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NBA

NBA Sunday: For NBA Awards, Playoff Results Should Matter

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In all walks of life, change is more than a possibility, it’s a certainty, and those that fail to adapt to modern times and changing trends are ultimately left behind.

Even when the stakes aren’t super-duper high, at the very least, failure to modernize one’s approach in accord with contemporary times will cause any endeavor to become nonsensical.

This applies to the National Basketball Association, as well.

For more reasons than one, it’s time to extend the end-of-season awards ballot submission deadline.

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This past season, the NBA-viewing public has truly witnessed one of the most inspiring Most Valuable Player races in history. Over the years, there have been some pretty close races, with a few standing out more than others.

In 2005, Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal had a tremendously close race. Nash barely emerged the victor after earning just 65 of the 127 available first-place votes. O’Neal took a whopping 58 of those first-place votes, ultimately yielding one of the closest races in history.

In the end, Nash secured the award with 1,066 ballot points, narrowly edging O’Neal and his 1,032.

Three years prior, in 2002, Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan had a similar battle. Kidd literally single-handedly turned the fortunes of the New Jersey Nets around, and in the process, secured 45 of the 126 first-place votes available. Duncan, the eventual victor, had 57, again narrowly edging the Hall-of-Fame point guard for the award. The final tally was 954 to 897.

Over the years, many other MVP races were tight. With no objective criteria, players have received first-place votes for personal statistical accrual, perceived game impact and regular season wins. The award winners and the reasoning behind the casting of votes has been as diverse as the roster of the Spurs. One thing the past winners mostly had in common, however, is that they were officially announced and recognized during the NBA playoffs. For that reason, it made perfect sense to require the ballots to be cast once the regular season had ended.

Realizing, however, that things should change with the times, on Commissioner Adam Silver’s watch, the league has opted to change that process by officially handing out end-of-season awards in an award show. This is obviously a departure from the past practice of announcing the award-winner at a team-hosted press conference and, if the player’s team was still participating in the playoffs, presenting the award to them prior to a playoff home game.

The NBA’s first ever postseason award show will take place on June 26, 2017 in New York City—long after the NBA Finals have terminated and even after this year’s draft, which is scheduled for June 22. From a logistical standpoint, it hardly makes sense to require voters to submit their ballots to the league more than two months prior to the award show. Unless, of course, the intended design is to prohibit voters from taking playoff results into account when casting their ballots.

Today, without question, this should be permitted.

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Imagine working a “9-to-5” for a company.

You work diligently, deal with the obstacles that arise during the course of your routine and apply yourself to the best of your abilities. While dealing with the parts of our job that aren’t necessarily glamorous, you take it in stride. You’re happy and wouldn’t prefer to be doing anything other than what you’re currently doing.

Out of the blue, one day, your boss tells you that your additional bonuses and total compensation will be heavily based on your performance metrics. If you’re a good worker, this would usually be considered good news.

What if your manager then broke one tiny piece of news to you that made all the difference in the world? Only results from the first nine months of the year will count—the fourth quarter of the calendar year would be meaningless.

How do you think James Harden would feel about that?

For the most part, we must recognize that the NBA and its teams have done a masterful job of making its viewership care a great deal about things that don’t seem that important in the grand scheme. Sure, All-Star appearances, All-NBA selections and individual awards are great, but most players care more about their checks and their ability to win championships than they do these background considerations.

If you asked LeBron James if he would trade one of his MVP Awards for another championship ring or Carmelo Anthony if he would give up his scoring title or even five of his All-Star appearances for a Larry O’Brien trophy, each would probably answer in the affirmative. So kudos to the NBA for making us care about things more than many players in the league actually do.

But when it comes time to pay guys? That’s when everyone should care.

Back in 2011, in the aftermath of the lockout, the NBA implemented what is commonly referred to as the “Derrick Rose Rule,” whereby younger players can earn significantly more money by achieving designations related to All-Star appearances, All-NBA appearances and being named the league’s MVP. In general, incentive-laden contracts seem fair. One of the very basic principles of the “American Dream” that immigrants bring to this great country is the common belief that hard work will be rewarded.

