Friday, January 4, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Popularity Contests, Snubs and the NBA All-Star Game

An injured Yao Ming and the other 2007 Western Conference All-Stars. (

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among three of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

This week's question: Voting for the NBA All-Star game is almost over (go here if you wish to cast a vote) and the starting line-ups are nearly set. But is the current process of letting fans vote for starters and having coaches choose reserves the right way to set an All-Star roster, or is there a better method?

Kyle Davis: 
I'm usually fine with any sort of fan involvement that makes those who watch the NBA and make it popular feel like they have a voice. But fans have biases and fans don't watch every team play every night. It's not because they are trying to ruin the system, but they'll vote for the names they know and for players on the team they support. It's easy to do. This last MLB All-Star Game was in Kansas City and I voted for a handful of Royals players (yes, it is as painful as you would imagine being a Royals fan) because I wanted to see them play in their city in an All-Star game, even though there were probably more qualified candidates.

The same happens in the NBA. How else do you explain why Jeremy Lin is third in the Western Conference Backcourt category, ahead of his teammate James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Steve Nash is sixth in that category, ahead of Tony Parker, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry and he's been injured for most of the season. Somehow Dwight Howard is second in the Western Conference Frontcourt voting and is ahead of the likes of Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Kevin Love. Yet Anderson Varejao, currently NINTH in the Eastern Conference Frontcourt, leads the league in rebounds and is having a breakout season. Possibly most egregious is that LaMarcus Aldridge is seventh in the league in scoring, only Kevin Durant is a Western Conference forward scoring more, yet Aldridge sits at No. 11 among Western Conference forwards.

Some players who are having great, breakout years will likely be watching the game at home, unless their conference All-Star coach brings them in as a reserve. The system is more of a popularity contest than a reward for great performance, and that should change. Let the basketball writers select the starters. They have watched more basketball than anyone (coaches and players don't have a lot of time to watch games other than their own) and are paid to be unbiased and objective. The coaches can still pick the reserves, and if you want to keep fans involve, let them vote for the first player off the bench. Fans still get a voice and those players who have had tremendous seasons, but aren't household names, can still get the recognition they deserve. 

Alex Skov:
While the current voting system is one of the numerous ways the NBA has built a strong rapport with fans -- especially casual ones -- it has been sitting on a cracked foundation since becoming a rule. See: Yao Ming's starter status on the occasions that he had missed a majority of games due to injury. See also: Tracy McGrady's inclusion on the Western Conference roster as he got a glean of votes from being Ming's teammate on the Houston Rockets.

With Ming, and his worldwide popularity, in basketball retirement, there is no chance of a repeat incident, but the obvious arrow now points to another Rocket. After the explosion of Linsanity in the early half of 2012, the NBA felt compelled to have Jeremy Lin participate in All-Star weekend despite not qualifying or being pre-selected for any of the events. While he is not as visible to viewers in the United States since he downgraded media markets upon leaving New York City, the Linsanity outbreak showed that the point guard is capable of harnessing benefits similar to those received by Ming. Some of that could be due to race (although being of Taiwanese descent is very, very different than being Chinese) and some of it could be because, like Ming, Lin is a talented basketball player.

ESPN LA writer Arash Markazi recently revealed another flaw in the All-Star voting:

"That [Jamal Crawford] is not on the All-Star ballot while players who haven't played this season are, again shows why balloting needs to change."

It is the same Ming Theory, yes, but it also points out that against the popular vote, and likely against coach votes, even the most deserving players who typically fill back-up roles have no shot at garnering the same accolades as their starting counterparts. Some are designated as reserves simply because they perform better when coming off the bench, like Jason Terry during his Dallas Mavericks years and Crawford and the Knicks' J.R. Smith this season.

In response to Markazi's tweet, Crawford expressed his wish for 15-man squads with players voting on the last final three roster spots. That would at least be a start, but some kind of weighted voting between fans, coaches and players with minimum requirements for number of minutes played would make for line-ups that accurately represent the best interest of each of those three demographics. Maybe cater to viewers by giving them a majority of the votes for starters while splitting the remaining votes, including those for second-stringers, between coaches and players.

The NBA made a great change this year to the All Star ballot system. Now instead of two guards, two forwards and a center, fans will just vote for three front court players and two back court players. This is a good addition in the age of basketball because positions are not clearly defined as they have been. Players like Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh spend a lot of time at the center position but don't play like one; meanwhile, Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan spend enough time in the low post to be considered centers, but are often times listed as power fowards because of bigger teammates.

The biggest criticism to this rule is that it takes away from the hard work that centers do every night. Some people, like Dwight Howard, insist that smaller players get flashier highlights than centers who spend most of their time with their backs to the basket, and more people will vote for forwards like Kevin Durant. I don't think this is true, though. Most fans know the value of a true center. Howard has the second highest number of votes among big men in the West and Tyson Chandler is high in the East. It's true that players like Marc Gasol and Anderson Varejao are low on their lists, but that has more to do with being in small markets.

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