Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were two of the top vote-getters to be left off of the 2017-2018 All-NBA Teams. This is the first time since the 2007-2008 Detroit Pistons that a number two seeded team failed to have a player named to the All-NBA honors.
According to yesterday’s official release from the NBA, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler grabbed the final backcourt spot with 81 total votes. Irving (42 votes) and Houston’s Chris Paul (54) were the top receiving guards who missed the cut.
Kyrie was paced to earn his second All-NBA honor, but with plentiful perimeter guard talent around the league, his chances plummeted after knee surgery ended his season on March. That said, Irving ended up appearing in more regular season games (60) than Butler (59), Paul (58), while posting a higher effective field goal percentage, PER, and usage rate.
Recency bias tends to play a factor in how award ballots are cast. A string of spectacular spring time performances can catapult a player’s outlook, especially on a team like Minnesota, who was in the heart of the playoff race until the last day of the season. What transpires in March and April makes voters forget about players who were shutdown midseason. Irving was one of three players with long-term injuries to receive All-NBA votes. The other two, Kristaps Porzingis and DeMarcus Cousins, seemed like sure-bet award winners before suffering their respective season-ending injuries. If I told you in late January that the Unicorn and Boogie would each receive the same number of All-NBA votes (one) as Dwight Howard, only unimaginable circumstances would have justified it in your mind. In that context, Irving did well to earn 51.
Perhaps the disparity in voting totals can be summed up by Butler and Paul’s dynamic defensive traits, both of whom received significant recognition in Wednesday’s announcement for the all-defensive teams. Their two-way abilities, paired with Houston running away with the Western Conference’s top seed, and Butler helping to end Minnesota’s 13-year playoff draught, likely sealed Irving’s fate.
Meanwhile, expected free agent-to-be Paul George secured the final forward spot on the All-NBA Third Team, outpacing Horford by 22 votes, and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons by 18.
No one should be surprised that Horford was excluded from the voting. Most national media members are unable to watch individual teams on a consistent basis. Per game averages and super-human highlight plays often define a player’s public identity. The always self-effacing Horford doesn’t fit the mold, nor does he care about stuffing the box score to pad his statistics. His 12.9 points and 7.4 boards per game won’t jump off the page, and in a sports culture that craves glitz and glam, Horford’s combination of a selfless basketball intellect doesn’t equate to much national attention.
Horford has the defensive edge over George. Through late January, George posted a cool 103.5 defensive rating, but it ballooned to 107.5 after the Thunder lost Andre Roberson’s stifling defensive skills to a torn patellar tendon. Al finished with a 101.1 defensive rating, and was the leader and maestro of the Celtics’ top ranked defense, which led the league in efficiency from beginning to end.
Without watching Horford on a night-to-night basis, his total impact on the Celtics’ system cannot be fully grasped. Voting writers miss out on his attention to immeasurable detail, most of which cannot be portrayed by a per-game number. He possesses an almost psychic-like ability to react in rotational defense to simultaneously cover multiple areas and players. Basketball reference and YouTube clips won’t tell the story of Horford orchestrating Boston’s switchy system by directing his teammates like chess pieces to exploit or conceal certain mismatches.
Horford’s lack of popularity hurts him in these kinds of contestsa. The 31-year-old big man shies away from opportunities to boost his own celebrity by crediting team success over his own individual accolades, even when pressed by the media to speak about the latter:
The lack of notoriety that the Celtics are receiving during award season has left some wondering whether the voting procedure prevents us from accurately depicting who is the most deserving. The concept of having basketball writers cast votes using only regular season data runs contradictory to the way sports culture magnifies postseason performance when assessing a player’s legacy.
Permitting voters to cast their ballot during or after the playoffs would allow them to incorporate the most important games of the season. No one will contest that playoff basketball is a different animal from the regular season. From a Celtics’ perspective, would the surging hype around Brad Stevens’ postseason résumé seal his Coach of the Year award? Could Marcus Smart have made an all-defensive team if the voters could have included the last thirteen games into his sample size?
Given what we’ve witnessed from Russell Westbrook, and DeMar DeRozan in the playoffs, both of whom comfortably won All-NBA honors, we should question the fairness of whether regular season statistics alone are a reliable measurable for determining which players should be recognized. This isn’t to say that Irving and Horford were robbed, or that any of the winners are undeserving. Every player (sans Howard and Trevor Ariza) is a top-tier of blue chip-level talent. However, with the Celtics now on the brink of the NBA Finals, the ballot casters are eating crow for not showing Boston more voting love throughout the award process.