For years now, the All-NBA teams have been a somewhat arbitrary designation with absolutely massive consequences. Written right into the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement are major, major financial rewards for players who make one of the three All-NBA teams. Millions of dollars hang in the balance, based on the voting of 100+ media members allowed to interpret what it means to be All-NBA for themselves.
For all that is at stake, the process remains flawed. There are major issues with designing an award system based on position – more on this later – and by having potentially biased media members making the picks. The league finally addressed the second part this season: Two team broadcasters announced this week that they had lost All-NBA voting rights, and that none of the media members employed by teams or the league would have voting rights anymore.
This is a step in the right direction. But things aren’t perfect yet.
First off: Yes, it really matters for NBA players if they make an All-NBA team, and it’s only going to start mattering more. We’ve had the “Derrick Rose Rule” on the books for awhile, which allows a potential franchise player to make 30% of the salary cap as opposed to 25% of the salary cap after his rookie contract if he's twice been voted an All-Star starter, twice been voted All-NBA or won an MVP award. (You may remember a big hubbub about this last year with Anthony Davis potentially making an All-NBA third team.)
There are also provisions in the new CBA that could matter even more. From ESPN’s Brian Windhorst: “If a player is voted to the All-NBA team and has eight or nine years of experience, then he qualifies for a special exception to sign a massive contract with his team for about $75 million more than any other team can pay him.”
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So yes, it matters. And up until this season, those millions of dollars were being decided on by a group of media members which included team broadcasters and writers who obviously would struggle to remain unbiased (not to mention had watched one team considerably more than the others). Deadspin’s Patrick Redford brings up a good example for Pacers radio announcer Mark Boyle, who previously had a vote that could have decided if Paul George made an All-NBA team and was eligible for a huge salary bump. It’s an impossible ethical dilemma for Boyle – vote for George and he’s biased, don’t vote for him and alienate the team’s star player. He can’t win.
So the league did the right thing and took away his vote. This is a good step – but there’s still a big problem.
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All-NBA teams are still voted on by position. This is elegant in theory: The voting puts out the three best 5-man units in the league, a perfect encapsulation of the season. But it’s not. It’s not even close.
Say in a given NBA season that the four best players in the league are all centers. (This is a very different NBA than the one we live in now, but just for the sake of argument.) The All-NBA teams have one center each, so if the voters stick to the letter of the law, they could exclude the fourth-best player in the league from a list that is supposed to capture the 15 best players in the league. Again, there are millions of dollars at stake.
In recent years the opposite problem has been true, but it’s still a problem – with the league going smaller, All-NBA voters have struggled to find a worthy third center while excluding incredible wing players. The solution in the past has been just to fudge the whole thing – voters would decide Tim Duncan was a forward one year and a center the next. LeBron James could, in theory, be designated at any position you wanted him to be. But, again, with millions at stake, why are we fudging this?
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The solution is an easy one: Change the way the system works. The All-Star Game has already gone to frontcourt and backcourt designations to try and capture the way the league currently is, and I expect All-NBA to follow suit. If they were being totally fair, the league should just toss positions to the wind. The first team should be the five best players in the league. If they’re all power forwards, well, you have a team of power forwards. It’s not as clean, I guess, but with franchises being altered by these decisions, there’s too much at stake for that now.