Behind the scenes with NBA award voters: 'Fear of social-media reprisal is real'

Behind the scenes with NBA award voters: 'Fear of social-media reprisal is real'

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Behind the scenes with NBA award voters: 'Fear of social-media reprisal is real'

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Every year, fans and media debate who should win the NBA’s end-of-season awards. While the winners of these awards won’t be announced until the NBA Awards on June 24, the panel of 100 independent media members submitted their ballots when the regular season concluded.

HoopsHype talked to voters, players and PR staffers about the lobbying that takes place, the items teams mail out to campaign, how things changed when the NBA made the votes public, the tens of millions of dollars that are now tied to end-of-season awards and more. Several individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity because they discussed sensitive information.

THERE’S A LOT OF LOBBYING BEHIND THE SCENES

As award season approaches, the lobbying from agents and public-relations staffers (who either work for a team or an agency) picks up considerably.

Jeff Zillgitt, USA Today: “It’s not like I have agents banging down my door, but you get sent promotional material. At this point, the teams are almost expected to do that. And I understand it – the team really wants their guy to win. Every now and then, I’ll get a call from a PR person and they’ll say, ‘Hey, consider these things.’ Ultimately, I just think that’s the PR person doing his or her job. Nobody has tried to sway me, like, ‘Hey, I really need you to vote for this player for me.’ But they will go over stats and achievements with me.”

Sam Amick, The Athletic: “There’s politicking, for sure. To be clear, nobody is ever totally coming at you. But you hear from PR people. They know the media culture – that we’re all reading each other – so if you’re a PR person, you’re smart enough to know that a story has the potential to influence other voters. A lot of times, they aren’t just trying to sell me on their guy to get my vote; they’re thinking of other voters that could be influenced if I write positively about their guy. With agents, there’s also some negative recruiting, so to speak. I’ll mention a player, and they’ll bring up what the player does poorly. It’s always when they have a player competing with that individual for an award. There’s a lot of gamesmanship.”

Tony Jones, The Athletic: “The first year I voted in 2016, there was absolutely no lobbying because nobody knew who I was and nobody knew I had a vote. In recent years, I’ve gotten more lobbying. This year, there’s been a lot. I’ve had a few agents call me and ask, ‘Who are you thinking of voting for?’ and then make the case for why I should vote for their guy instead. It’s mainly agents. I’ve never gotten a call from a general manager or anything like that. You do get fan bases who will lobby for their favorite players on Twitter. I have seen that. But it’s mainly agents and PR people.”

One PR person explained that they go through the previous year’s votes and call every name on the list. That’s why Jones didn’t start hearing from persuaders until his second season with a vote.

PR Person: “Typically, the people who are lobbying right treat it as a collaborative effort between the player’s team and the player’s representatives, and everybody is pushing them for the award. Agencies and teams don’t try to create a candidate. This isn’t like All-Star where you can try to create an All-Star campaign around a fringe star. There are only two or three guys who have a legitimate shot at MVP. There are only three or four guys who have a legitimate shot at Defensive Player of the Year. There are only two players with any chance of winning Rookie of the Year. There’s a lot more campaigning done around All-Star when the pool of possible players is much larger.”

Sam Amick: “It’s kind of rare to see front-office executives get involved, but it does happen occasionally. As we all know, Daryl Morey is not afraid to engage with anybody. I remember when I voted for Russell Westbrook for MVP, I got a good-natured ribbing from Daryl when I saw him after that. Just the other day, a GM who I hadn’t heard from in a while texted me to ask if we could talk and when we got on the phone, he made the case for his guy.”

Jeff Zillgitt: “I will say that last year, in regards to my Rookie of the Year vote, I did have an executive call me just to point out what his guy on his team had done. This was right before the ballots were due, before I cast my votes.”

While certain organizations are more old-school approach and will just make phone calls (like the Golden State Warriors), one of the most common forms of campaigning is by sending creative things to the voters. For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves were pushing for Kevin Love to earn All-Rookie honors, they sent out custom glass cleaner (because he “cleaned the glass” as a rebounder).

