Last week, John Wall complained about the first 2016 NBA All-Star Game voting returns. As you might expect based on that sentence, Wall was not one of the top two guards in the East in those returns. Budding superstar though he may be, Wall isn't actually a consensus top-two guard in the East this season. Kyle Lowry has pretty clearly been the class of the conference, and Jimmy Butler, Reggie Jackson and DeMar DeRozan all have claims on that No. 2 spot. As does Wall.
One player who does not is Kyrie Irving. When those first returns were announced on Christmas Day, Irving had only played in two of Cleveland's 26 games, yet he was beating Wall, Butler, Jackson, DeRozan and every East guard but Dwyane Wade for the No. 2 East guard slot.
This is John Wall's beef. It's not the only one surrounding All-Star voting, either. The good news is that the league could make some sensible tweaks to improve the results without neutering the laudable goal of bringing NBA fans into the process.
Problem 1: Injured starters
Situation: Every year there seems to be at least one All-Star starter voted in by fans who has played just a few games or none at all. Handing starting spots to players who literally have not earned recognition during the season in question impacts other deserving candidates and makes the NBA fans that place them there look a little silly. It hurts the credibility of the All-Star starter credential.
Solution: Institute mandatory minimums for games played for eligibility. A threshold of 60 percent of a team's games by the end of the voting period (Jan. 18 this year) seems reasonable. The Cavaliers will play 39 games by Jan. 18. To hit the 60 percent threshold, Kyrie would need to play 24 games by then. That became mathematically impossible once he missed the first 16 games of the season. Under this mandatory minimum rule, at that point -- Nov. 27 in this example -- Kyrie becomes ineligible to start the All-Star Game. Votes for him become much like votes for Joe Kleine, LaSalle Thompson and Lawrence Funderburke.
Mandatory minimums: Bad for criminal justice, good for the NBA All-Star Game.
Problem 2: Undeserving legends steal spots
Situation: Is it not enough that Dwyane Wade is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, has hilarious sons and is married to awesome woman Gabrielle Union? Does he really need another starting nod in the All-Star, an honor that should surely go to Lowry, Butler or Wall instead?
The same applies to one Kobe Bryant, who has been coasting to starting nods for a few years now based just on his global fandom. Kobe is shooting 34 percent this season! Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green, both having far better seasons than Kobe, have little shot at being voted starters since Kobe is the overall leading vote-getter (
inexplicably listed as a forward) with fellow fan favorites Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin behind him.
Twist: This actually isn't really a problem. So long as players have physically played enough games to be credible representatives of the league, I'm not bothered by them being voted as starters. Look at it this way: If Kobe isn't voted in as a starter, barring widespread coach sentimentality, he's not an All-Star. Fans have this one chance to pick their favorites for the All-Star Game, which is entirely a nod to the basketball fandom. If millions of fans want Kobe in the All-Star Game in his swan song, or if hundreds of thousands would prefer to see Wade reconnect with LeBron than witness Skinny Kyle Lowry in a glorified pickup game, then they should vote for them.
Solution: The easy fix here is to expand the All-Star rosters to 15 per conference. You aren't even allowed to have a 12-person NBA roster anymore, yet All-Star rosters have been stuck at that size. By adding three slots to each conference, you mitigate the effects from the Inexplicable Fan Favorite vote. Guys like Kawhi and Draymond will be getting into the game as is via the coaches' vote. By adding a few slots, you make room for the guys actually at risk of being knocked out by Kobe sentimentality like Gordon Hayward, Dirk Nowitzki (actually really good this year!), Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
In practice, All-Star roster sizes are fungible as the commissioner replaces players ruled out due to injury on a case-by-case basis. But those bonus spots aren't consistent or fluid. For example, Griffin is the only probable West All-Star currently injured. All of the likely East All-Stars are now healthy. Setting the rosters at a hard 15 and eliminating the tentative Commissioner's Choice slots would do a better job protecting deserving players from the whims of the fandom.
Problem 3: With voting options comes potential malfeasance
Situation: 2015 was the year of All-Star vote hacking. Both MLB and NHL suffered attacks on the integrity of fan voting. In baseball, some Kansas City fans manipulated the system in an attempt to load the All-Star Game with Royals. In hockey, there was a grassroots effort to get a run-of-the-mill enforcer into the All-Star Game, a push that culminated with a script bot and a cover-up.
Solution: One assumes that as the NBA adds options for fans to vote for All-Star starters -- you can now vote for a guy by spelling his name out with Alpha-Bits cereal, presumably -- the league continues to institute strong barriers against hacking or conspiracy and the like. We haven't heard about gaming the vote yet, so let's hope it stays that way.
Problem 4: There is actual money on the line
Situation: Many players have incentive clauses that boost their pay if they make the All-Star Game. In fact, there is a collectively bargained bonus for players on their rookie deals elected as All-Star starters (the Rose Rule). Considering how this All-Star sausage is made, that seems like an imperfect situation.
The Rose Rule criteria still reads really odd five years after it was ratified. Under the clause, a player is eligible for a much higher maximum salary on his second NBA contract if, within his first four seasons in the NBA, he wins the MVP once, makes the All-NBA team twice or is voted an All-Star starter twice. The rule is so named (by me, #humblebrag) because Derrick Rose was the first guy eligible for the bonus under the new collective bargaining agreement. (That worked out well.)
Solution: Teams should continue to be free to negotiate performance bonuses at will, although the All-Star Game seems like a particularly arbitrary threshold, especially when there is the All-NBA team available as a marker of true season-long excellence. (All-Star bonuses are akin to rewarding a player for either having a massive individual fanbase, for playing on a glamour team or for playing out of mind for the first 35-40 games of the season.)
You could, however, see a hot young player get two undeserved All-Star starter nods based on international fame and playing in a glamour market. For example, what if all of New York, all of the Knicks fandom and all of Europe decides to put Kristaps Porzingis in the All-Star Game the next two seasons? Then Kristaps would become Rose Rule eligible no matter whether he wins an MVP by 2019 (he will) or gets two All-NBA nods (basically a lock). There's the unnecessary potential for some real weird situations due to this strange Rose Rule criteria, and the league should revise it when the labor deal is opened back up. The MVP and All-NBA criteria is plenty.
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