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On the contrary
NBA awards voters, ranked
Any ole yokel can take a screenshot of an awards ballot and dunk on an unsuspecting media member. But The F5 holds itself to a marginally higher standard. So over the last few days, I combed through every NBA awards ballot to mathematically rank media members by how far their votes deviated from the consensus.
The math that goes into the formula for ranking voters is straight forward, but extremely dull. In short, I calculated how many standard deviations each voter’s ballot is from the consensus ballot. If you’re interested in reading the full methodology, check the footnotes1.
Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that a voter going against the grain is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I have long argued that awards voters are becoming too similar and it’s leading to boring and predictable results.
Still, it’s fun to look at which voters are marching to the beat of their own drum and which ones are falling in line with everyone else. But again, to reiterate, this post is not meant to mock, laugh at, or criticize anyone. I’m just sorting media members by the uniqueness of their voting behavior in a systematic way to see what pops out.
So now that we’ve avoided any defamation lawsuits, here are the voters ranked by how contrarian their awards ballots are. The further to the right a voter’s ballot is on the chart2, the more unusual it is relative to the consensus. Meanwhile, the further to the left a voter’s ballot is, the closer it mirrors the theoretical average voter.
The big takeaway here is that Max Haupt, a first-time voter (and probably last-time voter — more on that in a moment) covering the NBA for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, has by far the most unique collection of ballots out of any awards voter. His MVP, Coach of the Year, and All-Defensive Team ballots are each two or more standard deviations away from the consensus.
That number by itself doesn’t carry much meaning, so let’s look into the specifics behind why these values shake out the way they do.
A voter’s ballot is comprised of individual votes and the colored column in the table below details how contrarian each of Haupt’s individual votes are. Those numbers represent the squared difference between the amount of points Haupt awarded to a particular player or coach and the amount of points the average voter awarded to that player or coach. The bigger the difference, the more contrarian the vote.
Ultimately, Haupt’s MVP ballot is what pushed him so far out to right on the contrarian scale. To begin, he gave Luka Doncic a second-place vote when no one else gave him anything higher than a fourth-place vote. Additionally, he was one of only five voters to give Stephen Curry a first-place vote and the only voter to omit Nikola Jokic entirely from his MVP ballot. Instead of putting Jokic on his MVP ballot, Haupt made the objectively unique choice of giving Russell Westbrook and Ben Simmons a third- and fourth-place MVP vote, respectively.
Meanwhile, Haupt’s Coach of the Year ballot wasn’t unreasonable, but it was contrarian in part because he left the eventual winner (Tom Thibodeau) off his ballot entirely.
Furthermore, he was the only voter that voted for Marcus Smart for 1st Team All-Defense. Also, he included his fellow countrymen Daniel Theis and Dennis Schröder on his 2nd Team All-Defense ballot, which earned him a few additional contrarian points.
Compare Haupt’s ballot to a voter who is more in line with the consensus, like ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. Overall, Nichols had a fairly uncontroversial ballot with the only real contrarian choice coming from her Most Improved Player ballot, which featured Zion Williamson. Nichols was the only voter that had Williamson on their Most Improved ballot.
I’ve done this analysis for the past three seasons and one of the reoccurring trends has been that female media members tend to score lower on the contrarianism scale than male voters. I think part of that has to do with the fact that female media members are more likely to be the subject of ad hominem attacks and unfair criticism from fans for casting an unconventional ballot. So perhaps out of self-preservation, female voters tend to make fewer controversial choices than male voters do. Of the 13 female media members that voted on this year’s awards, only two (The Ringer’s Seerat Sohi and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne) ranked in the top 50 in terms of contrarianism.
I also find it at least somewhat interesting that two of the most contrarian voters this season were from media members covering the league for a foreign press. Haupt and Christos Tsalta of SDNA.gr both scored highly on the contrarianism scale and I wonder if that has anything to do with how much (or how little) media narratives translate to different cultures. In other words, are attributes that are valued by American fans and media valued to the same degree by fans from a different country? I suspect not and that may play a part in why Haupt and Tsalta made such contrarian choices.