Some teams send out promotional packets full of stats and praise from fellow players. Here’s a copy of the packet the Utah Jazz sent out last year to promote Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year. This year, the Jazz took a more creative approach – sending out an actual mock jazz album with Rudy Gobert on the cover to promote his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy:

Tony Jones: “I haven’t been sent too many memorable things. The Utah Jazz sending out a fake album to promote Rudy Gobert for this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award stands out because it’s pretty creative. It’s a real album with a real album cover and there’s a record inside. On the back, there is a song list and they’re all Defensive-Player-of-the-Year themed. It’s a complete recreation of a John Coltrane album.”

Chris Broussard: “Teams sends all types of stuff. I just received something from the people in Toronto because they’re campaigning for Pascal Siakam [to win Most Improved Player]. They sent me a bottle of hot sauce. It’s ‘improved’ hot sauce or something like that. You get all types of stuff. I’ve received shirts and hats. Teams send out a lot of stuff for All-Star voting, but then they do the same thing for the postseason voting. I got a cowboy hat; I can’t even remember what that was for or which team sent it [laughs]. I’ve gotten bobbleheads. But not just bobbleheads, but like actual dolls. I remember I got an Anthony Davis doll one year.”

Sam Amick, The Athletic: “I remember in 2014-15, the Houston Rockets were campaigning for James Harden and sent out what was basically an iPad. It was sort of like a book that had a highlight video inside, showing everything that James has accomplished that year. The other day, I turned around and saw that my son was wearing this red cape. I looked closer and it was the Dwight Howard red cape that the Rockets had sent out [in a Clark Kent briefcase] a few years ago when they were pushing him for awards. I have so much random stuff from over the years, and it’ll just pop up, like my kid running around with this DH Superman cape [laughs].”

Jeff Zillgitt: “When Al Jefferson played for Charlotte, he was dominating inside the paint, so they sent out something that looked like a can of paint, a paintbrush and a stir stick; they were trying to get him on the All-NBA team. One year, the Minnesota Timberwolves sent out a bunch of coffee beans and a coffee cup with Corey Brewer’s image on it as part of a Most Improved Player campaign since his last name is brewer. Some teams get creative with campaigns. A few years ago, I think the Houston Rockets sent out a beard-grooming kit to promote James Harden for MVP. Some teams send out posters. You never know what you’ll get.”

PR Person: “There are some fun things that get sent out, but what’s most important is the information. The whole point of sending out these creative things is to get the voter to sit down and think about the player’s production. If you send them an email with a bunch of stats and overwhelm them with information, they may brush it aside. You’re trying to present a set of facts that persuade the voter without overwhelming them.”

Sometimes, a team will put together a big campaign to appease a player – especially one who’s approaching free agency. That’s sometimes why some of a campaign is more public and extravagant instead of a team lobbying solely behind-the-scenes.

Jeff Zillgitt: “A lot of it is just a show of support, so the player sees that the team is backing him. It says, ‘Hey, we’re behind you. We put this together for you.’ Some players expect that.

PR Person: “If a team is doing nothing or doing very little to campaign for a player who has a good shot at winning one of these awards, I could see them getting upset. With what’s at stake in terms of super-max contracts and even just the bonuses in endorsement deals, players should be upset if their team isn’t doing much to push them for the award – especially if the players they’re up against for the award have these big, creative campaigns. The more they feel they deserve the award, the more slighted they feel if the team didn’t campaign for them.”

Jeff Zillgitt: “However, I have heard of some instances where players have asked the team not to do some extravagant campaign. One year, I wish I could think of the guy, a player actually told his team that he didn’t want them to spend the money on the promotional material and he asked that they donate it to a charity he supported. Man, I wish I could remember who it was… But you have cases like that where some guys just aren’t interested in the campaigning.”

PR Person 2: “If a guy is on an expiring contract, the team is sort in the recruiting stage and they’re trying to keep him happy to re-sign him. Sometimes, that’s when you see a huge campaign. This is especially true if the player is an upcoming free agent in a small market; they’ll go hard because they want to appease the player. Now, sometimes a team may go hard and get creative just because they came up with a great idea and there’s no ulterior motive. But there are absolutely times when it’s about appeasing the player.”

