The NBA has undertaken a massive overhaul of its All-Star voting procedure in recent years -- is it working?
The NBA has undertaken a massive overhaul of its All-Star voting procedure in recent years. A paper ballot with a limited number of players and traditional positional headings has gradually given way to an all-digital, all-inclusive ballot that features a broader positional approach.
When the league decided last year to shift the Slam Dunk Contest’s format into a team-based competition with rap-themed “freestyle” and “battle” rounds, it was immediately clear that the centerpiece event could be headed for disaster and disappointment. But the success or failure of the NBA's All-Star voting process isn’t nearly as easy to determine. There are just so many variables: the most popular players aren’t always the most deserving, older superstars will always have the benefit of greater name recognition, up-and-comers often reach an elite level of play before they become household names, and unexpected injuries can significantly complicate the process.
To quickly recap the voting procedure: a fan vote determines the 10 starters for the game, five from each conference, while a private vote by each conference’s coaches is responsible for filling out the other roster spots. After dumping guard/forward/center positional designations in favor of backcourt/frontcourt umbrellas and opening up the vote to social media channels for the 2013 game, the league made two big changes in advance of this year’s game, set for New York City on Feb. 16.
- The online ballot now includes every player in the league, rather than a pre-selected group of 120 players, thereby eliminating the possibility of any “snubs.”
- The start of the voting period was pushed back later in the season; rather than opening voting in mid-November and releasing the first round of results in mid-December, the league opened voting on Dec. 11 and announced its first returns on Christmas. That change allowed voters to base their choices on a sample size of roughly 20 games, rather than 10 or so under the previous timetable. Balloting still runs through Jan. 19 (essentially unchanged from previous years).
After one round of returns, the projected starters are as follows (* = voted as a starter last year):
Determining whether these recent changes have actually improved the process requires looking at the entire endeavor from the league’s perspective. As with any ranking system, such as SI.com’s annual Top 100 Players list, arriving at an unimpeachable consensus for the 10 starters just isn’t realistic. With perfection unattainable, the NBA’s major goals should be: extended engagement (the more votes, the better), final lineups that strike a reasonable balance between the most popular and most deserving players (the fewer glaring omissions, the better), and constructive intrigue throughout the process itself (the more productive discussion generated, the better).
The first round of 2015 All-Star returns suggest that the NBA has made some meaningful progress towards these goals.
Increased Vote Intensity
The biggest risk for the NBA in pushing back the voting process – shortening the total voting window by roughly one month -- was the potential for decreased participation. This might not seem like that big of a deal to outsiders, but it’s understandable why those in the league office would be hesitant to make any change that drastically cuts into the total number of clicks and hashtags generated by this process. After all, this is the only time that fans are included in a league decision to this degree.
Cutting the voting window this season looks like a timely, calculated gamble: the NBA’s popularity is on the upswing, its digital reach continues to show big improvements, and last year’s voting totals were up from 2013, the first year that social media networks were involved in the process. The league had good reason to trust that its fans could adjust to the new timetable and that they would continue participating in volume.
While the NBA does not release the total vote tallies, it does release the results for the top 15 frontcourt vote-getters and the top 10 backcourt vote-getters from each conference. A comparison of the first-return results from the last three years shows that fans have voted significantly more often this year, on a per-day basis, than in previous years.
The total number of votes cast is predictably down so far this year, given that the number of days in the first voting window was essentially cut in half, but the final tally might actually surpass last year, despite the four lost weeks (mid-November to mid-December). If the votes continue to be cast at the same rate they were during the first balloting period, this year’s total projects to be roughly 21.4 million, up slightly from 20.8 million last year.
Fewer Extraneous Votes
The big potential positive of shrinking the balloting window was a result that better reflected performances from this season. Observers have long expressed frustration with A-listers like Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose pulling down hundreds of thousands of votes year after year even if, as was the case last season, they played just a handful of games due to injuries.
This year’s results seem to indicate a more precise return in that regard. Last year, Rose’s season was already over for roughly three weeks before it was announced that he received 272,410 votes in the first return (placing him third among East backcourt players). Rajon Rondo, then on the Celtics, also managed to draw more than 80,000 votes, even though he hadn’t yet returned from a knee injury. Bryant, meanwhile, had played just a few games due to an Achilles injury; nevertheless, he drew 501,215 votes in the first return, tops among West backcourt players and second overall in the conference. Bryant wound up winning a starting spot, even though he urged his fans to vote for younger players after he suffered what would become a season-ending knee injury.
There are many signs of progress this year. Rose, who has already missed 10 games and is playing fewer minutes this season, has dropped to fifth among East backcourt players. That’s a more accurate reflection of his standing. Paul George (Pacers) drew nearly 500,000 votes in the first return last season (second overall in the East) and theoretically had the type of superstar appeal to post big numbers despite suffering a season-ending knee injury this summer. Instead, he did not rank among the East's top 15 frontcourt vote-getters, even though he is listed along with the rest of the league’s players on the official ballot.
