots from deep entering tonight’s road game against the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). The beautiful thing about being a lights-out shooter like Curry is that even on a rare off night — he shot just 5-for-15 against the Wizards — you can save yourself at the free throw line (11-or-12). More important for Curry right now is that he stay healthy and continue to work on taking care of the ball (he had six turnovers against the Wizards). A battle for No. 1 in the West with Houston is making it impossible for Golden State to do what they’ve done the past three seasons: cruise into the start of the playoffs.

5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: Not ranked

Season stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks

Only the blockbuster film “Black Panther” had a better month than Davis, who wrapped up February averaging 35 ppg, 13 rpg, 2.5 spg, 2.2 bpg and 1.5 apg. During the Pelicans’ current seven-game win streak, Davis has been even better: 39.3 ppg, 15 rpg and 2.7 bpg on 53.5 percent shooting. There are only four other players, all Hall of Famers — Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone — in NBA history to average at least 35 points and 15 rebounds over a seven-game span. The Pelicans struggled in the immediate aftermath of Cousins’ injury and lost five of six games. Then, Davis took off and the Pelicans cranked it up on this current streak. Not only has Davis inserted himself into the thick of the MVP chase, saving the season in New Orleans and perhaps the job of coach Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans are sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference standings. They have a legitimate shot at challenging for a top-four spot and the home-court advantage in the first round that comes along with it.

The next five:

6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

7. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

8. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

And five more: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Next up?

An inside look at Andrew Wiggins from a Western Conference advance scout:

“He’s had a strange season, from month to month. He seemed totally locked in when I saw him early, energetic and motivated to prove to everyone that he was not going to take a step back for Jimmy Butler or anyone else on a revamped team. But it didn’t last. And there came a time, in December, when he seemed to lose a little confidence as his shot went missing. And for young guys, even ones as talented as Wiggins, when they aren’t making shots they tend to go into a funk. He battled out of it but seemed to slip a little last month. His consistency has just not been there this season. He looks like a completely different player from night to night, which really changed from last season, when I felt like he was one of the young guys who was really on the rise.

“He was on the attack, especially when it seemed like he had an opportunity to measure himself against an established veteran star. I honestly don’t understand it, what’s happened to him, other than the transition with Jimmy coming in and taking that alpha role was tougher for him than expected. I hate to say it, because you never like to see anyone suffer through a serious injury, but Jimmy going down with that knee injury gives him a clear path to get back in a groove.

“The Timberwolves need him to do it, they are in a fight for that top four spot in the standings, and Wiggins probably needs it for his own psyche. He missed out on being an All-Star this season, which I think broke his spirit. I really do. He has a chance now to prove that he belongs in that group, that his game has matured and that he’s capable of stepping up when the Timberwolves need him most. Whatever the timetable is for Jimmy’s return, the Timberwolves need him to shake out of it and get back to playing at a high level, because he’s better than what I’ve seen from him overall this season. He’s been average at best, and he’s better than that. He’s a better player and certainly a better talent than what he’s shown this season.”

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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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