Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Familiar issue keeps Kevin Durant from adding to his hardware total

For second straight season, late-season injury sacks Warriors star's campaign

Kevin Durant touched nerves around the basketball world and beyond with his heartfelt words after winning the Kia MVP in 2014.

He spoke glowingly of his family, friends, teammates and the franchise that helped him grow from a teen phenom after one season the University of Texas into a player recognized as the NBA’s best for his performance during that 2013-14 season.

The expectation was that it could very well be the first of several such speeches for a four-time scoring champion and Olympic gold medal-winning wunderkind, a player thought by many destined to be the heir apparent to LeBron James as the face of the league.

But in a league where the narratives change with the twist of a knee or the turn of an ankle, expectations and reality don’t always meet.

Sure, Durant is still widely considered the best player in basketball not named James. And he’s finally won the championship that eluded him in Oklahoma City, claiming his first last summer with the Golden State Warriors, capping the occasion with a Finals MVP as he out dueled James in an epic showdown in The Finals.

Those tear-jerking Kia MVP speeches, though, have not been a part of the program for Durant and who knows if they will be in the future.

It’s not that he hasn’t played at a MVP level — he has. But his narrative has changed dramatically, with his move from the Thunder to the Warriors in free agency before last season costing him dearly. (A Kia MVP joining forces with a back-to-back Kia MVP in Stephen Curry would certainly cost both of them on many ballots. It surely did when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, each one-time MVP winners, shared the court during their overlapping primes with the Los Angeles Lakers.)

And for the second straight season, an injury has interrupted any chance Durant had a of making a late-season push for his second Kia MVP award.

Last season, it was Zaza Pachulia falling into Durant’s knee two minutes into a Feb. 28 game in Washington. That injury cost him the next 19 games and five critical weeks of action. A fractured rib revealed six days ago will cost Durant two weeks and possibly more.

James Harden’s lead in this season’s MVP chase is significant. He’s No. 1 and has been most of this season on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, making it nearly impossible for Durant, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, reigning Kia MVP Russell Westbrook or any other contender to close the gap on him.

Durant is expected back for the postseason and the Warriors, who are dealing with injuries to all four of their All-Stars (Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green), will be ready to defend their title.

The only available MVP hardware, though, will come in The Finals … provided Durant and the Warriors can get back there.

Given the way expectations and reality often miss each other, there are no guarantees.

Durant knows that better than most.

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The top five in the Week 23 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: 31.2 points, 8.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Harden punctuates his MVP worthiness with every outing for the league-leading Rockets. It doesn’t matter if it’s a game against a lottery-bound team or a streaking Portland Trail Blazers, whose 13-game win streak Harden helped the Rockets snap with a 42-point, seven-assist, six-rebound performance. If there was any doubts about Harden’s vice grip on the top spot on this list, they should vanish by now. The Rockets continue to draft off of the exceptional play of their leader and only All-Star, so much so that Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is convinced Harden is the “best offensive player” he has ever seen. That’s a huge statement, given D’Antoni’s experience as both a player and coach. And it’s not worth the time some of us will waste debating that claim, since D’Antoni’s just expressing his own opinion on the matter.

But it’s worth noting that Harden does posses basically every tool necessary to dominate the competition in this 3-point shooting era. He can get a shot however and whenever he pleases, can work from distance and everywhere else on the floor, creates for others and is a knockdown free throw shooter as well.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27.4 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds

Another day, another virtuoso performance from the man who insists his game is aging like fine wine. It’s hard to argue with the 33-year-old mega-star when he shows out the way he did in Wednesday’s showdown win over the East-leading Toronto Raptors. His 35-point, 17-assist, seven-rebound, zero-turnover effort was his fifth game this season with 15 or more assists and marked the first time since turnovers became an official stat in the 1977-78 season that a player finished a game with 35 or more points, 15 or more assists and no turnovers.

For all the drama the Cavaliers have had to deal with this season — the latest being coach Tyronn Lue’s indefinite leave for health reasons — LeBron has been an absolute force of nature. He’s averaging a triple-double (31.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 10.1 assists) in his last 10 games and is on pace to play all 82 games for the first time in his career — he played 80 in his second season (2004-05) and 81 in his sixth season (2008-09). The win over the Raptors should also serve as a signal to the rest of the Eastern Conference that the the Cavaliers will not surrender their crown without a fight, a and furious one from their leader.

3. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 23.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.0 rebounds

Even with a four-game lead over Boston in the Eastern Conference standings, DeRozan and the Raptors are still on the hunt for respect. Yes, respect, from the rest of the league, from the officials (see DeRozan’s rant after Sunday’s loss to Oklahoma City) and especially from their foil in Cleveland. Taking on another loss to the Cavaliers, in a playoff atmosphere at Quicken Loans Arena, doesn’t help the cause. The Raptors have been the far better team throughout the course of this regular season, but the uneasy feelings Raptors fans have when they see LeBron James when it matters most remain. The upside for the Raptors is that they won’t go into the final weeks of this regular season and the playoffs with any sense of entitlement.

DeRozan and Kyle Lowry know they have to continue grinding to reach their team goals this season, same goes for coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the Raptors’ supporting cast. Wednesday’s showdown with the Cavaliers highlighted both sides of the Raptors’ situation. They were good enough in the first half to pile up 79 points against LeBron’s crew, but couldn’t finish the deal in the second half, when the Cavaliers cranked up their energy and LeBron dominated them with his scoring and playmaking. The Raptors will need DeRozan to serve as their closer if they meet in the postseason.

4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 28.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks

A solid argument could be made for Davis, and not LeBron James, as the most dynamic two-way player in the game today. The league-leader in blocks (2.4 bpg), Davis is also providing the fuel that has powered the Pelicans’ post All-Star break run — he’s averaging 31.0 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.6 blocks since the All-Star break. That stretch includes a 45-point, 17-rebound, five-block and five-steal performance in a Feb. 23 win over Miami, 53 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks in a Feb. 26 win over Phoenix, 41 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in a March 6 win over the LA Clippers and a 25-point, 11-rebound and 10-block triple-double in a March 11 loss to Utah.

The most impressive numbers during this run, however, might be the Pelicans’ 12-4 mark that propelled them from the fringe of the Western Conference playoff picture into the mix for a top four seed and potential home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That 10-game win streak, that began three games before the All-Star break and shortly after DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, is the best run of that sort during the Davis era in New Orleans. If Davis keeps it up, the Pelicans might be ready to play the role of spoiler in the postseason.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 26.8 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds

After struggling in the Trail Blazers’ loss to Houston that snapped their 13-game win streak, Lillard will have a chance to get back on track with the Boston Celtics visiting the Moda Center tonight (10 ET, NBA TV). He shot just 5-for-17 from the floor (0-for-7 from deep) against the Rockets and didn’t fare much better on the defensive end when matched up against James Harden. In fact, Lillard has been struggling with his shot lately (just .364 in his last five games and .289 on 3-pointers). But he’s been spectacular from the free throw line, knocking down 46 of his 47 attempts during that same five-game stretch, including 37 straight.

Portland’s success with Lillard trying to shake out of his mini-shooting slump is a testament to the work the entire group has done during their late-season surge. And it suggests that they could be primed for more fireworks when Lillard gets back to normal. With road games in Oklahoma City (Sunday) and New Orleans (Tuesday) on the horizon and all three teams jockeying for position in the Western Conference playoff chase, you can bet Lillard will be locked in for the challenges ahead.

The next five:

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

10. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

And five more …: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Next up?

An inside look at Dwight Howard from an Eastern Conference executive:

“It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around where Dwight is right now in his career, and really how he got here. The perception of who he is as a player and the player you see on the floor is very different. I mean, a 30-30 games at this stage of his career is pretty damn impressive, even if you don’t believe in him the way we all did when he was younger. He’s always been productive, a literal walking double-double, and that goes for everywhere he’s been. Let’s be clear about that. It’s not like he’s ever been a guy that didn’t go out there and do what he’s supposed to do. But he didn’t play with the same fire or bounce once he soured on his situation with the Lakers or Rockets and even late in his one season with the Hawks. There’s a difference in performance when he’s engaged, I mean really engaged and believing in what the organization has going on. But when something is off, you can see it. You can read it in his body language. You can’t ignore him and what he brings to your team.

“You have to make sure he’s involved in the offense, even if he’s not the No. 1 option. And I think that was the major disconnect in Houston. Cliff [Hornets coach Steve Clifford] was the ideal coach to help him get back to his comfort zone because of their history together from earlier in Dwight’s career. There’s a trust level that has to be there if you’re going to get him to empty his tank every night. And to Dwight’s credit, he’s done that this season with the Hornets. It doesn’t mean he’s moving back to the top of the list for big men in our league, not at all. Those days are over, and that has as much to do with the evolution of the game during his career as it does with the offensive limitations that he was never able to smooth out. I remember laughing when I heard all the chatter about him stretching out as a 3-point shooter in [Mike Budenholzer’s system] in Atlanta. That was never going to work. He always seemed like an odd fit there, but given where he was in his career and how desperate the Hawks were to shake things up, you can understand why both sides decided to take the risk. He’s in a much better space now, a system much more conducive to his game and what he can still do to help a team out.”

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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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