By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
It took Hall of Famer Gary Payton just six minutes to break down the complex, six-month process of selecting a Kia MVP.
The metric for Payton is simple: Elite player + elite numbers + elite team success = legitimate finish at the end of the race.
Never shy about calling his shots, Payton has an answer to the question before it’s even asked.
“My prediction of who I think will win it this year is LeBron [James],” Payton said. “I got LeBron winning MVP and he’s showing it now. You see he’s almost averaging a triple-double now. Look at the way they are playing and what he’s doing … MVP.”
When reminded that a roughly three-week sample might not be enough to make the best choice, Payton didn’t relent.
“Him and Kawhi [Leonard], when I saw them play to start the season, I think LeBron was baiting it to see what they got and he didn’t play his normal game,” Payton said. “After that, he realized what it is and this is how he had to play … now he’s picked it up.
“But for me, you’ve got to have the right player on the right team and his team has to be lifted up with him. That’s why Giannis [Antetokounmpo] still has a chance, and I agreed with him winning it last year. And I think Kawhi has a chance. That’s the three that will be there.”
Given the nature of the media beast that accompanies the MVP chase, things aren’t nearly as simple to the rest of us as they are to Payton. There’s much more nuance to the race (a 24-hour news cycle, the “load management” factor, etc.) these days.
As much as we’d like to keep the MVP formula simple, there’s a reason we wrestle with its daily ebb and flow.
As for James Harden and Joel Embiid, Payton says they need everything to go right for them to get into the mix. But his formula works for only four teams this season -- the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and Sixers -- making it an even tougher climb for Harden.
“Come on man, this is the NBA and we’ve been watching this for years,” Payton said. “This is what it is.”
True, the unveiling of the first Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of 2019-20 comes with an air of familiarity while also confirming Payton’s analysis.
His highest finish in the MVP race came in 1997-98 when he finished third behind Karl Malone and the winner, Michael Jordan. Overall, Payton finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in eight of his 17 NBA seasons.
"I was one of the usual suspects back then,” he joked. “But you basically knew what it was going to take to win it. And you couldn’t come up short in any specific area and win it. I was in the mix but we weren’t winning enough games over the Lakers or Jordan and the Bulls. Our record was right there but they were higher than us and that’s what happens.”
This season, the usual suspects, so to speak, have kicked off their respective seasons like men on a mission. Instead of dabbling in predictions, we’re prepared to let this race play out to its end.
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The Top 5 this week in the 2019-20 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Season stats: 29.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.3 steals
Anyone trying to wrest that Maurice Podoloff Trophy away from Antetokounmpo should know by now what kind of fight they’ll have on their hands. The Bucks have won four straight games on the strength of his mind-boggling start -- he's the first player in NBA history with 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in the first eight games of a season.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Season stats: 26.1 points, 11.1 assists, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals
Age is clearly nothing but a number as LeBron nears his 35th birthday. His 3 straight triple-doubles marks the first for a Laker in 32 years. Whoever suggested he was “washed" and no longer capable of being an elite defender only added fuel to the fire for the Lakers, who boast the best Defensive Rating in the league.
3. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
Season stats: 29.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.1 blocks
You can waste your time with this “load management” controversy if you’d like. Just don’t let it distract you from appreciating the roll Leonard is on that dates back to his Finals MVP run with the Toronto Raptors. He’s settled into his place as the best and most complete two-way player in the league (anyone still debating that?) quite nicely.
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Season stats: 26.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2.7 assists, 1.0 steals
That trip home to Chicago brought an unnecessary storyline and the first clunker of AD’s Lakers’ tenure. But it’s best to focus on all the work he did before that game. He’s already collected a Western Conference Player of the Week honor and should prove to be everything the Lakers thought he’d be playing alongside LeBron James.
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Season stats: 24.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.0 steals
Embiid has already vowed never to get suspended again and we’ve got our fingers crossed for the big fella. The Sixers cannot afford it with Ben Simmons (sprained shoulder) reportedly out at least three games. Embiid returns just in time for a marquee matchup today in Denver against Nikola Jokic, who also has a claim on the distinction as the “best big man” in the game.
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The Next Five
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
10. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
And five more: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
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