In recent years, numerous NBA stars have publicly campaigned for the players’ right to vote on awards, with 2014 MVP Kevin Durant going so far as to say that media members are less knowledgeable than the players and that they fall in love with “sexier names.”
The All-Star voting process, once a pure popularity contest for fans conducted on social media, was changed this year to prevent ballot box stuffing for wholly undeserving candidates. The new format included both player and media voting, creating the opportunity to compare the selections to see which block produced the most reasonable cast of candidates. Once the NBA released the full results of the player and media voting on Thursday, it quickly became clear that one of the two groups shouldn’t be entrusted with voting responsibilities in the future. And, no, it wasn’t the clueless writers who fall in love with sexy names.
Let’s not beat around the bush: The NBA should treat player voting for All-Stars as a flawed experiment, rather than as the new normal, and come up with a new voting process for the 2018 All-Star Game.
The players didn’t take the process seriously
Two years ago, Durant made his case for voting by pointing to the amount of time that players spend analyzing each other. “You [media] guys aren’t in the scouting reports, the team meetings, in the film sessions to really break down these players' games,” he argued. “We play against these guys every single night, we battle against these guys, we know what they say on the court, we know how they handle their teammates, we know how they approach the game.”
Fair enough. Unfortunately, the All-Star vote returns suggest that the players—as a whole—didn’t exactly commit maximum mental energy to the process, preferring instead to cast votes for wholly undeserving players who might be their teammates, friends or completely random. Or, worst of all, themselves.
How else do you explain 2016 No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons receiving three votes without stepping foot on an NBA court this season? How else do you explain Mo Williams getting an All-Star vote even though he’s logged more trades (2) than minutes played (0) this season? How else do you explain Wizards rookie guard Danuel House receiving two votes even though he has played exactly one minute? Must have been one hell of a minute!
This isn’t just a case of a few bad apples. NBA players cast at least one vote for 283 different players. Remember, they’re voting for All-Star starters, the five most deserving players from each conference. So that’s 283 candidates for 10 spots. From that group, 98 different players received one and only one vote.
By contrast, the media panel voted for a much more reasonable total of 32 candidates. Even the least deserving nominees from the media pool—guys like Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan—are at least somewhat justifiable. While the players collectively cast hundreds of junk votes for more than 100 unworthy candidates, the media panel cast zero junk votes and nominated no more than three or four questionable candidates.
The players didn’t turn out to vote
According to the NBA, 324 players cast ballots. A quick Basketball-Reference.com search reveals that 451 different players have logged at least one minute this season. That would put turnout at roughly 72% if the voting base only included players who have logged time. In reality, the turnout percentage is probably a touch lower if players who are under contract, but haven't yet played, are allowed to vote.
This turnout is far lower than the media pool. The NBA invited 100 media members to vote. The vote totals reveal that 96 of those 100 invitees succeeded in casting their ballots, a significantly higher percentage than the player pool.
While expecting 96% of NBA players to vote for the All-Star Game is probably asking too much, turnout was a meaningful issue this year because the races were close. DeMar DeRozan beat out Isaiah Thomas for the East’s second backcourt spot by a single player vote. Jimmy Butler claimed the East’s third frontcourt spot by four player votes over Paul George; four other players besides George trailed Butler by 25 of fewer votes. Anthony Davis beat out DeMarcus Cousins by five player votes in the West’s frontcourt.
Forget for a second what might have happened if all 300+ voting players had only selected from deserving candidates. Some of these races could easily have had different outcomes if 20 or 30 additional players had simply voted. Who knows what would have happened if turnover had reached 85% or 90%?
Although some players, like Durant, are passionate about the All-Star voting process, a meaningful chunk clearly are not.
The players didn’t bring a unique perspective
Here’s the toughest pill to swallow for players, like Durant, who questioned the media’s voting credentials: they wound up nominating almost the exact same guys.
In the West, the players and media nominated the exact same five starters (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis). In the East, the players and media agreed on the three frontcourt starters (LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler) and they had the same top three candidates for the two backcourt spots (Thomas, DeRozan and Kyrie Irving).
So much for all that amazing film room insight.
And this is the real kicker: the media did a much better job voting for the most deserving candidates. Let’s take James as an example because he was the overall leading vote-getter among the three voting groups: the fans, players and media. All 96 media voters included James as one of their top three picks for the East frontcourt. That’s 100%. By contrast, only 196 out of 324 player voters included James, which amounts to 60.5%. Ditto for Durant, who appeared on 94 out of 96 media ballots (97.9%) but only received 170 out of 324 (52.5%) of the player votes.
Yes, a certain level of disagreement and debate is encouraged and uniformity shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. But the players would throw a fit if 40% of media members snubbed no-brainer starters like James or Durant, and rightfully so. The players must be held, and must hold themselves, to a similar standard.
Change is necessary
The NBA showed great foresight to alter the All-Star voting process this year to cut out bogus candidates. Without action, Zaza Pachulia and Dwyane Wade would undeservedly be filling starting spots in New Orleans.
But the league’s improved voting system still needs additional work. One option would be to remove the player vote entirely and use the media voters as the check against fan mistakes. That’s a defensible approach given the relatively low turnout and clearly biased nature of a good chunk of the votes. Another option would be to use a more selective process for counting player votes, perhaps limiting each team to a certain number of representatives or empowering the National Basketball Players Association to determine a voting committee. If players are allowed to vote next year, they should be barred from voting for themselves, their teammates and any player who hasn't met a minimum threshold—say, 20 games played or 600 minutes logged—as a first step to cut down on the nonsense nominations.