MVP Ladder: Assessing state of MVP chase as season hits its midpoint

NBA.com Global on Jan 13, 2018 08:59 AM
MVP Ladder: State of MVP chase as season hits its midpoint
FILE - BOSTON, MA - MAY 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands for a moment of silence for the National Anthem before the game against the Boston Celtics during Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

No one wins a Kia MVP before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, not even in a runaway MVP season.

But you can certainly lose one by then, or lose enough ground in a tight race that you’ll play catch up the rest of the way.

The first few weeks of this new calendar year has given rise to certain campaigns (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry), stalled others (James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook) and fueled a couple of upstarts (DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler) who are making moves at just the right time.

And then there’s LeBron James, who tumbles out of the top five of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder as his Cleveland Cavaliers, struggling to adjust as they transition Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup, stumble.

LeBron, of course, will be in the conversation until the very end. But in a crowded field where momentum means everything, the four-time winner of the league’s most prestigious regular-season award isn’t riding the wave right now.

In fact, the halfway point of this season finds LeBron and his Cavaliers in much the same place they were after that rough 5-7 start to this season. The Cavaliers have lost six of their eight games since their Christmas Day (Dec. 26, PHL time) loss to the Golden State Warriors.

They’ve lost by 28 points in Minnesota earlier this week and by 34 Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) in Toronto. They are in a tailspin right now that no one saw coming when they were winning 19 of the 21 games between these rough patches and LeBron was uppercutting Father Time with his 33rd birthday approaching.

"We're in a funk, we're just in a funk. And once again we're back to the beginning of the season,” LeBron told reporters after the Toronto loss. “We’re so fragile, and I don't know where it kind of went wrong or what happened to switch back, but we've got try to pick it back up and find it."

The same can be said for his momentum in the MVP chase.

* * *

The top five in the Week 13 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 26.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists

LA Clippers guard Lou Williams stole the spotlight from Durant on his milestone night, scoring 50 points in a road win Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) on the same night Durant dropped 40 and joined the 20,000 point club. That doesn’t diminish Durant’s accomplishment, though. He’s the 44th player in NBA history to cross the 20,000-career points mark and the second youngest to do it (after LeBron James). Durant’s status as one of the league’s all-time great scorers is already set. It’s how rest of his game has evolved that has legitimized any conversation about him being the top player in the league (based on his current shine and not just history or reputation). Durant’s shot blocking prowess -- he ranks second in the league in total blocks (76) -- has turned him into a surprising rim protector and a situational defensive stopper whenever coach Steve Kerr needs him to fill that role.

2. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 24.1 points, 5.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds

While his individual scoring (19.2 points in his last five games) and shooting (.387 from the floor, .287 from deep) numbers haven’t been through the roof recently, Irving has remains the catalyst for a Boston team that continues to win games wherever they are. Thursday’s (Friday, PHL time) comeback win over Philadelphia in London was the Celtics' seventh straight victory. And Irving's all-around work throughout this stretch -- 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists -- hasn't gone unnoticed. The fact is, his presence has helped elevate the game of youngsters Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. He's also done a nice job finding his own niche in the Celtics’ defensive fabric. The Celtics simply would not be the team they are without Irving’s imprint on what they do, which is exactly what he was looking for when he requested that trade from Cleveland over the summer.

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 32.3 points, 9.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds

Thank goodness for Chris Paul. Harden’s superstar backcourt mate is keeping the Rockets alive while Harden continues to nurse that sore hamstring. To date, Houston is 3-2 since Harden went down. If Harden comes back as early as next week, Monday’s (Tuesday, PHL time) game against the LA Clippers would be ideal. The Rockets have to hold the line with San Antonio and Minnesota chasing them in the standings for that No. 2 spot behind the Golden State Warriors. Harden being out into February is a predicament that would be unacceptable for a Rockets team trying to create some separation from the pack in the tight Western Conference playoff chase. This break, if Harden does return in time for the MLK Jr. Day game, could turn out to be an unintended break for a player who would not have eased up otherwise. And we all remember how spent Harden looked at the end of the 2017 playoffs.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 27.9 points, 6.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds

A wet spot at shootaround -- and the sprained ankle that followed -- was all it took to interrupt a nuclear run by Curry has been on of late. Curry was destroying the competition in the five games before his latest ankle mishap, averaging 35.2 points on 57.4 percent shooting, 53.2 percent from three-point range and 89.7 percent at the line. Toss in his 5.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game and it’s no wonder Curry’s MVP stock is on the rise. He could be back as soon as today, when the Warriors visit Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. But an even more intriguing game is looming on this road trip. Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Tuesday, PHL time) showdown against the Cavaliers in Cleveland is the matchup everyone is looking forward to, since Curry missed the Christmas Day tilt recovering from an ankle sprained last month. Whenever he comes back, Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) in Toronto (?), the fireworks will continue.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week's ranking: No. 8

Season stats: 25.3 points, 5.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds

The Raptors played without two starters (Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka), DeRozan didn’t come close to his season scoring average and yet they still walked out of the Air Canada Centre Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) having rocked Cleveland by 34 points. Ignore DeRozan’s pedestrian scoring output (13 points on 5-for-13 shooting) and instead focus on the masterful floor game he played (eight assists, three rebounds and no turnovers) in managing coach Dwane Casey’s new, free-flowing offense. The Raptors shared the ball against the Cavaliers and used their young legs to run LeBron James and his struggling crew out of the building. Nights like that aren’t possible without DeRozan making the necessary adjustments to his game. Don’t get it twisted, he’s still as dangerous as ever (25.6 points and six assists in his past five games while shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range). He’s just doing it in a variety of ways.

The next five:

6. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

8. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

9. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

10. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

And five more ...

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Next up?

An inside look at Terry Rozier from an Eastern Conference scout:

“It was difficult to get a good handle on his game in his first season because Boston had a glut of guards and he wasn’t really a point guard, but at his size you just couldn’t project him as a legitimate shooting guard in our league. He wasn’t ready that rookie season, he just didn’t play enough to get a good evaluation on him. But credit to him and to Danny [Ainge] and the work their staff has done developing him. He’s quickly becoming one of my bench guys to watch because of how hard he plays and just the sheer energy he brings when he’s out there. There’s no doubt the opportunity has increased with Avery Bradley gone and everybody’s role being elevated a bit due to Gordon Hayward’s injury situation. Rozier’s put in the work, though. It shows in his game.

"He’s so much more confident in that stroke (37.2 percent on three-pointers) and he’s so quick, he can make up for his lack of size sometimes by just being able to get to spots quicker than the next guy. I know he’s got tweener size, but he rebounds (4.4) as well or better than guys four and five inches taller than he is and he does it in fewer minutes. The thing really I love about him and all of their guards is that they are quick enough and athletic enough to run you off of the 3-point line. They do that as well as just about any team in the league and he and Marcus Smart out there together cause all sort of problems. Championship caliber teams have always needed guys like this, role players who can be a factor in whatever amount of times they are on the floor. In recent years, I think about guys like Ian Clark when he was with the Warriors. I thought he played a really crucial role on that team, in terms of always being ready when his number was called and then doing exactly what was needed in a given situation. The role Rozier is being asked to play in Boston right now is similar. You’ve got to have nuts and bolts guys like that in your rotation, guys who are playmakers who maybe don’t fit a certain profile but just get the job done.”

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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