VOTERS EXPLAIN THEIR PROCESS

When it comes to each media members’ specific voting process and what factors they ultimately consider, everyone is a little bit different.

Sam Amick: “When there’s around two games left, I’ll go through it rough-draft style. I’ll take a crack at each award, but about 60% of that may change. Then, I walk away from it and come back to it the next day. I try to read a lot of articles from different media members whom I respect. I will ping people in the league – executives and coaches – to get their thoughts. I always try to be humble. You’ve known me a while and my whole thing is, do I know the game? Yes. But I don’t know it like some people. I’m not an Xs and Os guy, I’m a storytelling guy. That’s why I want to talk to the people who know the game like the back of their hand. If I talk to three or four people in the NBA who I really respect and they all tell me that I’m out of my mind [for leaning a certain way], that matters to me. I’ll ask why and hear them out and I’ll take that into account. I’ll look at the stats as well… Those are the layers to my process.”

Jeff Zillgitt: “My process is paying attention from the beginning of the season to the end of the season and doing my homework, which is a combination of watching a lot of games, reviewing stats and talking to people – players, assistant coaches, executives and, to a certain extent, other reporters. If there’s a reporter who covers a guy more closely, like a beat writer, I’ll talk with them. I like to think I put in the time to make informed votes and as I’m going through the ballot, if there are areas where I’m not 100% sure where I’m going, I do more homework. I do a deep dive to figure out who really is, say, Defensive Player of the Year. And, in some cases, you aren’t wrong just because your first-place guy didn’t win.”

Michael Grange, Sportsnet: “I will do a stats deep dive. I rely pretty heavily on a player’s statistical profile. Off the top of my head, I could name all the MVP candidates and the 1st-Team and 2nd-Team All-NBA players. When you get to the 3rd-Team All-NBA, you have to start doing some digging. I’ll look at Win Shares Per 48, Box Plus/Minus and all these categories and look for players who keep coming up over and over again in the Top 10-to-15 of those categories. It’s typically exactly the guys who I’d expect from what I’ve seen throughout the season and then you just have to whittle down that list. The other thing I’ll do is I’ll ask people I respect like assistant coaches and video guys and say, ‘If you had to choose between these five players, who would you take and why?’ They’ll sometimes say something really interesting and tip the balance. There’s so much information available, so there’s no excuse not to be thorough.”

Tony Jones: “I’m really meticulous when it comes to my votes. I take so much time and I put so much into this process, so I know whoever I vote for, the picks are going to be rock solid. I look at the stats, but I think I rely heavily on what I see. I always try to remember that this is an 82-game season. Winning is really important to me. A few years ago, when Russell Westbrook won MVP, I voted for James Harden because I felt that even though Russ had averaged a triple-double, I thought James’ production was very close to that and I liked that his team won more. This year, I’m omitting someone off my 1st-Team All-NBA that I think everyone is going to have on their 1st-Team just because his team didn’t win as much as the guy who I’m going to put in his place. Winning really, really matters to me.”

Since the 2013-14 season, the NBA has publicized the votes after announcing the winner of each award. (Here are last year’s votes.) Some reporters believe this has had a negative effect on the process. Voters know they’ll be heavily criticized and ridiculed if they make an outside-the-box pick for an award, which may discourage them from straying from the pack.

Sam Amick: “Fear of social-media reprisal, if you will, is real. It’s hard to not see that as a factor. I can’t specifically think of any situations where I was unsure of who to vote for and leaned a certain way because of that factor, though… But there are definitely some people who feel that a few years ago, had votes not been publicized, Stephen Curry wouldn’t have won unanimously. In 2015-16, it kind of reached a point where there were no other candidates [perceived to be on the same level] so you were going to look like an idiot if you voted for anybody else other than Steph.”

Chris Broussard: “I think it changes some votes. It doesn’t change mine because I’ve pretty much always disclosed my ballot. Even before Twitter, I’d write a column with my votes. Then, with social media, I’ll post my votes on there. I do think it’s probably changed how some guys vote because there’s the fear of criticism. If it was private, maybe a voter would be bolder or go with a guy he feels deserves it [but he’s a long shot to win]. I think before ballots were public, sometimes you’d see voters go with a guy as a sort of ‘lifetime achievement’ award, but you don’t see that now because the scrutiny is no intense and everyone would get upset and say, ‘It’s about now!’ So yeah, I do think it affects some votes.”

