MVP Ladder: Christmas Day slate a showcase for MVP candidates

NBA.com Global on Dec 23, 2017 07:38 AM
MVP Ladder: X'Mas Day slate a showcase for MVP candidate
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets celebrates a score during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 16, 2017 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

The NBA’s annual Christmas Day lineup offers a healthy dose of everything fans could want.

Battles between future superstars (Philadelphia at New York), the renewal of a championship rivalry that continues to simmer from both sides (Cleveland at Golden State), another chapter in a bubbling blood feud between Eastern Conference contenders (Washington at Boston), a reacquaintance of friends turned into rivals (Houston at Oklahoma City) and a nightcap between teams hungry to step out of the shadows and into the playoff spotlight in the Western Conference for years to come (Minnesota at Los Angeles Lakers).

The holiday showcase also offers the perfect platform for superstars ready to bolster their cases for inclusion in the Kia MVP conversation, a celebration of MVP types of the recent past, the present and most likely the future.

Four of the top five players in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder -- No. 1 James Harden, No. 2 LeBron James, No. 3 Kevin Durant and No. 4 Kyrie Irving -- will have the chance to state their cases, LeBron and KD in a head-to-head matchup that should be a continuation of their duel from The Finals.

And Harden will have a chance to make his bones against the reigning Kia MVP Russell Westbrook, who comes in at No. 10 this week on the Ladder with the Thunder still trying to sort through the transition of adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to their mix.

There are subplots galore, perhaps none more intriguing than the Warriors-related ones LeBron and Harden will bring to the party.

The Cavaliers are playing inspired this season led by LeBron, no doubt a direct reflection of an offseason that saw Irving demand a trade and bolt for Boston in the aftermath of another Finals defeat at the hands of the Warriors.

He's as good as he’s ever been, by his own measure, 15 seasons into his NBA career and just days away from his 33rd birthday. If nothing else, Monday’s game is another opportunity to remind everyone that he's still the single most dominant force in the game.

“There comes a point when the mental meets the physical, and physically, LeBron seems to be at the point where he still hasn't maxed out,” said NBA TV and TNT analyst Greg Anthony. “That is what’s kind of crazy for me … he's as quick as I've ever seen him and as athletic.”

It’s a remarkable run, this late in a career that has spanned multiple eras.

“No player in any sport has had the pressure of their sport, nor the money before they stepped on the court,” said NBA TV and TNT's Chris Webber. “I remember everyone was saying that there’s no way he can fulfill that potential. He’s probably surpassed most people’s expectations… Just incredible.”

That’s a perfect word to describe what Harden and the Rocket have done this season, the first with Harden and Chris Paul joining forces to mount their own challenge to the Warriors.

The best record in the league, including a season-opening win over the Warriors, has done nothing but fuel the Rockets’ obsession -- Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s word -- with the crew in Oakland.

"It's the only thing we think about," Morey told ESPN Radio's The Ryen Russillo Show on Thursday (Friday, PHL time). "I think I'm not supposed to say that, but we're basically obsessed with 'How do we beat the Warriors?’

"Last year the Spurs knocked us off, so we're very worried about the Spurs, they're always one step ahead of every organization and guard us better than anyone. But we calculated it -- it's like 90 percent if we're gonna win a title, we've gotta obviously beat the Warriors at some point. So we're extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”

Harden has dominated the competition from the opening tip at Oracle in October, shining with Paul playing at an elite level when healthy and when Paul missed 14 games with a bruised knee.

He’s leading the league in scoring, directs the most efficient offense in basketball and has his focus locked in on the bigger goals that come beyond regular season highlights like the Christmas Day matchup against his old team and good friend Westbrook.

There will be no let up, not now, not with everything ahead of them.

“Never a step back, we don’t look at step backs,” Harden told reporters when asked of the adjustments that have to be made with Paul out again with an adductor injury suffered in Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers. “We just try to get better and continue to push, obviously if Chris is injured of Clint (Capela) misses two games or whatever, we just have to continue to push and continue to find ways to better ourselves individually and as a team.”

“No pressure. No pressure for me, no pressure for our team. Go out there and compete and try to win as many games as we can.”

* * *

The top five in the Week 10 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.9 points, 9.0 assists, 5.1 rebounds

The Rockets’ win streak hit 14 games before the Los Angeles Lakers ended their roll Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time) at Toyota Center. Harden's 51 points (15-for-27 from the floor, 4-for-6 from deep and 17-for-21 from the free throw line) wasn’t enough to slow down the young Lakers or offset the loss of Chris Paul (adductor), who will not be in uniform for today's visit by the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets’ focus, however, doesn’t change. Harden has to continue grinding away, with or without Paul in the lineup, if the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase is as important to him as it appears it is. And if we’ve learned anything about Harden over the years, it’s that he has no problem doing the solo superstar thing for long stretches (Paul could be out through Christmas).

