Having a $33 million adjustment to your salary decided by 100 journalists would be hard enough to deal with. But what if, instead of your job performance, it came down to whether those journalists could even agree on what your job description was? Perhaps ask Boston Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum, who was notably left off the All-NBA teams released on Tuesday night, despite averaging 26.4 points per game (12th in the league) and 7.4 rebounds.
Since 1956, media members have had to select two guards, two forwards and one center for each All-NBA team. They are instructed to “choose players at the position where they play regularly.” For final tallying, players who are eligible at multiple positions are slotted into the one where they received the most votes.
Tatum was eligible at both the guard and forward positions this year, and he actually garnered more ballot points than third-team guard Kyrie Irving, but Tatum received more votes as a forward, where he finished 20 points behind third-teamer Paul George’s 89. As a result, Tatum failed to earn a salary boost that would have been worth $32.6 million over the course of his current deal. If more of those journalists who deemed him one of the 15 best players in the league had considered him a guard, that money might have been his.
This is not the first year that the league’s positional flexibility has led to some messy results. In 2016, Draymond Green received 40 first team votes—37 at center and three at forward. DeAndre Jordan, meanwhile, received 39 votes as a first-team center. But because Green received 74 votes as a second-team forward, he was classified at that position and ultimately named a second-team forward. This despite having more first-team votes overall than Jordan, who got the nod at center. The ridiculousness of the whole thing was highlighted by one voter legally choosing Green as his first-team center and Andrew Bogut as his third-team center even though the two started alongside each other all season.
This year again presented voters with a noteworthy positional conundrum. League MVP Nikola Jokic and runner-up Joel Embiid, for instance, played 98% and 100% of their minutes at center this season, respectively, according to Cleaning the Glass. They were, however, both eligible as forwards this year. So while he finished second in MVP voting, Embiid didn’t make the first team at all; he was relegated to the All-NBA second team as a center because too many voters did not feel comfortable classifying Embiid as a forward. “I have always tried to remain at least semi-realistic with positions as long as the league is using positional designations. Embiid is a pure center,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote in his annual awards column.
On the flip side, The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver argued, “Even though placing [Embiid] as a forward makes no sense, it’s a legal move for voters, and it reflects the fact that he will almost certainly finish in the top three in MVP voting… Don’t get mad at this vote. Get mad at the system that spawned it.”
Many (including Golliver and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, among others) have called for the league to move toward a position-free ballot, especially as these designations mean less in the modern game, with its switch-heavy defenses, three-point shooting centers and point forwards.
With millions of dollars at stake for players, too, the argument for simply choosing the best 15 players overall is cogent. Why should it matter that Irving was the sixth best guard in the NBA and Tatum was the seventh best forward, when more people thought Tatum was worthy of a spot on one of the teams?
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, however, offers a different point of view. “There are some people who think players should only be eligible at one position or that we should get rid of them entirely, and I guess I fall into a third camp,” Pelton said. “I do think it makes sense to make players eligible at multiple positions, but the number of players who were eligible at multiple positions this year was too many, because it wasn’t actually guys who had played at those positions on a regular basis.”
Pelton analyzes lineup data for each team to determine which positions players most commonly play. He also considers individual defensive matchups, and for classifying point guards, he looks at metrics such as time of possession.
Even in a so-called “positionless” league, there are clear statistical differences between players who play different positions. The average guard dribbles the ball nearly three times as often as the average forward, and the average forward touches the ball in the paint less than half as often as the average center.
“There are more distinctions between the two forward positions, for example, than I think sometimes we talk about, [and] there’s a dramatically different replacement level of the guy you can get off the street at the center position versus other positions,” Pelton said. “Positionless basketball makes sense, in [that] players shouldn’t necessarily be put in a box based on [their] position anymore. You know, Nikola Jokic can be the center for the Nuggets but also one of their primary distributors. But the idea that positions don’t matter at all anymore is, to me, not supported by the data.”
Sure, not everyone fits neatly into an archetype—Ben Simmons, for example, possesses the ball more than the average point guard and touches the ball in the paint more than the average power forward—but that doesn’t make sorting players by position impossible. Perhaps a formula using the aforementioned tracking data could objectively classify players into positions so that voters wouldn’t have to decide for themselves.
After all, with $33 million on the line, one might hope for a more precise guideline than “where they play regularly.”