MVP Ladder: Aberrant finish in award chase likely awaits James

NBA.com Global on Mar 16, 2019 08:10 AM
MVP Ladder: Aberrant finish in award chase awaits James
PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 10: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers is seen on February 10, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

All good things must come to an end, even for a four-time Kia MVP like LeBron James.

The sobering reality in his 16th season is that it has provided lesson after painful lesson for the man who dominated the NBA narrative for most of the past decade.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ playoffs hopes, as fleeting as they’ve been for weeks now, are all but over. The same is likely true for James’ personal streak of 13 straight playoff appearances.

His eight straight seasons playing in The Finals? Finished.

That stranglehold LeBron has had on a first team All-NBA spot? That likely comes to an end this season as well.

It also means his impressive run of top-five finishes in the MVP chase is likely to meet an ugly demise this season, too. He finished ninth in MVP voting his rookie season (2002-03) and sixth the following season before making the top five in every season since then … (likely) until now.

It’s not that he hasn’t posted MVP-caliber numbers -- his 27.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and eight assists per game are better than his career stats (27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg). Individual metrics aren’t the problem, but rather the Lakers’ futility this season --  fueled in large part by his career-high 18-games missed due to injury and/or maintenance -- is what will cost him his customary spot on most MVP ballots.

"Obviously, I would love for the team to be in the postseason," James said after the Lakers' 123-107 win Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) in Chicago. "Even if I'm not a part of it, the postseason I've always loved. But right now, it's not the hand I was dealt, so you play the hand that you were dealt until the dealer shuffles the cards and you're dealt another hand and can do that."

LeBron’s “fanboys” (as Kevin Durant calls them) will argue that James’ unavailability during that critical stretch of the season is what caused the Lakers to slide out of the playoff chase. That’s a theory no doubt rooted in some truth.

But that won’t be enough to sustain his run of seasons inside the MVP velvet rope that he’s enjoyed for so long.

It is odd for this to happen in the same season that LeBron passes his idol, Michael Jordan, for fourth on the all-time scoring list. And to be fair, he’s still got a few weeks left to present his final argument that he hasn’t given any ground in terms of his own individual performance.

That’s not how this works, of course. The MVP conversation begins with individual brilliance but must be buttressed by team success and league-wide relevance.

No one knows that better than LeBron.

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: Tied for No. 1

Season stats: 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

No one has been able to disrupt Antetokounmpo’s flow this season, no matter what tactics they’ve employed to stymie Milwaukee’s anchor and superstar. His ability to counter basically every team's defensive look bodes well for his effectiveness in the playoffs. The notion that daring him to shoot and preventing him from attacking the rim would somehow force him to abandon his biggest strengths ignored the fact that his "Greek Freak" nickname is a most appropriate moniker. The Miami Heat will get a reminder today when they host the Bucks at American Airlines Arena. Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) dance with the Philadelphia 76ers, however, offers one of the few chances when Antetokounmpo might not be the freakiest physical specimen on the floor. The Sixers' Joel Embiid made an emphatic return from some post All-Star break load management to drill the Indiana Pacers for 33 points and 12 rebounds last Sunday, then dropped 17 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks on the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time). Antetokounmpo and Embiid will face each other for just the fourth time in their careers.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: Tied for No. 1

Season stats: 36.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals

Harden didn’t seem particularly stressed after the Rockets saw their nine-game win streak come to an end Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) against the Golden State Warriors. Harden knows, as we all do, that nothing that happens during the season has any impact on what could happen should the teams meet again come playoff time. In winning the season series 3-1, Harden and Co. have already made their point where the Warriors are concerned. The Rockets are the one team capable of pushing them to the limit, as they did in the 2018 Western Conference finals. Harden knows that the Rockets need a healthy roster with the postseason on the horizon. Losing Chris Paul to a hamstring injury for the final two games of last season's series vs. the Warriors proved crucial. The more important business now for Harden and the Rockets is continuing their climb in the Western Conference standings.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 28.2 points 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals

George and the Thunder are battling for a coveted top-three spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. Who knew that George’s absence with a sore shoulder would impact his team the way it did? But as good as Russell Westbrook has been this season -- and he’s been fantastic at times -- not having George in the mix those three games wobbled the Thunder. They’ve lost seven of their 12 games since the All-Star break, including a spirit-crunching road loss to the Indiana Pacers last night. In just his second visit to Indiana since he was traded to the Thunder two years ago, George lit his former team up for 36 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals as they raced out to a 19-point lead. But it wasn’t enough to survive the Pacers’ rally and a Wesley Matthews tip-in with 1.8 seconds to play. It was another one of those nights when George and Westbrook did their thing, but the rest of the roster's offensive production wasn't up to the task. Saturday's (Sunday, PHL time) showdown with the Warriors, however, offers a chance for redemption and would be just the spark the Thunder need to crank things up as the playoff positioning continues.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 27.9 points, 5.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals

Curry has the luxury playing on a team so star-studded that a pedestrian performance -- by his lofty standards, anyway -- in a showdown game doesn’t rattle anyone. He shot a rough 8-for-20 (3-for-9 from deep) in Wednesday's (Thursday, PHL time) showdown with the Rockets, a game that Kevin Durant (ankle) missed. But when Klay Thompson (30 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (27 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals) go nuclear, Curry gets the kind of cover he often provides others. Another statement game awaits, though, in Saturday’s (Sunday, PHL time) game in Oklahoma City. That will feature a hungry Thunder team, an anxious home crowd seeking another shot at the defending champs and the always-ready Russell Westbrook. The Warriors are 1-0 on their current road trip that makes stops in San Antonio (Tuesday, PHL time) and Minnesota (Wednesday, PHL time) before they return to home for three straight games. Seeing Curry and the Warriors eyeball the upcoming schedule is something new, given the way they’ve dominated the West the past five seasons. But they are locked in a race for the top seed and have had to adjust accordingly.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.4 steals

Jokic’s late-game heroics helped the Nuggets survive Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) ... and also helped salvage what could have been a rough week, too. Last Saturday (last Sunday, PHL time), Denver got smashed in the face by Golden State, the team it is chasing for West's top spot, but has gone 2-0 since then. While Jokic hasn't scored more than 18 points in four straight games, he's made up for it with his playmaking/facilitating during that same stretch. But the Nuggets need more from their star big man if they are serious about passing the Warriors, who were more than up for last Saturday's (last Sunday, PHL time) challenge. Coach Mike Malone has done a splendid job massaging his rotation, keeping Denver locked in and focused on the tasks at hand. Jokic’s constantly stellar effort this season has been perhaps the biggest factor in that success, which might land him an All-NBA first team spot in the months to come.

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The Next Five

6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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