Cassidy Hubbarth, ESPN: “It definitely has an impact. How could it not? It certainly impacts me to be more thorough with my research and make sure I am making an informed decision, and not just relying on an eye test or feeling.”

Michael Grange: “I do think it’s one of a few things that has made voting a bit more uniform. I would concede that if you had a different view on something – on a certain player in a certain award category – you should make sure that you can really account for it. If you’re going out of the box, you shouldn’t just do it flippantly or just to be different. You want to make sure that you can really explain why it is that you made the pick.”

Ben Golliver: “There has been a rise in group-think. It’s media-on-media backlash too, in some cases. The Twitter backlash and media backlash is worse than any backlash from players or agents who see your ballot. I think part of it is that there are a lot of people out there who really care about the awards, but they don’t have a vote so when they see the official votes go in a direction they don’t agree with, there’s resentment and they feel like the voters got it ‘wrong.’”

Jeff Zillgitt “If you’re a long-time NBA reporter and you feel like going outside-the-box a bit with your MVP vote, I generally have no problem with it. Because the one thing I’ll add is that I sort of dislike how group-think has dictated how you ‘should’ vote the last couple of years. I know this has been an argument [among voters] and I don’t want to get too deep into Professional Basketball Writers Association politics or anything, but there have been some people who have made the case that they prefer to have their votes anonymous for a variety of reasons. But I’ve tried not to get caught up in group-think. Just because someone thinks that a certain player ‘should’ win an award, if your eyes and mind tell you that you like another player better after watching the games, you should vote your conscience – despite what group-think or NBA Twitter may say.”

Public votes may also hurt a reporter’s relationships with players and agents, especially with how much money is tied to the awards these days.

Tony Jones: “I had one agent get upset at me, but he wasn’t really upset at me. He was upset because his guy got left off [All-NBA teams] and his guy would’ve qualified for a super-max contract. He wasn’t upset at me, per se, he was kind of venting to me and more frustrated about the situation in general.”

Jeff Zillgitt “I have heard of this: Players telling a media member, ‘Well, why should I talk to you? You didn’t put me on the All-NBA Team or vote for me last year.’ I have heard of that happening. That is real, but it hasn’t happened to me.”

Sam Amick: “There have definitely been times where agents or team officials will give you a hard time [about how you voted] and it’s mostly in jest, but you know there’s definitely some truth behind whatever comment or joke they’re making. You hear from agents and players about your votes – for sure.”

SOME SEE POSSIBLE CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others don’t allow their reporters to vote on awards due to potential conflict of interest. Some reporters also make the individual decision not to vote, such as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

In the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, it was decided that players who earned accolades like the MVP award or an All-NBA selection would qualify for a super-max contract – adding to the potential conflict of interest. Three years ago, Anthony Davis lost out on $23 million because he didn’t make an All-NBA team in an injury-plagued year. In other words, these votes are making a bigger impact than ever, which has some voters feeling uneasy.

Jeff Zillgitt: “Look, I have no problem with any of the outlets that [want to sit out voting]. I’ll be honest with you, I do not like the idea that some of these super-max contracts are tied to these MVP or All-NBA votes – the fact that our votes are tied to someone getting a considerable raise. There’s an uncomfortable [feeling] I have when it comes to making those votes. I will also say this: If I feel a guy didn’t deserve it, I didn’t vote for them even if they would’ve made a lot more money had I voted for them. I look at what they accomplished that season and whether they deserve it. But, going back to it, there is some level of uncomfortableness there. Do the financial ramifications pop into your head? It’s hard to block them out. It’s out there and people are talking about it.”

Sam Amick: “I’m one of the VPs of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and we’ve had this debate internally about whether a player will treat someone differently because votes are now publicized. So hypothetically, if I didn’t vote for Anthony Davis a few years back and he missed out on his money by a couple votes, does he figure out specifically who didn’t vote for him and is he now less cooperative [with those individuals]? I don’t have any specific horror stories like that, but it’s something you think about.”

Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: “I’ve never voted before. When I joined The Wall Street Journal, they made it clear that they didn’t like the idea and, in fact, they were very critical of the idea so it’s never something I did. It was fine for us to have opinions, but the thought is that you may end up advocating for something too strongly to then slide back into your role as the objective reporter. Since [leaving the Wall Street Journal], I’ve never been asked to vote, but I’ve also made it pretty clear that I didn’t want to do it.”

Michael Grange: “It’s an interesting issue and I can understand why certain publications would shy away from that. With the public nature of the votes and the fact that you have to answer for your votes, that helps a lot. You’re going to be held accountable. And, in this social-media age, if you’re going to do something that’s really out of character, you’re going to hear about it and it’s going to stick with you for a pretty long time, so that’s a pretty powerful incentive to act above board.”

PR Person: “In terms of a conflict of interest, I believe and trust in the media members who have a vote. That’s why everyone doesn’t have a vote. I wholeheartedly believe in the people who have a vote. I think they review all the facts and take it extremely seriously and base their decisions on the play, not on the bonuses or rewards a player may receive.”

The media-player relationship also must be considered when discussing conflict of interest. These people work alongside each other often (and in the case of beat writers, nearly every day). Also, journalists and players sometimes develop close relationships, which could make a voter biased.

Chris Herring: “There’s sometimes a personal bias that comes into it too, whether it’s recognized or not. When you spend time around these players and develop a friendship with them or at least an admiration for them just from seeing them day-to-day, I think that’s natural. I don’t there’s anything wrong with it. But I do think in a lot of cases – and maybe not all, but certainly some cases – there’s going to be bias there.”

Cassidy Hubbarth: “Journalists are supposed to objective. Who’s to say how someone ‘knows’ a player and if that’s a conflict of interest? What’s the solution? You can have players vote, but as we’ve seen in All-Star voting, they are influenced too. I can only speak for myself, but I try to be as objective as possible and I understand that my vote matters.”

Chris Broussard: “I’ve never had a player say anything to me about the financial ramifications. And, look, I love when guys get their money, but I can’t let that influence my voting.”

Tony Jones: “I don’t take into account the financial ramifications. To me, I don’t think we should be burdened with that. I only consider what happens between the lines and if a guy deserves to be on the All-NBA team, then he deserves to be on the All-NBA team regardless of his contract or money situation.”

Sam Amick: “I’m kind of amazed that there isn’t more of a concerted effort by the people who have so much at stake to [influence voters]. If I was a fan, I would assume that with this kind of money on the line, you’d have some pretty shady stuff going on behind the scenes to try to influence voters. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I don’t have people in the shadows trying to influence me in any way. If that ever changes and the second my phone starts ringing from that type of angle, maybe that’s when I’m going to the league – to whatever degree my voice matters – and saying, ‘You guys need to rethink this.’ I can only speak for myself, but it is nice that you don’t see anything like that. The worst-case example would be an agent paying off media members for votes, but even just putting human pressure on people would be wrong. Mark Bartelstein, for example, has Bradley Beal and he can get a super-max contract if he makes an All-NBA team, but I haven’t been pressured by Mark or Bradley or anyone else saying something like, ‘Hey, come on, man. This is big for us.’ That just doesn’t happen – in my experience, at least. My guess is that agents know better. Unless they know for certain that they’re dealing with a scumbag reporter, you’re going to get outed if you try to do something like that. If you come to me and try to offer me money like that, you just gave me a massive story! ‘The Underbelly of NBA Awards Voting’ by Sam Amick!”

Ben Golliver: “That’s part of the reason why The Washington Post has this policy about not voting; you don’t even want that perception out that there that some agent buttered you up so that they’d get the vote and he and his player get a ton of money. You don’t want that perception. It’s sort of a cost-benefit analysis too. Like, what do you really gain from being a voter if you’re putting your credibility and reputation on the line? Some editors have just concluded that there’s not much to gain.”

