Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid rise no.2 spot

In our weekly look at the top 5 Kia MVP candidates, Luka Doncic is falling and two other players are rising.

Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid rise no.2 spot
Kia MVP Ladder: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid rise no.2 spot

Dallas coach Jason Kidd may have accidentally predicted that Luka Doncic's chances of winning Kia MVP are getting slimmer when he talked about his team's weak defense.

They can score just like Doncic.

The team has trouble stopping opponents from putting the ball in the basket, just like Doncic.

Dallas's loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, 130-122, was the latest proof. The Mavericks have now lost three straight games and have given up an average of 135.3 points in each of those losses. On Friday, they will play the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Center (7:30 ET, ESPN).

Kidd cut deep into his team when asked how to stop the bleeding.

"As long as you have these players, you have to keep asking or demanding that they play defense," he said. "It's not just about the offense. Tonight, we lost 130 points again. The team made 57% of their shots. It's a practice shoot. If you do that in this league, it doesn't matter if you have Luka or Kareem or LeBron, you're going to lose.

"No matter how many points you get, you will always fall short. So until we work harder at defense and figure out what we need to do, we'll keep scoring 120. But we'll give up 130 and 140. We might give up 150 one night. But since we scored, it won't look too bad."

The situation is interesting because it's almost like Doncic's quest to win his first MVP. On offense, the 23-year-old player always puts up big numbers. But Doncic has the worst defensive rating of the top five players on this week's Kia Race to the MVP Ladder (115.3).

Even though no one expects the three-time All-Star to be perfect every night, if his current defensive rating stays the same, it will be a career low for the leader of a team that was seventh in defensive rating last season (109.1) but is now 25th (115.)

"In the last few games, we've given up about 130 points," Doncic said. "I think our offense is fine. We have to work just as hard on defense as we do on offense."

The Mavericks have lost six of their last eight games. On Friday, they play the Miami Heat, who have won seven of their last ten games, including a 124-98 road win over a New Orleans team without CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson on Wednesday.

Colleague John Schuhmann says that Miami's recent rise has been helped by the fact that its bench players are getting better. Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Green, two of the Mavericks' best defenders on the perimeter, came back to the team on Wednesday. This should help them against the Heat. But Dallas also said Thursday that power forward Christian Wood will miss at least a week because his left thumb is broken.

Maxi Kleber is still getting better from right hamstring surgery he had in December, so only Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee are healthy big men on the team.

In this week's Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Doncic drops two spots to No. 4. This is because seven teams in the Western Conference are within 1 1/2 games of Dallas or less.

Jayson Tatum moves back up to second place after Boston beat the Golden State Warriors in overtime on Thursday. Joel Embiid moves up to third place after leading Philadelphia to its fourth win on its five-game road trip out West.

Now, here are the top five players on the 2022–2023 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Statistics for the season: 25.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.9 apg

Add it up. Nikola Jokic now has 90 triple-doubles in his career. He got his 14th of the season and fifth in six games in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, a day after getting a 36-point triple-double against Portland.

Russell Westbrook was the last player, in 2021, to have five triple-doubles in six games. When Jokic has that stat line, the Nuggets are 14-0. Jokic has given out 37 assists in just his last three games, making him the all-time leader in assists for the Nuggets. Denver has won eight straight games, including 15 in a row at home. In his last five games, Jokic hasn't shot worse than 60% from the floor. Impressive.

2. Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Stats for the season: 31.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, and 4.3 apg

In Boston's overtime win over Golden State, he scored 34 points and grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds. This helped the Celtics win their eighth straight game. Since the last three games of the 2022 NBA Finals, Boston had lost four straight to Golden State. On Thursday night, however, that changed. "We didn't win the title. Tatum said this about the Celtics' attitude going into the game: "No one can bring that back." "So we didn't think of this as a rematch of the Finals. It's only one game against a great team with great players and a great coach. It was only one game."

3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Stats for the season: 33.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 4.2 apg

The steady climb keeps going. Embiid missed three games in a row from January 4 to 8, but he came back strong, averaging 34.0 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game, and 1.8 blocks per game in the six games since. The Sixers have won four straight games on their current five-game road trip in the West. They have also won eight of their first ten games in January, which has tied them with the Bucks for second place in the East. Doc Rivers, the coach of Philadelphia, said, "I think we're good, and I think we can be really, really good." A lot of that depends on how well Joel Embiid keeps playing on both ends of the court. Both Embiid and James Harden seem to be hitting their stride right now.

4. The Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Stats for the season: 33.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, and 8.8 apg

The Mavs have shot 50% or better from the field in three of their last four games, so neither scoring nor shooting is the problem. This season, Doncic has had 31 30-point games, which is also a career high and the most in the NBA. But the 23-year-old and the rest of the team need to get much better at defense if Dallas wants to get back to winning, which would only help Doncic's chances of winning MVP.

It's not like this team isn't good, either. Last season, when Doncic was a willing defensive player, they made it to the West finals. Everyone else on this list has a defensive rating of 111.3, and Dallas has the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA since Christmas (121.9).

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Stats for the season: 31.0 ppg, 11.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg

Antetokounmpo hasn't played since January 11, when he had a season-low seven points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists in a win over Atlanta. He's missed Milwaukee's last four games because his knee hurts, but coach Mike Budenholzer says the Bucks aren't worried about the two-time MVP's future availability because he's due back soon. Budenholzer said, "Taking care of him is always our top priority." "Because he's so important to us, we'll probably always err on the side of caution." Antetokounmpo is on track to have the best scoring season of his career and the third-best scoring season in Bucks history if he keeps scoring at 31 points per game.

What's next?

  1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week's ranking: No. 6)
  2. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (ranked No. 7 last week)
  3. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers (Last week's ranking: No.8
  4. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics (No. 9 last week)
  5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came in at No. 10 last week.

And here are five more (in alphabetical order): Stephen Curry plays for the Golden State Warriors, James Harden for the Philadelphia 76ers, Lauri Markkanen for the Utah Jazz, Julius Randle for the New York Knicks, and Domantas Sabonis for the Sacramento Kings.

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