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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Should Fans Select the All-Star Starters?

Every year around this time, the NBA All-Star starters are announced and someone--often it is Charles Barkley--delivers a rant about how terrible it is that the fans choose the All-Star starters. The All-Star voting process is obviously subjective even during a normal season--balloting begins shortly after the season starts and long before a significant sample of games have been played--and that process is even more subjective during this season because of the truncated yet overstuffed 2011-12 NBA schedule. Many fans no doubt vote for their favorite players as opposed to objectively choosing the two best forwards, two best guards and the best center in each conference but even granting the inherent limitations and fallibility of this process the actual results were hardly terrible: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade will start for the East, while Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul will start for the West. One could quibble that Chris Bosh and Kevin Love should have been chosen over Anthony and Griffin respectively but starting in an All-Star Game is a subjective honor (unlike, for instance, the distinction between making the All-NBA First Team and the All-NBA Second Team or the All-NBA Third Team) and when we look back at a player's career we do not consider how many times he started in an All-Star Game but merely how many times he was selected overall; as long as the fans choose five players who are worthy of being ranked among the top 12 players in each conference there is not a problem, because the league's coaches will fill out the roster by selecting the other seven All-Stars.

It is interesting to look back at the history of fan All-Star voting, specifically in terms of the players who have most often been the leading vote getters since the fans began selecting the All-Star starters in 1975. A total of 10 players have been the leading All-Star vote getter at least twice:

Michael Jordan: 9 (1987-93, 1997-98)
Julius Erving: 4 (1978, 1981-83)
Vince Carter: 4 (2000-2002, 2004)
George Gervin: 2 (1979-80)
Magic Johnson: 2 (1985-86)
Grant Hill: 2 (1995-96)
Kobe Bryant: 2 (2003, 2011)
Yao Ming: 2 (2005-2006)
LeBron James: 2 (2007, 2010)
Dwight Howard: 2 (2009, 2012)

Looking at that list, it is clear that the fans really have not done that badly at all. Being the leading vote getter is not just merely a product of popularity nor does it necessarily mean that the fans considered that player to be the best player in the league at the time; one must also consider the competition (or lack thereof) in a given season at a particular position: Dwight Howard won the overall 2012 vote in a landslide because the Eastern Conference is almost totally devoid of legit All-Star caliber centers. The same is true to an even greater extent regarding Andrew Bynum in the Western Conference; Bynum has performed solidly--and actually stayed healthy--so far this season but his numbers (and, more importantly, his impact on the game) do not measure up to standards set by the great players who have been All-Star starters back when the NBA actually had several legit back to the basket centers roaming the paint.

Most of the leading vote getters listed above were truly elite players during the years they received the most votes. Jordan's credentials do not even need to be mentioned. Erving won the 1981 regular season MVP and he made the All-NBA First Team each of the four seasons that he topped the fan voting. Carter's popularity as an exciting dunker clearly helped him in the balloting but he also made the All-NBA Third Team in 2000 and the All-NBA Second Team in 2001. Carter likely would have made the All-NBA Team again in 2002 if injuries had not limited him drastically in the second half of the season (i.e., after the All-Star balloting had taken place); it was more than a bit of a stretch for Carter to be the top vote getter in 2004 but he still deserved a spot on the squad. The high scoring George Gervin was undoubtedly a fan favorite but there was also a lot of substance to his game: he made the All-NBA First Team in both 1979 and 1980 and during that era he was a perennial MVP contender, finishing second in MVP voting in both 1978 and 1979 and ranking third in MVP voting in 1980. Like Jordan, Magic Johnson's credentials do not need to be explained to even a casual fan. Grant Hill's popularity undoubtedly helped him gain votes in 1995 as a rookie but he also proved to be an excellent player that season, setting the stage for his All-NBA Second Team selection in 1996. Kobe Bryant was an All-NBA First Team member and top five MVP candidate both of the years that he led the fan voting. Yao Ming is widely regarded as a beneficiary of the Chinese vote via the internet but by 2005 the West was largely devoid of legit All-Star caliber centers (Shaquille O'Neal had just been traded from the L.A. Lakers to the Miami Heat and the remaining top West bigs were really power forwards, not true centers); in 2006, Yao was one of the league's few 20 ppg-10 rpg performers and he made the All-NBA Third Team. Both LeBron James and Dwight Howard have been fixtures on the All-NBA First Team for several years.

The All-Star selection process is not perfect--no system designed by humans is perfect--but it works pretty well: fans are provided the opportunity to vote for the All-Star starters not with the expectation that they will provide definitive rankings of the top five players in each conference but rather with the expectation that they will select the five top players in each conference that they most want to see perform in the All-Star Game; it is then up to the coaches to fill out the rosters with the remaining top seven players in each conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Monday, February 06, 2012 7:00:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

The most dodgy situation I can recall was when Penny Hardaway started the 1998 All-Star game even though he missed most of the season. Grant Hill and Alonzo Mourning had similar situations in 2001-as did Allen Iverson to a certain extent in 2010- but they didn't actually and didn't play and thus allowed other players to get selected.

 
At Monday, February 06, 2012 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

Hardaway had a very good 1997 season and got off to a good start in 1998 before suffering his injury so he may have received some fan votes before he missed so many games. That kind of situation happens from time to time but, as you mentioned, usually things work out in the sense that the injured player is not able to participate anyway and thus a worthy player ends up earning an All-Star nod.

 
At Monday, February 06, 2012 8:48:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

I recall that many persons, both in and out of the Magic organization -most notably Tim Hardaway- were upset because Penny seemed to have been rushing his rehab just to play in the game. (Of course to be fair, Penny was also somewhat unfairly labelled a malingerer.)

I suppose my larger point is that all these things need to be placed into context : that very same season, Pippen missed the All-Star, justifiably so, but was still 3rd-team All-NBA. (Not that the All-NBA doesn't have its own problems, mostly related to positional designations.)

 
At Monday, February 06, 2012 12:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

Pippen was not selected as an All-Star in 1998 because he missed almost all of the first half of the season. He came back in time to play excellently in 44 games and thus earned All-NBA Third Team honors.

I have pointed out several times that the positional designations used for the All-NBA Teams are inconsistent--and this problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the blurred distinction between centers and power forwards, who are now in many cases simply interchangeable "bigs."

 
At Monday, February 06, 2012 1:07:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Yeah I know he missed the start of the season, which is why I felt it was justified for him to be left off. Re: the positional designations, in 94 and 95 Patrick Ewing finished 5th and 4th in MVP voting, deservedly so, but he didn't make any All-NBA teams.

The case of Isiah Thomas is also somewhat surprising : he didn't make the All-NBA team in 1988, 1989, or 1990 (when Dumars was 3rd-team). Even though there was glut in the position at the time, it seems odd he wasn't a more decorated player.

 
At Monday, February 06, 2012 1:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

The MVP award and the All-NBA Teams are both chosen by media members but the panels for those honors are not always identical, which perhaps explains some of the inconsistencies that you mentioned.

During the 1994-95 season there were four legit All-NBA centers--Shaq, Robinson, Olajuwon and Ewing--and they each finished in the top five in MVP voting. Obviously, only three of them could make the three All-NBA Teams so one deserving player was going to be left off regardless of who did the voting.

 

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