Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Anthony Davis crafting a future bid for hardware

Eye-popping stats (and more team success) will keep New Orleans' big man in conversation

Alvin Gentry has seen it before: a great player taking his game from an All-Star level to something more, much more.

Former Suns guard Steve Nash did it, winning back-to-back Kia MVPs while Gentry was an assistant on Mike D’Antoni’s staff in Phoenix. And more recently, Stephen Curry did it while Gentry was an assistant on Steve Kerr’s staff with the Golden State Warriors.

So when Gentry, in his second season coaching Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans, examines his superstar’s game at this stage of his career, it’s easy to see why he believes Davis is destined for that MVP mix.

“The thing for him is having the team success,” Gentry said, “because he gives us everything. Guy averages 30 points, 12 rebounds, leads the league in blocked shots and manages to throw a few assists in there every night. There is nothing he can’t do out there. He’s got it all. I really believe that he does all that he can possibly do and it’s just a matter of us, and I’m thinking if we’re healthy and winning, he’s for sure supposed to be in the MVP talk. But you cant’ do that if you’re not winning, so we just have to get to the point where we have enough personnel around him to do that.”

A three-time All-Star and the league’s leading scorer, Davis cracks the top 10 in this week’s KIA Race to the MVP on the strength of his consistently dominant performances for the Pelicans, winners of four straight games since veteran point guard Jrue Holiday returned to the lineup.

Davis is averaging 31.3 points and 10.7 rebounds through his first 15 games this season, becoming just the second player in the last 40 years to average 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds through their first 15 games.

In short, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week has been on a tear since Holiday returned.

He scored 38 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished out six assists and blocked four shots in a Nov. 18. win over Portland. He lit up the Charlotte Hornets for 38 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks a day later. He missed the second and third quarters of the Pelicans’ blowout win over the Hawks Tuesday with a bruised knee, but still managed 13 points in just 19 minutes.

He saved his best, though, for Wednesday’s matchup against Minnesota and Karl Anthony-Towns, the other players mentioned most often in the debate about the best young big man in basketball. Davis shredded the Timberwolves for 45 points (on 63 percent shooting) and 10 rebounds in another rout. He showed off his shooting touch from all over the floor, knocking down two of his four shots from beyond the 3-point line and nine of 10 from the free throw line.

The four-game winning streak is the first for the Pelicans since before Gentry arrived, and perhaps the first sign that this team, and Davis in particular, is moving into a position to chase the Western Conference playoff berth everyone expected them to pursue before injuries sacked the roster.

“It feels good, but we haven’t really done anything yet,” Davis said after that waxing of the Timberwolves. “We’re still on the losing side at 6-10. But we’re just playing a good brand of basketball right now. Guys are very confident and we’re playing well defensively. Everybody is just locked in and trying to figure out roles and playing with confidence. But like I said, we haven’t done anything yet. We have to keep playing the way we’re playing and take it on the road.”

The Pelicans travel to Portland tonight (10 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) and travel to Dallas for a game on Sunday (7 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS). Two more wins and they inch closer to .500, a record Gentry knows is critical for his team now that they have a vital cog like Holiday back.

“Jrue makes a huge difference for everybody, not just Anthony, and I can’t stress that enough,” Gentry said. “What he does is gives some of these younger guys a confidence level they’ve never had. With him back their decision-making has been cut to a minimum. And he can do all the hard stuff and he can make the plays to get them open and now all of a sudden everybody is back in their element and everybody’s game rises up a little bit.”

Individual goals don’t play into the equation for Davis, who knows he’ll be judged more by how he can foster New Orleans’ team success. Missing out on the playoffs last season after so much hype burst the Pelicans’ bubble. And a 1-9 start to this season with an injury-plagued roster didn’t help.

“These guys never wavered,” Gentry said. “You go back and look how many close games we lost and these guys stayed the course. They just keep battling.”

Gentry, however, knows better than anyone that team success and the individual accolades are usually intertwined, the way they were for both Nash and Curry when they snagged their Maurice Podoloff Trophies.

“It’s a confidence thing in this league, for great players and their teams,” he said. “You have to be able to break through that wall at some point. Take Steph for example, he was already a great player. But when he started having success against Chris Paul, who at that time was the guy, that’s when I think he realized that he was as good as anyone else at that position. And his game took off and his team took off.”

