Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: LeBron James continues to defy Father Time

Week 7: In 15th season, James may arguably be playing at his best

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Dominique Wilkins wouldn’t have believed it to be possible if he hadn’t witnessed it for himself all of these years.

The Hall of Famer has had a front row seat as an analyst for the Atlanta Hawks for the third act of the LeBron James Show that is currently playing at an NBA arena near you.

Wilkins marveled at the young LeBron who dazzled during his first stint in Cleveland. His appreciation for LeBron’s game grew when James took his talents to South Beach and won titles with the Miami Heat.

But Wilkins, who has a statue of his own out front of the building LeBron owned Thursday night when the Cavaliers polished off the Hawks for their 10th straight win, believes the LeBron we’re seeing now, in his 15th season, might be the best version yet.

Given the knowledge, skill and still startling athleticism and physicality the league’s best player puts on display every night, it’s hard to argue. LeBron has guided the Cavaliers out of an early 5-7 funk with a November to remember. One spellbinding effort after another are fueling his rise up the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, where he sits behind only James Harden this week.

“Remarkable,” Wilkins said of the things James is doing in his 15th season, “Absolutely remarkable. Knowing what it takes to perform at that level for as long as he has, it’s hard to wrap your head around the way he’s dominating this league right now. But he’s put in the work. He’s done all the hard work, taken care of his body and studied his craft like a true genius. This isn’t an accident or some fluke. Give him credit. He worked for this. And like I said … remarkable.”

Expected is more like it. LeBron’s meticulous nature about everything he does has no doubt contributed to his beating back of Father Time. His elite-level contemporaries (Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and perhaps a few others) haven’t held up physically to the test of time the way he has.

He also sticks out among his fellow all-time greats of any era with the staying power of his overall game, which has aged superbly.

“There’s never been a player in his 15th season who was unquestionably the best player in the league,” NBA TV and TNT analyst Greg Anthony said. “It’s not just that [LeBron] is really good in his 15th year. He’s the best player.”

It comes as no surprise to anyone who’s had to compete against him throughout the years. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has dealt with LeBron his entire career, first from the other side of the conference divide while an assistant in San Antonio, and more recently in the direct line of fire as an Eastern Conference rival.

Seeing the continued evolution of LeBron’s game up close and personal drives home the point for Budenholzer, who witnessed Tim Duncan’s dominance from the inside.

“It’s my fifth year in the East and I’ve just come to expect the best from LeBron,” Budenholzer said. “He’s a phenomenal player and I think he takes a lot of pride in being the best. So if that means shooting better, defending better, rebounding better or passing more, he just has a knack for having the determination to be that guy. So at the end of the day, no it doesn’t surprise me.”

It’s not just that [LeBron James] is really good in his 15th year. He’s the best player.”

NBA TV and TNT analyst Greg Anthony

That’s why it wasn’t at all shocking to see LeBron work over the Hawks in the second half Thursday night by focusing his energy on playing the role of lockdown defender on speedy point Dennis Schröder, who was two steps faster than anyone the Cavaliers put in front of him in the first half.

With LeBron guarding him and running the show, as usual, on the other end, the outcome was in little doubt by the end of the third quarter.

“I just wanted to try to take the challenge against Schröder,” LeBron said. “He is one of the fastest guys that we’ve got in our league. Once he gets a head full of steam down, he can finish at the rim and he was kicking our butts in the first half. So, I tried to use my intelligence against him. With the help of teammates, I tried to do a good job on him. I felt like if I could turn his water down some, then it would have an effect on the rest of those guys, and also an effect on us offensively, and it was just that — exactly what happened.

“I take a lot of pride in my defensive abilities. No matter if I’m guarding the point guard, no matter if I’m guarding the power forward or the center or the shooting guard or small forward, I take the challenge. My teammates asked me to take the challenge. I wanted the challenge and, I was just there for it. But more importantly, my teammates were there for me on the other end. They started knocking down shots, especially in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter. It allowed me to focus on my defense.”

That sort of versatility, that kind of attention to detail on whatever the task at hand might be, it’s all a part of what continues to separate LeBron from the crowd, even at this stage of his career.

It’s more of what Wilkins insists makes him so … remarkable.

