Why Zaza Pachulia Should Have Started in the NBA All-Star Game
The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was fun. There was the mystery of an absent DeMarcus Cousins amidst later-confirmed trade rumors and there was the feel-good story of a Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook reunion. Bounteous buckets and braggadocious baskets gave us a soirée replete with obnoxious dunks, ridiculous shots, and comic relief. The only thing missing (aside from defense) was Golden State Warriors Center and Georgian hero Zaza Pachulia.
Zaza is a 14-year NBA veteran and journeyman from ex-Soviet Georgia. Most All-Stars have never averaged less than 12 points in their careers — Zaza has never averaged more than 12 in his and, accordingly, no one in America thinks that Zaza is a basketball all-star. Yet Air Pachulia received 1.53 million fan votes to be a starter in this year’s All-Star Game, the most for any center in the NBA. About 41% of Georgia’s 3.72 million citizens voted for Zaza. That is literally more than one-third of a country voting for him. Meanwhile LeBron James was the highest vote-getter this year with 1.9 million votes — even if they all came from his home and team’s state Ohio that would still be just 19% of the population. If we consider the entire country, he received about 0.6% of the vote. 41% is absolutely insane. Those are presidential numbers. Zaza’s all-star voting turnout was nearly 12% higher than the turnout for the 2016 Presidential Primaries and only 9% lower than the turnout for the U.S. General Election. Even if presidential voting can’t be done online or repeated daily, this is still entirely unprecedented. Four out of ten people in a war-torn country along the Black Sea voted for Zaza to start in this year’s All-Star Game, and in years past (were it not for his rotator cuff injury) he would have been a definite starter. This year however, the NBA tried to protect the sanctity of the sport from internet trolls and the Chinese market with a new algorithm for starters that better heeds the opinion of the hoops industry. This year the fan vote weighed 50% less as player and media ballots split the other 50%, meaning Georgia’s effort was overruled by, most specifically, the American press.
The All-Star Game was instituted in 1951 as a way to attract and engage bitter basketball fans following the ’50-’51 college point-shaving scandal. Fans voted on players for a February exhibition match and the conferences duked it out. However, following the advent of social media and the emergence of Chinese basketball fans, the NBA looked to respect "true" basketball fans by allowing the media and players to help ensure that only the best players started in the All-Star Game. Maybe it’s because the NBA is worried about the power of internet trolls (see: the internet naming a new Mountain Dew flavor “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong”). Maybe it’s because the patriotism of foreign markets (especially that of a certain communist superpower) pushes nationalism over talent for the All-Star Game which is hard for the history books and the Hall of Fame to make sense of. There was controversy when the Chinese market earned Yao Ming an All-Star starting spot following his career-ending injury in 2011. There was more controversy in 2009 and 2013 when Yi Jianlian and Jeremy Lin came third in voting, one spot away from starting despite their undeserving seasons. China has over a billion citizens and Yi received 1.8 million votes while Lin received about 1 million. Barely a fraction of Georgia’s 2017 turnout. Barely a fraction of what Zaza means to his homeland.
A piece by Tom Haberstroh and Baxter Holmes showed that it was not even Zaza whose votes were produced through Internet trolls gaming the system. It turns out that Zaza’s votes were predominantly organic through Georgian facebook profiles while actual superstar Kawhi Leonard's fans used twitter-bots to try and inflate his vote. Haberstroh and Holmes consulted Graphika’s social influence expert John Kelly who had one principal takeaway about Zaza: “He’s got not just the Georgian basketball fans engaged. He’s got the whole society.” Two things happened with China’s aforementioned All-Star engagement: 1) Increased fan engagement. As early voting results came in with average Chinese players looking likely to start, fans were spurred to vote more and ensure that actual stars made the team. And 2) The growth of the sport. As China’s interest in hoops has grown, basketball has been strengthened — high-school players with financial issues are given a chance to make money before the NBA (see: Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay, and most recently Terrance “2k” Ferguson) while struggling NBA players are given a chance to get their grooves back (see: Michael Beasley last year and Josh Smith this year making bank in China while awaiting the right opportunity for a return to the A). If foreign votes don’t push American fans to vote more, then the worst that can happen is that an average player starts in the All-Star Game, the media buzzes, the guy’s year is made, his country’s year is made, and a game that is more akin to a glorified shoot-around becomes a little more bizarre and intriguing for casual fans. Maybe the upset fans actually expend a little effort to vote for their “true” all-stars the following year too.
The only group that takes the All-Star Game too seriously to let Zaza start is the media. Zaza is obviously not a star, but if an all-star is chosen by the fans then he is an all-star by definition. And it’s not just the fans. Pachulia also somehow, by some miracle, received 19 player votes. That is more than either DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert or actual all-star Klay Thompson received. And it means that even players outside of the Warriors wanted him in the game. Despite earning half-a-million more votes than starters Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (who each brought in 21% and 4.1% of their states’ votes, respectively) and half-a-million more than All-Star centers DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol combined, and despite strange player support — Zaza received zero media votes and was held out of New Orleans. Contrastingly, despite literally averaging a triple-double and receiving by far the most player and media votes for a guard in the league, Russell Westbrook did not start in the game because of 200,000 fan votes.
This year’s compromising algorithm might be an effort to protect the sanctity of basketball so that undeserving players do not embarrass the league and so that legacies can go untarnished. But the compromise failed because the talent of Russell was trumped by the fans while the importance of Zaza to his country was trumped by journalists. The media affects fan opinion all year which already skews the All-Star Game. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then why should the ballot be mightier than the pen? The All-Star Game is for fun and to engage the fans. Keeping Zaza out of the game by listening to the press damages fan engagement because Marc Gasol’s Memphis and DeMarcus Cousins’s Sacramento fans don’t see the need to vote for their big men because they know the media will ensure Zaza doesn’t steal a starting spot. And you can’t tell me that seeing Zaza hoist threes and throw behind-the-back passes would have been less entertaining than Kawhi Leonard sitting the entire second half or DeMarcus Cousins sitting the entire game. Either you rework the game completely or the fans choose their players and we let the boys, whoever they may be, play.