Davis has had his individual breakthrough. Now it’s time for him take his team along for the ride.

“Look, he wants to be great and he’s done everything he possibly could to get there,” Gentry said. “You look at the numbers he’s putting up and the only thing missing is we have to have some success as a team. We do that and he’s in the MVP conversation right now and for years to come.”

Now, to this week’s rankings …

1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

(Last week: No. 1)

A three-game skid has people rumbling about his team underachieving, but the Thunder aren’t struggling because of Westbrook. Oklahoma City needs a consistent No. 2 option to complement their superstar, who refuses to slow down (31.2 points, 11.8 assists, 9.4 rebounds, 2.0 steals in his last five games).

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

(Last week: No. 2)

In a game where Kevin Love scored 34 points in the first quarter, it was LeBron who finished the night with 31 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in a win against Portland. He ranks sixth on the all-time triple-doubles list with 44 and continues to do it all for the defending champs (24.8 points, 9.5 assists, 7.5 assists in his last five games).

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 3)

The Warriors have won nine straight games and look like the team 29 other teams feared they would be when Durant chose them in free agency. His consistent demolition of whoever is guarding him each night is a masterclass on how to be a team-first superstar (25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals in last his five games).

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

(Last week: No. 5)

Harden has to take better care of the ball (career-high 12 turnovers in Wednesday’s loss to Toronto) if the Rockets are going to keep playoff pace in Western Conference. There is no margin for error, not with how much the Rockets rely on him to do so much (25.4 points, 12.6 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

(Last week: No. 7)

Leonard already has five games this season where he’s scored 30 or more points. That stat is pretty solid on its own, but shines even more when you consider he had four career 30-point games entering 2016-17. His steady offensive improvement is nothing short of remarkable (24.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals in his last five games).

6. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

(Last week: No. 4)

An off shooting night (4-for-10) saw Griffin’s streak of 20-point games end at eight, but it didn’t matter for the Clippers, who rolled over the Dallas Mavericks for their fourth straight win. Griffin’s impact on the game for the Clippers goes far beyond just leading them in scoring (23.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

(Last week: No. 6)

Perhaps the greatest testament to his game is the way the reigning two-time Kia MVP has made room for another former Kia MVP (Durant) without subjecting his own game at all. Curry’s efficiency was on full display in that revenge win against the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, when he finished with 31 points, nine assists, five rebounds and just one turnover in 29 minutes (24.8 points, 6.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

8. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

(Last week: Not ranked)

Butler’s performance thus far should put to rest any lingering questions about whose team it is Chicago. He’s leading with his play for a Bulls team that has probably surprised a few people with how well they’ve come together with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo added to the mix. Butler’s the true alpha on this team (28.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists in his last five games).

9. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

(Last week: Not ranked)

Davis is averaging 31.3 points and 10.7 rebounds through the first 15 games of this season, making him only the second player in the last 40 years to manage those numbers through the first 15. (Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal did it to start the 1994-95 season.) Historical context is needed to understand just how dominant Davis has been this season (33.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.8 blocks in his last five games).

10. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

(Last week: No. 9)

The Hornets have hit a rough patch recently, losing there straight, but not because of anything Walker has or hasn’t done. He continues to perform at an elite level and needs his supporting cast to do the same on a regular basis (23.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals in his last five games).

Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Next up?

An inside look from a Western Conference scout at … Giannis Antetokounmpo

“I know this sounds crazy, given all of the attention he got late last season and over the summer when he signed that big deal. But the entire league is sleeping on this kid. And I’ll admit it, I was skeptical on his shift to ‘point guard.’ That said, he’s playing like an All-Star and it seems like no one is talking about him. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the [Bucks] has gotten off to an uneven start or what. Either way, he’s out there putting in work every night, touching the game in every way possible (21.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 blocks and 2.0 steals). He rebounds like a power forward, runs the floor like an elite point guard and his decision-making has been better thanI thought it would be. He’s turning it over more than he has previously, but that was expected with the increase in his ball handling responsibilities. He’s getting to the foul line at a pretty good clip this season, so he’s coming at you in every way imaginable. The only thing holding him back a bit right now is the fact that he’s not a knockdown shooter from distance. He has to keep working to be effective there … because when he finally gets that part of his game together, he’s going to be off the charts. You’re talking about a guy with Anthony Davis’ size and athleticism. He could be scary good.”

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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