Finally a recognition of the absurdity of NBA awards voting is spreading.
Yesterday the NBA announced what everybody already knew would happen: LeBron James won his second straight MVP award. The surprising news was that James won near-unanimously, with a single holdout choosing not Kevin Durant, but Carmelo Anthony as MVP. This begat an immediate “who was the idiot that voted for Carmelo Anthony” parlor game, with the first suspect Miami radio host Dan Le Batard and his “it was me!” tweet.
— Dan Le Batard Show (@LeBatardShow) May 5, 2013
As it turns out, Dan Le Batard was just having fun with hyper-reactionary Twitter users, and the lone Carmelo voter was The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn.
Washburn’s vote—and his rationale for doing so—were dumb. His argument has already been picked apart on Twitter, and I’m sure those will be expanded by others into whole pieces highlighting major flaws in Washburn’s argument.
What’s more important than the individual vote are the cloudy layers of a byzantine process that Washburn’s vote represents. To Tom Ziller, his vote showcases the need to ditch anonymity granted to awards voters. To Tim Kawakami, the problem is that announcers, essentially team employees, are allowed to vote. Aren’t there clear conflict of interest problems there?
Ziller and Kawakami bring up important points, but they—and most others—are missing the biggest one: collectively, awards voters have no idea what the hell they are doing.
Every year, creative team front offices lobby awards voters in favor of their respective candidates. Back in the day the Chicago Bulls sent media members a package promoting Elton Brand for Rookie of the Year, and this year the Milwaukee Bucks sent members of the media toy blocks promoting Larry Sanders’ candidacy for Most Improved Player. Lest you think teams only sent out valueless jokes, in 2008 the Portland Trail Blazers sent national media members and coaches an “iRoy”: an iPod Nano loaded with video testimonials as to Brandon Roy’s all-star credentials.
I reached out to the major newspapers in every NBA market and asked sports editors how they handled gifts sent by teams to their reporters. Every editor that responded described some sort of policy that prohibited reporters from accepting gifts from teams, and many had newsroom auctions of these gifts to raise money for charity. Additionally, neither the Los Angeles Times or New York Times vote on awards.
Newspaper writers aren’t the only members of the media that vote on awards—the MVP press release says the voting panel “consisted of sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada”—but I’m going to hope (and assume) that all other media outlets have some form of policy that prohibits receiving gifts from subjects of coverage.
These policies mean that gifts sent from teams can’t be seen as bribes to vote a certain way. Furthermore, if you are going to be bribed I really hope you can extract more than a set of toy blocks as a concession. No, the promotional campaigns teams wage are to raise awareness of their candidate, which is quite problematic.
Elton Brand started 80 games as a rookie in 1990-00, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes a game. Brandon Roy started 50 games before the All-Star break in 2007-08, averaging 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, dragging a fairly unremarkable Trail Blazers team onto the playoffs bubble. This year Larry Sanders averaged an absurd 2.8 blocks per game alongside 9.5 rebounds, and improved his offense enough to stay on the court long enough to become one of the most feared interior defenders in the game.
If Elton Brand wasn’t on your radar as a candidate for Rookie of the Year in 2000, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
If you hadn’t written about Brandon Roy as a potential All-Star candidate in 2008, you shouldn’t be a sportswriter.
If Larry Sanders didn’t merit serious consideration for Most Improved Player this year, you don’t deserve a ballot.
NBA marketing teams send out gifts because they are effective at raising awareness for their candidates. They’re effective because not every voter bothers to take a serious, analytic look at the universe of candidates. Many of the voters are beat writers or team broadcasters, meaning they watch one team play 82 games a year, rarely giving them the opportunity to study other teams. If one writer was able to screw-up what should have been the first unanimous MVP vote in NBA history—an award that features the most high-profile and nationally televised players—how flawed do you think the voting for more obscure awards are?
Awards voting isn’t the most serious problem facing the NBA, but it is an important one. Awards are one of the most important ways future generations of basketball fans will understand this one, and shambolic voting from media members distorts the historic record. In 30 years somebody will write that LeBron James was the “near unanimous” MVP winner in 2012-13. Readers will surmise that James had a pretty good season, not that he put together what may well be the best individual season in NBA history.
Ditching anonymous voting and disallowing team broadcasters from voting is a great start, but more fundamental changes to awards voting should be considered. Perhaps it should be coaches or players that vote on awards, not members of the media. Perhaps a select committee of national media members should vote on the awards instead of a hodge-podge grouping of local and national members. Maybe “Most Valuable Player” should become “Best Player” to end specious semantic reasoning. From the nine media members that shamefully left LeBron James completely off of their MVP ballot in 2011 to the person who (probably) accidentally voted Jordan Crawford for 6th Man of the Year because he was confused with Jamal Crawford, the voting process is rife with voting by people who aren’t qualified. That should change.