Thursday November 29th, 2007

The hubbub about NBA All-Star voting normally begins about the middle of January when fans from Team A suddenly realize that their guy is getting fewer votes than a less deserving guy from Team B. So Team A fans muster a campaign to get their guy more votes, then Team B fans respond in kind, and meanwhile China gets every living citizen to vote for its native sons, and, well, off we go.

The NBA enjoys this. More votes = more interest in the All-Star Game = more interest in the NBA in general. That is why the league allows the fans to vote in the five starters for each team while the coaches add the remaining seven players.

This year, however, the controversy started much earlier, as soon as the ballot came out containing the names of the 60 players from each conference who are eligible to get All-Star votes. I was was part of the seven-member media panel that put together the ballot, so I have something to say about the process, and, while I'm at it, answer charges that I'm an idiot.

Complaining about the All-Star ballot strikes me, first of all, as akin to complaining that the celery sticks served before a massive Thanksgiving dinner aren't crispy enough. People, there will be enough legit bitching to be done when the votes actually start coming in. But complaints there were.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was (is) miffed that his starting point guard, Devin Harris, was not on the ballot. "I don't know who actually puts the ballots together," Cuban wrote on his blog. "Supposedly its [sic] a bunch of media members (which may be all the explanation I need) who decide who is on or off." Key phrase: I don't know who actually puts the ballots together. Dude, it's not exactly a secret (the NBA listed the media members in its official announcement when the ballot was revealed Nov. 14).

Up in Seattle, meanwhile, Chris Wilcox was upset that he was not among the 24 Western Conference forwards chosen. He did not mention, but may have been thinking, that teammates Wally Szczerbiak and Nick Collison, both forwards who are having less productive years than he is, did make it. The Chinese press was outraged that we did not include Milwaukee rookie Yi Jianlian on the ballot, and one Web site proposed the dark question, Does the NBA want Yi Jianlian off the All-Star ballot? I'm pretty sure complaints about Phoenix's Boris Diaw exclusion appeared on his Web site, but they were written in his native language and I had only one semester of French a long time ago. No doubt there were other complaints, too.

The biggest and most legitimate noise, however, came from San Antonio, because we listed Tim Duncan as a center, not a forward, and that meant his streak of nine All-Star starts was in jeopardy. Why? Because the monumental online vote from China virtually guarantees that Yao Ming will be the starter at that position. (To be clear, the noise did not come from Duncan, who professed not to care.)

OK, here's the story, best as I can tell it.

First, I beg you to put aside foreboding thoughts of conspiracy, any belief that we get together in these conference-call sessions and say, "OK, who can we screw this year?" Whenever a media conspiracy is suggested, I have the same answer: We are far too disorganized to have a conspiracy. It's a minor miracle when we all manage to dial into the conference. There are no conspiracies. We try to do this equitably, not to mention quickly, though the "quickly" part usually disintegrates when we bicker about, say, who the 24th forward might be. (This year that did involve Wilcox.)

Anyway, keep in mind four points:

• The NBA mandates that the ballot be broken up by position, with 24 forwards, 24 guards and 12 centers per conference.

• The NBA mandates that all teams have at least three players represented.

• The NBA mandates that the committee meets before the season so the ballots are ready early. That means that decisions must be made on past performance and projections of current season performance.

• NBA reps are in on the conference call but, by and large, do not get involved in the decisions, though the league may make adjustments later. One of the adjustments they made this year after the ballot's release was putting Duncan back at forward. All members of the committee OK'd it in follow-up phone calls.

Now, how did Duncan end up at center before the switch? The major problem in past years -- and it's a problem that will continue -- was finding 12 qualified centers and, by extension, finding a way to get all qualified forwards on the ballot. The 12-center mandate is why players such as Primoz Brezec, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Blount and Francisco Elson were on last year's ballot at the sacrifice of better qualified forwards.