If this is the case, however, doesn’t that put the onus of getting the process correct on its keepers? If compensation is tied to measurable performance metrics or designations, why shouldn’t the voting public be permitted to take playoff results into account?

With the NBA’s 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement, incentive-based compensation was taken to new heights. Veteran players negotiating new contracts will, like their younger comrades coming off of rookie contracts, have the opportunity to earn more if they make All-NBA teams, qualify for All-Star games or win certain end-of-season awards.

The combination of built-in incentives and the NBA’s award show almost necessitate including playoff results into one’s consideration, because if we truly value playoff wins and performances more than regular season metrics, there shouldn’t be the type of discord that currently exists. Voting media members should have the right to withhold their ballots until a time period that extends past the ending of the first round of the playoffs.

Today, there’s more at stake for the player. The designation means more. It’s time for a change.

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As Russell Westbrook and James Harden prepare to square off in a first-round playoff matchup, there is no doubt that the two will go at one another’s throats. Each a fierce competitor, both Westbrook and Harden want to prove their superiority.

There’s just one problem—the votes have already been cast.

That the two favorites to walk away with the MVP Award will square off and it have no bearing on who wins the award—an award that has now taken on newfound importance—that’s a flaw in the system that needs to be corrected.

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on—and there aren’t many—it’s that Westbrook and Harden have each turned in tremendous performances over the course of the long season. Each of the two has put forth valiant efforts and each has amazing storylines behind them.

Many of those that believe that Westbrook doesn’t “deserve” to be named the league’s MVP would argue that his statistics are somehow misleading or inflated. They tie that belief into concluding that the Thunder won’t win “when it matters” and would argue that the league’s MVP shouldn’t play for a team that can’t even advance out of the first round. While that may be true, an attorney that practices in criminal defense would tell you that drawing a conclusion based solely on a result which has not yet occurred is the equivalent of “assuming facts not in evidence.” In other words, predicting the demise of the Thunder and penalizing Westbrook for it before it is actually a proven fact is the epitome of injustice. At the very least, he deserves the opportunity to prove that theory to be true or not. And he deserves that opportunity (the equivalent of going to trial) before a ballot is cast against him (the equivalent of a verdict being delivered).

Truth be told, 10 years ago, many voters began to feel that playoff results should be taken into consideration. Dirk Nowitzki, the league’s MVP in 2007, couldn’t lead his team past the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors.

Had voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots after the first round of the playoffs, it’s very likely that Steve Nash (the runner-up in 2007), would have walked away with the MVP Award (which would have been his third consecutive). His Phoenix Suns, after all, did at least take the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs to a Game 6 in their second-round playoff series. It’s also worth noting that the Suns probably would have won the NBA Finals that season had Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Draw not been suspended for their roles in an altercation that resulted after Robert Horry levied a flagrant foul against Nash.

Fortunately for Nash, his winning the MVP Award (or not) had no impact on what he was compensated for otherwise being the lynchpin of a perennial contender and an all-time great point guard.

Years from now, there will be another duo (or trio) that will be competing for our affection and our votes. There’s no downside to allowing what transpires in the playoffs to impact both how we perceive the players and whether or not they should earn our votes. This is especially true when it comes to a player like Westbrook. Many of his detractors have preemptively predicted his team’s demise. Because the voting public has already cast their ballots, in effect, he has been unfairly persecuted before his trial.

Prior to the built-in incentives that have become a part of the collective bargaining agreements, this was fairly easy to overlook.

Today? Not so much.

As in all other walks of life, in the NBA, times do change. We no longer have centers as being a mandatory part of the All-Star game, while we no longer automatically award a division winner with a top-three seed in their conference.

Indeed, we have seen in both David Stern and Adam Silver’s NBA, that times do change.

Naturally, with the tying of compensation to award designations, the end-of-season voting awards and process should, as well.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.