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The top five in the Week 7 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.5 points, 9.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds

No one hated flipping that calendar this morning more than Harden, whose epic November came up just shy of being historic. Harden averaged 34.9 points and 10.1 assists in 13 games, missing out on joining Oscar Robertson and Tiny Archibald as the only players to average 35 points and 10 games in a calendar month (minimum 10 games). Harden benefited from the healthy and effective return of Chris Paul, but was burning up the competition both before and after Paul made it back to the lineup. The best part, for Rockets fans and certainly coach Mike D’Antoni, is Harden being unimpressed with his work so far. He insists the Rockets have a ways to go before they really hit their mark; never mind that 17-4 record leads the Western Conference and their 9-1 mark in their last 10 games is best mark behind Cleveland’s 10-0 run.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 28.0 points, 8.5 assists, 8.1 rebounds

LeBron ignored the whispers when the Cavaliers were 5-7 and looking like a shell of the team that has conquered the Eastern Conference in each of the past three seasons. Now, chest-deep into the Cavaliers’ 10-game win streak, he looks as comfortable as ever with his new supporting cast. And the entire league knows that a dialed-in LeBron, especially this early in the regular season, means trouble for everyone. LeBron’s focus, on both ends of the floor, remains as good as it gets. He’s been spectacular during the streak. And he had a brilliant November (averaging 29.6 points on .583 shooting from the floor, .430 from beyond the 3-point line, to go along with 8.6 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks), showing no signs of slowing down with his 33rd birthday 29 days away.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 23.4 points, 5.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds

The Celtics’ 19-4 record, the top mark in the league, remains the most remarkable digits associated with Kyrie’s season. It turns out he won’t need to chase a scoring title to stay involved in the MVP conversation this season, not as long as the Celtics continue to defy the odds and exceed all expectations after losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season opener and dropping their first two games. But just in case anyone forgot, he had his shot-making arsenal on full display in Thursday’s win over the upstart Philadelphia 76ers, finishing the Joel Embiid-less Sixers with a wicked 36-point effort that saw him knock down 12 of his 21 shots from the floor, 5-of-8 from beyond the 3-point line and 7-of-8 from the free throw line. It was his fifth 30-point game of the month and the season. Surely he has more of those type of performances in him and the Celtics will need them to keep up their current pace.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 26.1 points, 6.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds

That bruised hand Curry has been nursing, the one that kept him out of Monday’s loss to Sacramento, didn’t keep him from shining in Wednesday’s matchup against Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball in Los Angeles. Every bit of Curry’s 28 points, seven assists and five rebounds were needed to help the Warriors subdue the Lakers in overtime. Curry’s listed as “probable” for tonight’s game against the Magic (7 ET, NBA League Pass) in Orlando, where the Warriors will face a much-improved team with another young point guard in Elfrid Payton, who is eager to get a shot at the two-time Kia MVP. Curry and the Warriors are used to it, taking everyone’s best shot, particularly on the road. And that might be the best place for Curry this season, since his shooting averages away from Oracle Arena (.492 from the floor, .422 from deep) are significantly better than they are at home (.433 and .307).

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 22.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists

Embiid sat out Thursday’s game against Boston, the second game of a back-to-back set, for rest (or whatever fancy phrase they’re using for it these days in Philadelphia). That means he should be well rested for what could be one of the more entertaining matchups of this early season when Andre Drummond and the surging Detroit Pistons make their way to Wells Fargo Center Saturday night (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Embiid’s choice words for Drummond after he roasted the Pistons’ big man for 30 points and nine rebounds in the Sixers’ Oct. 23 win in Detroit are sure to come up a time or two between now and tip off. Embiid loves playing to the crowd, be it at home or basically anywhere, so there should be no shortage of fireworks, even with Drummond, one of the few men in the league with the size, agility and athleticism to match Embiid, and the Pistons working on the second of a back-to-back set that has them in Washington tonight.

The next five:

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

9. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more …:

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans; Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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Next up?

A behind-the-scenes look at Andre Drummond from an Eastern Conference scout:

“He might be the most confusing player to evaluate for me in the entire league, seriously. He’s so gifted, he’s such a physical specimen and he clearly cares about being a great player — you don’t improve your free throw shooting the way he has and not give a damn about it. And yet there are still those moments, those instances where it seems like he’s coasting or he’s not engaged to the fullest, in a way that would see him dominate on an every night basis. It’s what keeps him out of the conversation about the best big man in the league. I mean, he’s on the list, when you talk about the best centers. But if we’re talking Boogie [DeMarcus Cousins), Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and those guys, he’s not on that same level. And I know he’s been an All-Star, which he earned. He earned that. But he should be dominant every night.

I know it sounds crazy to say it like this, but if Drummond had Zach Randolph’s attitude, with that size, body and athleticism, he’d be a guy you talked about being one of the best players in the game, regardless of his position. That’s why I think Stan [Van Gundy] has been so good for him, whether he realizes it or not. He needs a coach that is going to push him, to do whatever it takes to drag his best out of him. For example, the way they’re involving him as a facilitator in their high-post offense this season is ideal. It forces him to stay locked in even when he’s not just cleaning up around the rim. He can be devastating when he’s playing the right way. It’s good to see. Because he’s got everything you need to be among the best of the very best.”

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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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