This center-forward problem was/is particularly difficult in the Western Conference. In past ballot meetings, in fact, we defined the problem through Duncan. It hurt us to list him at forward knowing that Duncan, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki or Minnesota's Kevin Garnett could not be a starter because none of the three was a center. And that's not even to get into Carmelo Anthony. Even with Garnett gone to the East, the problem remained -- too many qualified forwards, not enough qualified centers.

So this year someone suggested at the top of the conference call that we should list some of the power forwards who play with their back to the basket and guard opposing centers as centers. That way we could get more qualified frontcourt players on the ballot. Everyone quickly agreed. Players such as Duncan, Phoenix's Amaré Stoudemire and Memphis' Pau Gasol were also put into the center category.

The thought that Duncan would probably not get a starting nod never came up. Whether it occurred to anyone else, I can't say, but it did not occur to me, probably because I don't even like to think about the fact that fans vote the starters. It's a flawed system, and I'll take that to my grave.

As the game has evolved, center has turned more and more into a vestigial position. Yao and Shaquille O'Neal, to name two, are both true centers, so defined by their size (big), their offensive positioning (near the hoop, usually with back to the basket) and their defensive responsibility (the least mobile of the opponent's big men). But the distinction gets blurry after that. Coaches rarely use the term "center" anymore; frontcourtmen are simply "bigs."

The 12-center mandate resonates throughout the selection process. No one believes that the Mavs' Erick Dampier, for example, will be an All-Star, but we had to put him on the ballot because he is clearly one of the West's 12 best centers. (And we had long discussions about whether teammate DeSagana Diop was more deserving of the nod.) OK, add Dallas teammates Nowitzki and Josh Howard at forward. Add Jason Terry, who is a better guard than Harris. Now we have four Mavs. We added veteran guard Jerry Stackhouse because he was reportedly going to be a starter this season and he's had a terrific career. He's also better than Harris. That's five Mavs. How many is fair? If Cuban wants to include Harris, then who would he kick off? Exclude Dampier and add Harris? Everyone would agree that Harris is a better player, but we would never get to 12 centers if we left off pivotmen like Dampier.

Then there's the three-per-team mandate, which makes the selections more complicated than you might think. Is Harris a more deserving inclusion than Portland's Jarrett Jack? Probably. But we needed three Blazers, and rookie Greg Oden, a sure inclusion at center, was out with an injury.

Is Harris more deserving than Seattle's Luke Ridnour? Probably. But try to figure out -- before a game is played, remember -- just who will be three deserving Sonics. They are a young, remodeled team with a new coach. Including Kevin Durant was a no-brainer, as exciting, high-drafted rookies should be on the ballot. But who else? We talked about guards Ridnour, Delonte West and Earl Watson, and finally decided that Ridnour would get most of the minutes at point guard in an up-tempo system. That hasn't happened, and coach P.J. Carlesimo is still trying to figure out his quarterback position. We talked endlessly about a Sonics forward, finally deciding on Szczerbiak based on an eight-year career during which he's been a double-figure scorer every season. Collison, in fact, was added only after we realized that we had three Sonics and seven Phoenix Suns. So we subtracted Diaw, who had been on the original ballot, and picked Collison over Wilcox.

Had we had the luxury of watching one week of the Sonics' season, we no doubt would've gone with Wilcox and Damien Wilkins as the forwards (to join Durant) and we'd still be trying to figure out if a Seattle guard was deserving. Right now it would probably be Watson, and certainly not Ridnour, but we had no way of knowing that then.

Once the Duncan adjustment was made, every other complaint is just conversation. I had to laugh when a newspaper story about Harris not making the ballot was headlined "All-Star Snub for Harris?" It wasn't an All-Star snub; it was a "Won't-Make-the-Team-Anyway-Almost-Irrelevant Ballot Snub." There's a big difference between making an All-Star team and making a ballot.

If you still want to proclaim the media panel as idiots, as has been the case on talk radio, feel free. But the real idiocy is getting worked up over a ballot that has myriad stipulations and mandates.

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