When the final round of voting for the 2016 NBA All-Star Game was released last January, league officials inside Olympic Tower in New York City let out a huge sigh of relief. A mere 14,000 votes separated the third and fourth-place finishers in voting, after both had nearly 800,000 votes.
The third-place finisher was San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, the 2015 (and later 2016) Defensive Player of the Year and one of the brightest young talents in the game. The fourth-place finisher was then-Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia, a journeyman center from the Republic of Georgia best known for a glorious postgame interview following an Atlanta Hawks first-round playoff victory in 2008 over the eventual champion Boston Celtics.
(I mean, seriously. Watch that and try not to smile. It’s impossible).
The NBA wanted no part of what happened to the NHL last year, when another journeyman — defenseman John Scott — not only was voted to start the All-Star Game, but went on to win the game’s Most Valuable Player award, as well. So, in order to prevent that from happening, the NBA essentially changed the game, taking the award voting from being 100 percent fan vote driven, as it always had been, to a weighted formula: 50 percent fan vote, 25 percent player vote, 25 percent media vote.
Those same suits inside Olympic Tower had to be thankful for their foresight after the first round of fan voting for the 2017 All-Star Game was released Thursday afternoon, and Pachulia, now playing for the Golden State Warriors, was not only second among Western Conference frontcourt players, behind only teammate Kevin Durant, but was almost 100,000 votes ahead of Leonard, who again was third, and 120,000 ahead of New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis in fourth.
This result is exactly why the rules were changed this year — changes that virtually ensure that, no matter how many votes Pachulia picks up from the fans, he has no chance of being an All-Star this season.
Because the voting formula is based off a weighted average of where a player finishes in each voting category, the total vote count a player receives is irrelevant. So, for example, if Durant finishes first in fan voting among Western Conference forwards, then second among media voting and fourth among player voting, the average would work like this: 1+1+2+4, which equals eight. That number would then be divided by four, giving Durant a weighted average of two. The three Western Conference frontcourt players with the lowest weighted average would then be named the All-Star starters. Players that receive no votes, either by the players or the media — here’s looking at you, Zaza — would be placed at the bottom of the list, thereby destroying their average.
Pachulia seems like a near certainty to finish among the top three fan vote-getters at this point — in fact, he had the eighth-most votes overall, trailing only Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But because Pachulia, who currently is averaging 5.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game as Golden State’s starting center, will almost certainly get little to no support among media members or fellow players, his weighted average has little chance of being anywhere near good enough to crack into the West’s starting five in New Orleans next month.
Pachulia and the Hawks may have made nothing easy for the Celtics back in 2008. But the NBA has now returned the favor to Pachulia and his legions of fans when it comes to making it to an All-Star Game.