In the West, Oklahoma City’s two stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, have both missed big stretches with injuries this season. Durant was the West’s overall leading vote-getter last season with more than 600,000 votes in the first return; this year he ranks fifth among West frontcourt players with 191,881 votes. Westbrook earned nearly 150,000 votes in the first return last year, even though he was sidelined for a stretch with a knee injury. This year, a foot injury cost him a few weeks and his tally has dropped to 84,686. Tony Parker and Dwight Howard have also seen their vote totals drop this year, as they have both been sidelined at times with ailments. If Durant is able to return to the court and climb back into an All-Star starting spot over the next three weeks, that would stand as pretty good evidence of the new voting system’s responsiveness. If not, there’s a good chance that whomever replaces him in the starting lineup will be “more deserving” based on his own body of work this season. On the whole, that seems like a fair and welcome development.
The biggest injury-related question marks among this year’s current projected starters are Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, but neither player is in the “totally undeserving” category. Although both play for underperforming teams, Anthony and Wade are among the league’s top 10 scorers and rank among the leaders at their respective positions in Player Efficiency Rating. Indeed, it's safe to say that the release of the first-ballot returns passed with less drama than usual this year, given the lack of major gaffes.
More Deserving (?) Votes
Observers have long bemoaned the fact that small-market players, high-efficiency players, young players, defense-first players and less-athletic players can get overlooked in the voting process. This year’s results wound up producing a number of pleasant surprises on these fronts. John Wall (Wizards) and Anthony Davis (Pelicans) are two young stars on oft-overlooked teams who are projected to be first-time starters. Marc Gasol is a ground-bound, defense-first center playing for a small-market team and on track to start for the first time over the likes of Durant, Howard and DeMarcus Cousins. Wall, Davis and Gasol are all fully “deserving” of starting nods, but it's worth noting that all three have shown significant improvement in their voting results from previous seasons: Wall more than doubled his first-ballot tally from last year, Davis more than tripled his tally, and Gasol more than tripled his 2013 total (he was injured to start the season).
All three have certainly increased their profiles in recent years, but one wonders whether the NBA’s new online ballot format is helping to influence their popularity among voters. When a fan initially clicks on the official ballot website, a list of names is automatically displayed. That list is not organized alphabetically; instead, it auto-populates by the player’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE), a catch-all statistic used by NBA.com to measure a player’s overall value.
As it turns out, Wall ranks No. 1 among East backcourt players in PIE, Davis ranks No. 1 among West frontcourt players in PIE, and Gasol ranks No. 2 among West frontcourt players in PIE. In other words, their names are among the first that a voter sees when he or she logs onto the ballot website. Just check out the image below. Even if New Orleans and Memphis don't play very often on national television, it's impossible to miss Davis and Gasol on the ballot.
This positioning would seem to be a major benefit. After all, some voters are surely trying to get through the process as quickly as possible, while others are simply looking for “deserving” candidates to fill out their lineups around their own personal favorite players or selections. The only projected starter who isn’t a top PIE performer is Bryant -- he’s No. 19 among West backcourt players – but he has the benefit of an intensely loyal, well-established global fan base. (Does Temecula ring a bell?) The other nine projected starters rank among the top 10 in PIE in their respective groupings and are therefore very easy to find on the online ballot, usually without any scrolling. Another intriguing wrinkle here: Durant, Howard, Cousins and Westbrook don’t currently have PIE rankings, presumably due to their injuries, and are therefore left off the default screen. To vote for them, a user must type in the player's name to search it or click on a heading to sort by another statistic (points, rebounds, assists, etc.).
This all raises a big question: did fans actually get more intelligent this year, or were voters simply funneled towards high-efficiency players? Were strong early-season performances by Wall and Davis augmented by their placement on the ballot? What other factors, aside from his high efficiency and this prime placement, might explain Gasol’s big jump this year, given that he’s been a top performer for multiple seasons on a team that has enjoyed sustained success? Those queries will remain unanswered, as the NBA does not disclose what percentage of its votes come from the website versus the other social media methods, but there’s definitely some cause for suspicion here.
Regardless of whether or not their selections were totally pure, the presence of these new names should give some measure of hope to other overlooked candidates -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, and Cousins -- down the road. A process that returns the exact same names, year after year, isn't much fun. So far, this year's process has mixed things up pretty well.
It’s too early to call these All-Star voting changes a total success. To get there, the new process will need to produce: 1) more total votes in a shorter calendar than in previous years, 2) a starting lineup wholly composed of deserving candidates, and 3) multiple positional voting races that drive interest by going down to the wire.
Still, the NBA and the league’s fans should be pleased with where things stand to date. With the exception of Bryant -- who is getting by on his reputation at this point and should be replaced by either James Harden or Chris Paul -- the 10 projected starters range from “totally deserving” to “somewhat deserving,” and the influence of votes for injured players looks to be down meaningfully from last season. Meanwhile, the modified balloting framework has produced more intense voting while also rewarding a number of high-efficiency players who have been passed over in recent years. Those are all positive, desired developments – even if the layout of the official ballot raises the concerns laid out above.
The next step will be whether subsequent returns produce any movement on the charts. Ideally, from the league’s perspective, voting results would be responsive from return to return, rewarding the top performers as the sample size increases rather than rubber-stamping the early leaders. Remember, any movement in the standings generates new headlines and debates. Last year, both Stephen Curry and Kevin Love moved into the West’s starting lineup with late pushes. Theoretically, with more votes being cast on a daily basis, similar movement swings are possible this season. Chris Bosh, Love, Kyrie Irving, Durant and Tim Duncan are among the players who are within reasonable striking distance of a starting spot.