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 28.2 points, 9.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds

LeBron and the Cavaliers played early Scrooge on the Chicago Bulls Thursday night (Friday, PHL time), snapping the spirits (and the seven-game win streak) of Fred Holberg’s crew at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron’s 34 points (12-for-23 from the floor, 2-for-5 from beyond the three-point line and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line), six rebounds, nine assists and three steals served as punctuation that there will be no nights off during this regular season for the four-time Kia MVP. Not with his 33rd birthday just days away and LeBron on a season-long mission to capture his fifth MVP trophy (he doesn’t have to admit to it, but it’s obvious that he has attacked this season differently than he has recent seasons). He and the Cavaliers will enjoy a nice long weekend before Monday’s (Tuesday, PHL time) Finals rematch/showdown with the Golden State Warriors on Christmas at Oracle Arena.

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 26.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists

It isn’t always pretty, but when the Warriors have needed Durant to step up and carry the load, he’s answered each and every time. Their win-streak sits at a league-leading 10 games heading into today's game at Oracle Arena against those pesky Los Angeles Lakers (they needed overtime to survive Kyle Kuzma and Co. Tuesday, PHL time, in Kobeland). Durant has hit the 36-point mark in three of his last five games, scoring punch that has been needed with Stephen Curry out for five straight games and counting through Christmas. Maybe the surge was coming anyway, it is KD after all, but Durant’s scoring through nine games this month (29.4) is a significant jump from what he did in nine games last month (24.6). Durant will have to keep it up, even after Curry returns, if the Warriors are going to chase the Rockets out of that No. 1 spot in the standings.

4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 24.0 points, 4.9 assists, 3.0 rebounds

As high as Irving and the Celtics were riding during their 16-game win streak that ended before Thanksgiving, they need to refrain from stressing out too much now that the reality of this season has bitten them like it has almost every other team in the league. They’ve now lost five of their past nine games, including back-to-back nights against the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) on TNT. No amount of heroics from Kyrie, who has scored 30 or more points in six of the eight games he’s played in during that stretch, have saved the Celtics. Injuries and karma have caught up to the Celtics right now, and the schedule is relentless in the coming days -- home games against an improved Chicago (Sunday, PHL time) and rival Washington (Dec. 26, PHL time) followed by a road trip to Charlotte (Dec. 28, PHL time) and home games against Houston (Dec. 29, PHL time) and Brooklyn (Jan. 1, PHL time) to finish off 2017.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 29.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists

Antetekounmpo and the Bucks served notice with Tuesday’s (Wednesday, PHL time) win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that they could be a problem, a legitimate one, for the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs down the road. The win over the Cavaliers also helped the Bucks get back on track after three straight losses. Antetokounmpo’s brilliant season has cranked back up after the Bucks battled through a few rough patches. He worked the Cavaliers for 27 points (on 8-for-14 shooting from the floor and a sterling 11-for-12 from the free throw line), 14 rebounds, eight assists and two steals. And after looking like he wouldn’t be able to maintain his 30-plus point pace of the early season when his scoring average dipped from 33.7 on .632 shooting in October to 26.5 on .496 in November, the Greek Freak is averaging 30.9 points on .540 shooting this month with five more games to play before the calendar flips.

The next five:

6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

7. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

9. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

And five more ...

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Chris Paul, Houston Rockets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Next Up?

A behind-the-scenes look at Kyle Kuzma from a Western Conference scout:

“Kuzma needs to be a lesson for all of us, the entire league. Following the herd is how you end up missing on a guy like that. There are far too many guys willing to miss on a consensus guy these days than there are guys willing to pound the table for a guy they believe in but doesn't fit into the profile.

He’s not just the Lakers’ best rookie, sorry Lonzo [Ball], he’s far and away their best player right now. He can shoot it, he’s got plenty of range on his shot, he’s got fantastic size for his position, he’s got all the tools. He makes it look easy out there at times, and he doesn’t force it the way some rookies in his situation might. I know Lonzo is supposed to be the face of the franchise and the future and all of that stuff, and I’m still high on him. I think he plays the right way and will only get better. But Kuzma’s the guy. And I think a lot of us felt that way after [Summer League in Las] Vegas, but people were still hesitant to say it out loud.

The league is so homogenous these days. Everybody’s crunching the same data, looking for the exact same things in players and styles and sometimes you just miss on a guy. But as much attention as all of these guys from the Pac-12 got last season, how Kuzma almost slipped through the cracks is beyond me … and I said almost, because the Lakers didn’t miss on him. They must have known something or seen something the rest of us didn’t. It’s a little like what happened with Jimmy Butler or even Draymond Green in recent years. I think the kid is could wind up being the All-Star from that bunch in a few years, I really do. Sometimes the evaluation process is just off, it doesn’t capture the things you need to project certain guys beyond what you see from them in college.”

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