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The Broken All-NBA System Keeps Costing Superstars Millions

Last Updated: July 23, 2021
If a player can miss out on a $33 million bonus thanks to the results of a media vote, something is wrong. Period.

A lot has happened in professional basketball since the 2020-21 All-NBA teams were announced Tuesday night, so we’ll forgive you if you forgot that these incredibly important awards were handed out this week.

Since then (*deep breath*), Kevin Durant saved the Brooklyn Nets’ season, Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlisle parted ways with the Dallas Mavericks, Scott Brooks and Stan Van Gundy are now the respective former head coaches of the Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans, and the Boston Celtics somehow managed to trade Kemba Walker and get back Al Horford in the same damn deal.

But for the league’s premier superstars, making the All-NBA cut is more important than all those news items. Actually, it might be a little too important — and that’s why we’re here.

The Supermax & the Rose Rule

Signed in 2017, the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the players union created what’s known officially as the designated veteran player exception and unofficially as the supermax. To be eligible for such a deal, which is valued at between 30% and 35% of the NBA’s annual salary cap, a veteran has to (1) have completed seven or eight seasons and (2) still play for the team that either drafted him or traded for his rookie contract.

Additionally, he must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Win NBA MVP in one of the previous three seasons
  • Win Defensive Player of the Year in the previous season OR two of the last three
  • Make an All-NBA team in the previous season OR two of the last three

Critically, these awards that determine whether a player is eligible for the supermax — or whether some players on rookie contracts can receive big bonuses — are voted on by NBA media members in a process that is deeply and uncomfortably flawed. And here and now, there’s no imminent, tangible, surefire solution for replacing it.

That has to change.

When 15 players were named All-NBA this week, the most controversial subs were arguably Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum and Utah Jazz phenom Donovan Mitchell. Though the 23-year-old Tatum and the 24-year-old Mitchell have only played four NBA seasons each, being named All-NBA this year would have allowed them to make up to 30% of the salary cap on their yet-to-kick-in rookie extensions, taking advantage of a CBA provision commonly known as the Derrick Rose Rule.

But because neither made All-NBA, the extensions Tatum and Mitchell signed last year will each be worth $163 million instead of $196 million, an incredible $33 million reduction.

All-NBA teams have been voted on by a 100-member panel of media voters for decades, and the now-transparent vote has insanely high stakes for the star players these men and women cover on a daily basis. Everyone can see which journalists voted for which players.

And which ones they “snubbed” out of receiving $33 million.

“During collective bargaining, we agreed with the Players Association on a system to allow our players to earn higher compensation if they met certain criteria,” Tim Frank, the NBA’s senior vice president, league operations communications, told Boardroom. “While there is no perfect metric to determine which players should be eligible for this higher salary, we agreed that award voting has been successful at identifying a meaningful subset of players who have performed, and continue to perform, extraordinarily well.”

Should Writers Have This Power, and Do They Even Want it?

Despite what the league says, the media’s All-NBA vote, as well as how it’s decided and tabulated, has become an increasingly uncomfortable subject given how much is on the line for many of the players involved.

“I do have a problem that my vote or lack of a vote for someone should be incumbent upon whether or not they get a $33 million difference in their contract,” a longtime All-NBA voter from a national outlet who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the process told Boardroom. “I am quite uncomfortable with my vote being part of something that decides a guy’s salary.”

Of course, being chosen by the NBA to vote on these awards is a huge honor for both individual media members and the outlet they represent. It’s a symbol of the league’s trust in a writer as an unbiased arbiter of who receives the sport’s most prestigious, coveted accolades.

Most (if not all) media take the process seriously, watching tons of games and shaping their thinking through ongoing conversations with players, team executives, and fellow writers.

“It’s an important responsibility and something that I take incredibly seriously,” Turner Sports’ Jared Greenberg, who voted in 2020 and ’21 and covers the league as a sideline reporter and host for TNT and NBA TV, told Boardroom. “I understand the impact that this has on the history of the game and individual players’ legacies. I want to do give it the justice it deserves each and every year. I’m very proud and humbled that they ask me to do it.”

However, Greenberg said he’s often torn about whether he wants to know the information tweeted and discussed by NBA salary cap and CBA experts like ESPN’s Bobby Marks about just how much money Tatum or Mitchell would receive if they make All-NBA. Nevertheless, he doesn’t consider which bonuses may or may not be on the line, he said, nor do such things serve as tiebreakers when there’s a close call on his ballot.

