MVP Ladder: Two trophies can unlock NBA immortality

NBA.com Global on Nov 16, 2019 05:37 AM
MVP Ladder: Two trophies can unlock NBA immortality
FILE - LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 6: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against the LA Clippers on November 6, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Giannis Antetokounmpo was made for the 82-game grind a player must navigate to win the Kia MVP. In this season’s first 11 games -- and in last season's MVP run -- he’s been relentless, which is why he remains No. 1 on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

But is he built for that other MVP, the Finals MVP? Does he have what it takes to drive the Bucks to the top of the playoff heap?

No one doubts he’s capable.

Having a Finals MVP and a regular season MVP vaults one into a different category.

That’s the way it worked for LeBron James, who won two of his four Kia MVPs in Cleveland (2009 and 2010) before winning his first title in Miami in 2012, when he collected back-to-back Kia MVPs and Finals MVPs (2012 and 2013).

Kevin Durant won his Kia MVP in 2014 with the Oklahoma City Thunder … and then won back-to-back Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors (2017 and 2018).

“I think the MVP award shouldn’t just be for the regular season anyway, I think it should go all the way through the postseason,” said Brian Shaw, who won a combined five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers as a player and assistant coach.  “And I say this from experience. There are a lot of people who win awards and then when the playoffs come around, they can’t be found.”

Shaw wouldn’t name names, but he was mostly talking about what he referred to as the true measure of the league’s best player.

He said in his playing career (1988-2003) there was never a doubt among players who the league’s best player was. The one holding the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, though, was often not one in the same.

To Shaw, one of the NBA’s great travesties is that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant -- his former Lakers teammates – have more combined Finals MVPs (three for O’Neal; two for Bryant) than MVPs (one each).

“You don’t crown a winner of the Kentucky Derby every lap or halfway through the race,” Shaw said. “You let it all play out and then you know who the real winner is. I was on teams with these guys and I watched them do what real MVPs are supposed to do when it’s all on the line. Can we go to you with everything on the line and say, ‘Bring us home?’ That’s when it’s real.”

Many variables can shape the MVP chase and much can be manipulated in a data-driven game. Certain players in systems tailor-made for their skill sets get to exploit the league, crafting narratives that make it impossible to overlook the results of a marathon-like season.

“But at the end of the day, as far as the ultimate prize and the ultimate goal of winning a championship or at least playing for one,” Shaw said, “a lot of those guys [with Kia MVPs] never got there. The numbers are cute and all, it’s cool. But if you walk away with that real prize, then you know you really did something.”

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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

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 steals

Antetokounmpo is on a roll right now that has seen him average 35.1 points over his past six games. To date this month -- which includes Thursday night’s (Friday, PHL time) 38-point, 16-rebound, four-assist, three-steal effort vs. Chicago -- Antetokounmpo is averaging more points (34.3) than minutes (34) per game. That’s pretty good for a guy whose offensive arsenal is still under construction.

2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 23.9 points, 11.1 assists, 8.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals

Those Magic Johnson comparisons look better than ever now that James is in full-blown facilitator mode at this stage of his career. LeBron leads the NBA in assists per game and is the only player in the league averaging a points-assists double-double.

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 38.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.5 steals

Harden’s 420 points through the season’s first 11 games ranks third all-time behind a couple of Wilt Chamberlain’s virtuoso performances. Harden is as unstoppable as ever and the Rockets are drafting off his exploitation of defenses. The scary part is Harden is still getting comfortable with his current team.

4. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

Last week: Not ranked

Season stats: 25.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists

The last time the Celtics kicked off a season with a 9-1 record was in 2007-08 -- the last time they won the NBA title. Walker’s been outstanding during the Celtics’ 9-game win streak and has piled up 3 straight games with at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists.

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Last week: Not ranked

Season stats: 27.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists

During his Kia Most Improved Player season in 2018-19, Siakam had five games with 30 or more points. He has five already this season after a 36-point showcase on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) in Portland. He’s powered the Raptors to their 3rd-best start in franchise history while making it clear there is life after Kawhi Leonard.

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The Next Five

6. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

T-7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets & Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

8. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

9. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

And five more: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves; Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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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.

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

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