The most fun sideshow of the playoffs is awards season, where seemingly every day a new award winner is announced. Nothing will top Dirk Nowitzki accepting the MVP trophy while his Mavericks were getting bludgeoned by the eight seed Warriors in 2007, but this awards season does have a new wrinkle: transparency.
Due to pressure from the Professional Basketball Writers Association (of which I am a member), and especially President Mary Schmitt Boyer, this year all award votes are made public. The call for this to happen intensified last year when a lone voter prevented LeBron James from an MVP sweep, inexplicably voting for Carmelo Anthony instead. Dan Le Batard took advantage of the anonymous nature of the balloting and trolled everybody by pretending it was him for awhile before Boston Globe columnist revealed in a column that he was the one that had voted for Anthony.
In the abstract, increased transparency is a good thing and I fully support the PBWA’s push to make this happen. But just a few votes in, increased transparency has raised many more questions than it has answered.
Why are team and quasi-team employees allowed to vote?
Sam Smith, a writer for Bulls.com has a vote. John Denton, a writer for OrlandoMagic.com has a vote. Walt Frazier, broadcaster for the MSG Network (whose executive chairman is Knicks owner James Dolan) has a vote. Chris Marlowe and Jason Kosmicki of Altitude Sports and Entertainment (owned by Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke) have votes. I’m sure there are more examples if I delved into the ownership structure of every regional sports network, but you get the point.
The conflicts of interest here are huge and obvious. Do any of these voters feel pressure—whether explicit or implicit—from their employers on who to vote for? Do they feel it necessary to support certain candidates to stay in the good graces of the person who cuts the paychecks? For their part, the NBA is unconcerned, with NBA Senior VP of Communications Tim Frank telling me that while the NBA monitors all votes, they aren’t really concerned and, “just haven’t seen any type of bias”. That may well be true, but when it comes to conflicts of interest, the appearance of one can be just as damaging as a conflict itself.
This concern is also present, though not as acute, for people who aren’t employees but regularly cover one team. Arizona Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro, for instance, wrote a great piece on how teammates griped when he didn’t vote for Brandon Webb as Cy Young, and generally the pressure he feels as an awards voters. His conclusion though, seems sound: “hiding behind anonymity isn’t the answer”.
I don’t want to be part of a body of voters that includes team employees.
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 23, 2014
Why does the media even vote on awards in the first place?
For six years the AP’s college football rankings were a major component of the formula that determined which two teams played in the college football national championship game. But in 2004 the AP pulled out, with the AP’s sports editor saying the decision was, “prompted by reading and hearing stories from voters of ethical concerns and harassing e-mail messages and phone calls.” The Charlotte Observer’s sports editor said, “’My issue was with the ethics of reporters determining where all that money went. I didn’t think that was right.”
These concerns aren’t quite as pronounced when voting for awards after the season—NBA media aren’t voting on who gets to play in the playoffs—but the same basic concerns exist. One of the golden rules of journalism is to report the news, not be the news, and that is violated upon choosing award winners.
Why are award voters allowed to impact millions of dollars and change the competitive nature of the NBA?
The question may seem hyperbolic but it’s not. Codified into the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement is the ability for awards voters to affect salary and team salary caps, known as the Derrick Rose rule. The maximum salary for the first year of a contract extension for players who have fewer than six years in the league is 25% of the salary cap. But if a player is named to an All-NBA team twice or voted Most Valuable Player, that maximum is 30%. Crucially, the extension can be signed when it is unknown whether or not the player will meet the criteria for a 30% maximum salary, and thus a subsequent Third Team All-NBA vote (for instance) could be the difference between a player’s salary starting at $14.7 million and $17.6 million, which has obvious ramifications.
The Derrick Rose Rule isn’t the only way awards voting can massively affect the financials of players and teams. Many players have contract bonuses related to awards that have a large affect on league functioning. As Zach Lowe detailed earlier this year, The Warriors Andrew Bogut will get a $425,000 bonus if he is voted onto one of the two All-Defense teams. The Warriors are roughly $375,000 below the luxury tax threshold; Bogut on an All-Defense team would put the Warriors over the luxury tax limit and completely change the competitive dynamics in the league.
Will fans unfairly judge voters, thus leading to a homogenization of voting?
As the votes for each award have been made public, fans and media members have immediately pored over the records for anything interesting. Warriors fans have laughed at Mark Jackson receiving his only Coach of the Year vote from Warriors sideline reporter Ric Bucher and Klay Thompson receiving his only two Most Improved Player votes from Ric Bucher and Warriors broadcaster Jim Barnett. The six votes Patty Mills received for Most Improved Player came from two national writers, two Spurs beat writers and two Spurs broadcasters.
In some ways, this is the kind of voting transparency is designed to stamp out. I can accept arguments that Mark Jackson is not as bad of a coach as I think he is, but there is absolutely no sane argument to be made that he was the third best coach in the league this year.
On the other hand, the point of having 130ish voters for each award is to look at those votes in aggregate, not in the specific. Because of Bucher’s indefensible vote, Jackson finished tied for eighth in the coach of the Year voting. Is it so crazy to believe that he was the eight best coach this year? Might Klay Thompson actually be the 16th most improved player in the league this season? Should we single out an individual voter when the aggregate vote falls within the realm of acceptability? In this sense, voting for the candidates you truly believe in is a no win proposition. Ric Bucher gets castigated for his “homer” Mark Jackson vote, but if he votes for somebody else he isn’t voting for the candidate he believes in.
This fear could lead voters (and I have talked to at least one voter who said the threat of being ridiculed was leading them to consider not voting for candidates that might be considered by the basketball intelligentsia to be a “fringe”) to instead vote for who they think everybody else is doing to vote for to avoid standing out.
To be clear, the solution to these (and other) problems with NBA awards voting is not anonymity. Anonymity allows them to be ignored, not solved.
My preferred solution is for the media to stop voting on awards altogether. Call me a journalism romantic, call me out of touch with how things work in 2014, but I really believe that journalists’ impact on the league should come through their reporting, not through their voting. Their votes definitely votes shouldn’t affect players’ salaries and teams’ finances. If I were ever in a position to have an awards vote, I would turn it down. Let the players, the guys that actually have to score against people, determine who the Defensive Player of the Year is. A lot of these issues revolves around the different types of roles that constitute, “the media”. Most writers don’t believe that broadcasters count as “journalists”, and I’ll bet some broadcasters don’t either. It is hard to call yourself an objective journalist when your employment is at the mercy of the team’s whims. It can be a distinction without a difference, as former broadcast sideline reporter man Matt Steinmetz asserts.
It’s disingenuous for NBA to say play-by-play guy has media affiliation with Comcast Sports Net (regional). Those guys team employees. — Matt Steinmetz (@SteinmetzNBA) April 23, 2014
Technically, TV crew is affiliated with network, but make no mistake, it’s controlled by team. — Matt Steinmetz (@SteinmetzNBA) April 23, 2014
@kevinmdraper Can only speak to my situation approximately 6 years ago. Employed by Comcast, approved by Warriors, traveled/stayed with team
— Matt Steinmetz (@SteinmetzNBA) April 22, 2014
Working under the assumption that “the media” will continue to vote on these awards, I’d like to see the NBA adopt a few rules on voting:
- No team employees may vote for awards
- Any media member with a team or broadcasting job is considered a broadcaster: Ric Bucher should not be considered a Bleacher Report voter when he is also the broadcast’s sideline reporter
- The number of independent media members voting in a given market must be equal to or greater than the number of broadcasters voting
- No family members may vote for any categories in which their blood relation is eligible
Does anybody object to these commonsense changes?