In theory, a clause tying awards voting to maximum salaries in the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement seemed fraught. Now that it is about to be put into practice, it seems downright nuts. Later this week, when writers and broadcasters send in their All-NBA teams, they may well determine the franchise trajectory of the Indiana Pacers and whether Paul George will put roughly an extra $75 million in his bank account.
That strange development — actually a workable solution for the NBA, but a faulty bargain for voters — derives from the concept of the Designated Player Exception. If a player approaching free agency on his second contract is named MVP or defensive player of the year or makes an all-NBA team while either playing for the team that drafted him or that traded for him while on his rookie contract, he becomes eligible to sign a maximum contract extension well above the typical rate for his service time. The NBA pushed for the DPE to give teams an edge in signing their own superstars and to better match pay with performance.
The first test will come this month. The confluence of George’s ability, his stature in Indiana and his current contract, set to expire after 2017-18, makes for a fascinating case. George may be a long shot to make one of three all-NBA teams. If George receives one of two nods as a third-team forward, he would become eligible to receive a more than $200 million extension from the Pacers this summer, about $75 million more than he could earn otherwise. If not, the Pacers could still offer him an extra year on a max contract. In that case, George may be tempted to test free agency next summer, with a widespread assumption being he would leap to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. If the Pacers can’t convince George to sign this summer, they may look to trade him, rather than risk losing him with nothing gained.
The fate of one of the best 20 players in the NBA and the course of a franchise may well hinge on how a panel of roughly 100 media members evaluates George. Odds are he won’t make it, despite a late push and George’s own assertion he deserves it. Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green are likely locks for five of the six forward spots. George not only has to hope New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis is voted as a center, but that voters prefer him to options such as Jimmy Butler or Gordon Hayward.
Determining the position of a versatile big man or the sixth-best forward in the NBA should be harmless, funky riddles for award voters to grapple with. Instead, the answers to those debates could send shock waves through the league. (The Washington Post has a long-running policy preventing its writers from voting on any and all awards.)
As odd as the arrangement feels, there might not be a better solution from the NBA’s perspective. Starting during the 2011 CBA negotiations, Commissioner Adam Silver, then David Stern’s deputy and the league’s top negotiator, made it a priority to both better align player performance with player compensation and to give smaller markets a better chance at retaining stars. The league needed an objective measure to classify how much the game’s best players could be paid, relative to peers or players who fled in free agency.
Statistical benchmarks were a nonstarter — players could be rewarded for stockpiling numbers on a bad team, or for gunning for individual stats to the detriment of their teams. The league in 2011 settled on all-star selections as one measurement for a similar rule for players coming off rookie contracts, but that proved dubious. Fans could skew all-star selections with clear biases, and the nods didn’t factor the final chunk of the season.
In the latest round of negotiations, the league and NBA Players Association agreed on all-NBA, MVP and defensive player of the year awards to determine eligibility for the Designated Player Exception. Given escalating revenue and a desire to double down on giving teams an advantage to keep stars they developed, the decision put a significant responsibility on those who cover the league.
From the league’s perspective, it makes sense. If you want an independent, informed and diverse panel to determine player hierarchy, canvassing about 100 people who cover the league is as good as the NBA is going to get. To further limit biases, the NBA took away votes from team-employed broadcasters and writers.
(NBA.com writers and personalities will have a vote, because, in the NBA’s eyes, those journalists have no team-driven agenda. In a league where fans cling to the belief David Stern picked a cold envelope to deliver the New York Knicks the draft position to select Patrick Ewing, you can expect a few conspiratorial followers to accuse those voters of somehow carrying out the league’s bidding.)
From the voters’ perspective, the arrangement stands in such opposition to core tenets that it’s irrational for them to agree to take part. Writers and broadcasters will be determining seismic events for the people and institutions they cover. That’s antithetical to the simplest journalistic principle. Because voting is transparent, the voters will feel pressure — whether explicit or implicit — from both fan bases and people they cover, from agents to executives.
There’s no doubt the majority of voters will take the awards seriously. But the process and the stakes calls their objectivity into question, fairly or unfairly. Perception matters.
The ways in which the NBA’s new system will work will be revealed over time. This week, NBA awards voters will send in their choices. For the first time, we’ll see how much of an impact the people who cover the sport can now make on the league itself.