Again, contrarianism isn’t a bad thing. The whole point of having a voting body is so that a wide variety of opinions are represented. If everyone’s opinions were the same there’d be no need to take a vote in the first place. If anything, contrarianism shows that the system is working like it should.
However, I’m not certain the NBA league office feels the same way. When I conducted this exercise last season, Greg Logan of Newsday and Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times ranked as the two most contrarian voters. Neither Logan or Cowley was given a vote this year and I have to wonder if that isn't a coincidence. If my suspicions are correct, I’d be surprised to see Max Haupt’s name on an awards ballots next season.
Also, try as they might, I think the NBA will forever have a difficult time soliciting votes from unbiased voters. Over the years, they’ve made attempts to minimize bias by taking away votes from each team’s home broadcasters. But local reporters often end up falling prey to the same bias by voting for the players and coaches they cover the most. For example, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer was one of only two voters to give Doc Rivers, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, a first-place vote for Coach of the Year. Does Pompey still make that vote if Doc Rivers is coaching a different team? (**Shakes Magic 8 Ball**: My sources say no.)
This year, there were voters from 21 local markets3 and 19 of them voted for at least one player or coach in their home market for at least one award. The only two that didn’t were Scott Kushner of the New Orleans Times Picayune and Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel. And even then, Parry still voted for former Magic player Nikola Vucevic for Third Team All-NBA.
Given the financial ramifications that are at stake for players that win or lose an award, I think the least a voter can do is write a column or appear on a show or a podcast to discuss (not defend!) their choices. I think if fans got to read or hear a voter’s thought-process for why they voted the way they did there’d be far less vitriol directed at them for going against the grain.
I’m actually looking for a job so if someone at the NBA league office is reading this and wants to sponsor my idea, please hire me to host a podcast next season so that I can invite a different awards voter on each episode.
Credit to the redditor /u/TroyAtWork whose original methodology I’ve adopted and modified over the years.
Best way to explain how this system works is with an example:
Russell Westbrook received one third place vote for MVP this season, which was worth a total of five points. It was the only MVP vote Westbrook received and it was given to him by Max Haupt.
The first step is to subtract the total points Haupt assigned to Westbrook from the average MVP points Westbrook received from all other media members, not including Haupt.
5.0 - 0.0 = 5 point difference
To “ding” particularly contrarian votes, I squared that number. That means giving Westbrook a third place vote for MVP when he wasn’t on any other ballots would be a lot worse than giving a third place vote to Nikola Jokic, who finished first in the voting.
5.0 * 5.0 = 25.0 point difference
Next, I took the square root of the average of those point differentials for every vote on a ballot.
To continue to use Haupt’s MVP ballot as an example, he gave Stephen Curry 10 points (Curry received 4.4 points per media member on average), Luka Doncic 7 points (0.4 points per media member), Russell Westbrook 5 points (0.0 points per media member), Ben Simmons 3 points (0.0 points per media member), and Giannis Antetokounmpo 1 point (3.5 points per media member).
(10.0 - 4.4)^2 = ~31.3
(7.0 - 0.4)^2 = ~44.2
(5.0 - 0.0)^2 = ~25.0
(3.0 - 0.0)^2 = ~9.0
(1.0 - 3.5)^2 = ~6.3
sqrt((31.3 + 44.2 + 25.0 + 9.0 + 6.3) / 5) = ~4.8
And then lastly, I took the average of those standard deviations across every ballot including MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie to come up with what I call the Total Contrarian Score. The higher the value, the further a voter’s collection ballots tended to deviate from the consensus.
Including: Arizona Republic; Boston Globe; Chicago Tribune; Cleveland.com; Dallas Morning News; Denver Post; Detroit Free Press; Memphis Commercial Appeal; Miami Herald; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; New Orleans Times Picayune; New York Daily News; New York Post; Orlando Sentinel; Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News; San Antonio Express-News; The Oklahoman; The Oregonian; The Toronto Star; The Toronto Sun; Southern California News Group