But he’s still not exactly thrilled with the status quo.

 “It was collectively bargained between the NBA and the Players Association,” Greenberg said, “but they kind of just threw it at the media and nobody ever consulted the media.”

“Media members that cover the NBA have a long history of determining our annual awards,” added the NBA’s Frank. “Because of their focus on our league and familiarity with our players, we are confident that they are well-suited to identify players for recognition.”

Could the Voting Process Be Exploited?

Although plenty of media members are well-suited to vote on these awards, conflicts can arise via the public, transparent nature by the vote and how much money is at stake for the players these journalists and broadcasters cover every day.

Our anonymous All-NBA voter doesn’t necessarily have ethical concerns here, and doesn’t mind that the general population knows whom media members voted for. What he does not particularly like,however, is being put in this difficult position. It’s something that’s been brought up within the Pro Basketball Writers Association and discussed among league executives.

“Let’s say you’re a Celtics beat writer on the daily,” our voter said. “If you didn’t vote for him, is Jayson Tatum going to look at you differently and say, ‘you helped cost me $33 million?’ It’s an incredible amount of money. Does Jayson Tatum look at you and hold it against you? How as a human being, consciously or subconsciously, do you not realize that the group of people you’re talking to in one way or another cost you $33 million?”

Because this process is transparent, Tatum and Mitchell (as well as fellow snubs Russell Westbrook, Zion Williamson, and Devin Booker) now know exactly who did or didn’t vote for them. And if you’re a beat writer from one of their respective markets, how much should you be willing to risk potentially losing access or bringing on bad blood and animosity by not putting that local superstar on your ballot?

There are those within the Pro Basketball Writers Association who insist that some players do hold these decisions against certain reporters.

“The higher the salary cap goes, the bigger the salaries get,” the All-NBA voter told Boardroom. “And the more money that is, I do question whether or not it’s the right thing for me to do.  It really has questioned my decision on whether or not I want to vote for these awards moving forward.”

With that in mind, we’ll take things one step further.

Let’s say you’re an agent and your livelihood is dependent on getting 3-4% of clients’ earnings. An extra $33 million for a player means an additional $1.32 million for the agent over the course of that contract. With the caveat that there’s no confirmed evidence this actually takes place, what’s stopping an agent from calling a reporter and saying that beyond simply considering their guy, here’s $10,000 if your vote helps that player make All-NBA? It’s not such a huge stretch for a beat writer who may only make $60,000-$90,000 a year.

“The idea that the possibility even exists is a bit of an issue,” said our anonymous voter.

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Finding the Way Forward

These potential conflicts are why The New York Times and Washington Post don’t let their reporters vote for NBA awards at all. But beyond these media issues, the actual rules and procedures for the All-NBA vote are problematic in themselves.

The NBA has consistently played around with which players are eligible at which positions, and the consequences are real. Tatum was eligible at both guard and forward; his vote was split between those two spots and he ended up ranking as the first forward left out. That positional divide clearly contributed to the Celtic missing out on $33 million.

“This year, they made Joel Embiid eligible at forward, which made no sense,” Greenberg said. “If Embiid finishes second in the MVP voting, he should be eligible to be First Team All-NBA without manipulating what position he does or doesn’t play.”

As things stand, the league’s 15 best players do not necessarily make All-NBA; it’s the six best guards, six best forwards, and three best centers, Greenberg contended. While Utah’s Rudy Gobert won DPOY this year, he probably wouldn’t have been named All-NBA this year in a positionless scenario. The same can be said for number of centers in recent years.

“If we could just say ‘here are the five best players that are first team, second team and third team,’ the ballot would look drastically different,” he said.

There are some easy fixes the league could potentially implement, like eliminating positional criteria or removing voter transparency, something a league source told Boardroom the NBA can unilaterally change at any time.

But until real reformation is achieved, the All-NBA system will remain not just deeply flawed, but broken. As long as tens of millions of dollars hang perilously in the balance based on a public media vote, the All-NBA teams will remain unable to accomplish what they set out to accomplish: celebrating the best basketball players in the world, no more and no less.

Put simply, the whole system is unfair.

To the players most of all, but ultimately to everyone.