Western Conference player: “Sometimes the media gets it right, but there are times where they get it wrong too. It’s an interesting situation because it’s strange to have them making decisions that have that much money riding on them.”

Chris Herring: “It’s not talked about enough that the CBA shouldn’t be drawn up in a way where the incentives are put in the hands of media members. I think that’s a big problem that we’ve run into where we have voters who don’t have the capacity and the bandwidth to watch everybody, yet they’re making these decisions that are very important to the players.”

Sam Amick: “At the moment, you have a lot of superstars who are fairly outspoken about the idea that media members don’t truly know what we’re talking about when it comes to the game itself. And I’m certainly not endorsing that perspective, I’m just acknowledging it. But that’s the viewpoint of some stars, and then you have this system where their super-max will depend on the opinion of those same media members they’re calling out for supposedly not knowing the game. That’s tricky. It creates some friction, in some cases. It’s an imperfect system…”

NO SYSTEM IS PERFECT, BUT VOTERS DO A SOLID JOB

Most agree that this system has flaws. However, it’s hard to argue that the voters have made any egregious errors.

The NBA does give fans some say in the process. Back in 2010, the NBA started allowing fans to vote for MVP. This year, they expanded it so fans were allowed to vote via Twitter or NBA.com between April 2 and April 13 for MVP, DPOY, ROY, MIP and Sixth Man. Winning the fan vote in a respective category counts as one vote alongside the 100 media votes.

Most agreed that while there are issues with the system, there doesn’t seem there is a better alternative and the media typically gets it right anyway.

Eastern Conference player: “I think the media does a good job selecting winners, but I do wish the players had some say in the vote. I think players are the ones who really know. But the media does a solid job too.”

Western Conference player: “I mean, they do alright. It can just be frustrating because, as players, we’re the ones going up against these guys and seeing their play up close. I just feel like we know better. I’m fine with the media being involved, but I think players should be involved too.”

Chris Broussard “The media follows this closer than anybody. You see what happens when the players vote for All-Star: it becomes a joke. You see them voting for friends and teammates. Coaches obviously follow things and watch film, but the media are the ones who really follow the entire league. I think media, for the most part, take this very seriously – and we care so much about remaining objective. I definitely think the media should continue voting for these awards.”

Jeff Zillgitt: “I’m not necessarily sure that there’s a better alternative than the current system, and I think the NBA realizes that. One thing the NBA did in recent years was take away votes from the teams’ TV and radio broadcasters, so the NBA is monitoring [conflict of interest]. They’re paying close attention to who’s voting. The 100 people who are voting are people that they know well and who they’ve dealt with for years on a variety of different levels, and they feel these people should be voting because they have complete trust in them to conduct their vote on the up-and-up. Knowing these people and reading their work and talking to them, I have a lot faith in them and how this process works.”

Eastern Conference player: “I think the media does a really good job. I can’t think back to any times where the winner they selected was so bad that it, like, shocked people. It’s tough, but I think they usually get it right.”

PR Person: “I’ve never been a fan of one entity having total control over an outcome. I would like to see the media have a share and the coaches have a share, so together they vote and determine the major awards. The media is watching and the coaches are game-planning, so I think together they should be able to do a good job. I will say, the media does seem to get it right most of the time. It’s just the thought of one group solely determining the winner that rubs me the wrong way.”

PR Person 2: “I think people are skewed toward ‘their guys’ – the ones they have a relationship with. I feel like the media does a good job, but I’d like to see others have some say as well. There’s no perfect way to do this. I think opening it to coaches could be good, as long as they can’t vote for their own players.”

Michael Grange: “Maybe the solution is do some kind of weighted vote like All-Star where media votes count for 40 percent, a panel of retired players have votes that count for 40 percent and you find another group to round it out? It’s one of those things where people may think there’s a better system, but then as you start walking through some possibilities, there isn’t one that stands out as an obvious solution.”

Ben Golliver: “The media does a way better job than the players. I also think the media does a better job picking All-Stars than the coaches do when they select the reserves. Obviously, if you had the executives voting, you’d have similar – or worse – conflict of interest issues. Personally, I think the media are the best people to do it. You just need reporters who are independent and unbiased and who take it seriously.”

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