Joel Embiid raises his arms to the crowd at MSG as the Sixers pull away from the Knicks late on Christmas

Daryl Morey didn’t need to be goaded into saying it. He came out and said what most people in the Delaware Valley were thinking.

“Joel Embiid, completely hosed once again,” said the Sixers’ president of basketball operations just a few sentences into a Friday morning interview with Anthony Gargano of 97.5 The Fanatic’s Anthony Gargano Show.

“This time, to your [Gargano] point, the perpetrators of the crime were the shameless media, who most of them will recuse themselves because they don’t want to vote on something that affects players’ paychecks. But, the shameless Boston media is way over-represented. They haven’t recused themselves, and they shoved Joel low enough so that he’s not an All-Star starter. It’s crazy.”

Some will reduce that to an executive sticking up for his franchise player; something that, in a star-driven sport, any high-ranking official with public presence would do in some form if their player had a legitimate case for an accolade and was snubbed. 

Perhaps some will even deem it a public ribbing directed specifically at Bill Simmons, a known friend of Morey’s and the Bostonian founder of The Ringer.

Whatever you want to call it, those are significant words from one of the league’s most public-facing front office powers.

The issue of such an accusation, even if true, is that it’s difficult for the public to prove.

19 of the 100 media voters were employees of ESPN; 10 were from The Athletic and Turner, each. There was other national representation from outlets such as Associated Press, CBSSports.com, and NBCSports.com. Local outlets carried far less weight in the overall media vote, relatively speaking.

New York, the largest market in sports, was represented by two voters. Los Angeles, the second largest market, had no representation from its local beats. Chicago, the third largest market, had none. Philadelphia, the fourth largest market, had one.

Dallas-Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Houston, and Washington D.C., the next-ranked markets, respectively, combined for one voter.

But, Morey’s gripe was specifically with the Boston media.

Boston, the ninth largest market, had two voters from its local beat.

It is odd that the ninth largest market had more votes than seven of the eight markets ranking larger in size. But, that doesn’t mean that those two representatives voted Embiid as the odd man out.

We can even look at The Ringer, which covers the entire NBA but whose two most prominent voices are known Celtics fans. The Ringer had six voters; one of the smallest pools representing a national outlet, if it is considered that. At least two of those voters, one of which is one of the aforementioned Celtics fans, stated that he voted for Embiid.

That leaves four unknown votes from The Ringer, which arguably isn’t even a local Boston outlet, and two unknown votes from representatives of a Boston newspaper. If we’re to allege that the media was biased against Embiid and we’re to question voters on the basis of their professional affiliations with the Boston market, we’re looking at those six unknown votes.

Not the votes of media members who grew up in Boston and now live in Los Angeles or New York, if that is indeed a demographic. Not voters who’ve spent all their lives in Dallas but grew up fans of Larry Bird, if that is indeed a demographic.

It’s certainly possible that all six unknowns did vote for Embiid. It’s certainly possible that none of them did. The best-case scenario would be to add six votes to Embiid’s total and subtract six from any of the three voted starters.

Taking six away from Jayson Tatum would’ve merely switched his place with that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. That would’ve changed nothing for Embiid’s standing. Taking six away from Antetokounmpo would’ve tied Embiid with the Bucks forward for second in the media vote, keeping him at fourth in overall voting anyway. There’s no point in doing the math on Kevin Durant’s vote because he finished behind Embiid in the media vote anyway.

That brings us to another important point. Embiid finished ahead of Kevin Durant in media voting. In other words, the media voted him as the third starter. The media voted Durant as the odd man out.

However, there is a disconnect. Morey’s constitution of “Boston media” is undefined. He might not specifically be referring to staffers of The Ringer or representatives from a local Boston paper. But, if we’re to assume that his gripe is directed at those specific media members, we’re questioning the integrity of six votes, maximum. The math says those six votes would not have changed the outcome for Embiid at all.

It’s absolutely possible that Morey was casting a wider net than those six media members. But, alleging bias from media outside of those six unknown votes requires information that wouldn’t necessarily be available to everyone. In that circumstance, it’s Morey’s word against everyone else’s. “Trust me” isn’t a winning case.

But, the bigger picture is what matters most here.

As was explained above, the media vote wasn’t the problem. The fan vote placed Embiid fourth amongst frontcourt players. The fan vote accounts for 50 percent of the total All-Star starter vote. We can argue about the influence the vocal media has on the fans and their thought processes. But, we cannot quantify or measure that.

What we can say is bias in sports isn’t just about favoring a certain player or team. It’s about absolute hatred of certain players or teams, too.

You don’t have to comb through the internet that extensively to find a fan ballot for the starting lineups representing the Eastern and Western Conferences in the 2023 NBA All-Star game. Some will have an all-Celtic starting five. Others will have the third or fourth most important player on the Indiana Pacers.

We can even look through the third fan returns for the All-Star starters, which were published on January 19. Paolo Banchero had received more than 500,000 votes. Derrick Rose and Austin Reaves had each accumulated nearly 400,000 fan votes. Kevon Looney had amassed nearly 700,000 fan votes. Andrew Wiggins had nearly 2.2 million fan votes.

Banchero’s total was the only one that had any bearing on Embiid’s outcome, as the Sixers big man finished approximately 300,000 votes out of third place. But, the bigger point is that none of those players had All-Star cases. That is objectively true.

This illustrates that the fan vote, which accounts for half of the All-Star starter selection process, is littered with bias. All-Star weekend is about the fans more than anything. But, there are certainly players who care about the honor.

Just ask Rudy Gobert, who once cried in front of the media when he wasn’t selected. Ask Tobias Harris, who pointed at himself and yelled, “I’m an All-Star!” after hitting a clutch shot against the Knicks after a perceived All-Star snub. You can even ask Karl-Anthony Towns, who once cried amongst his loved ones after finding out that he had been selected. 

Now, some of the bias surely isn’t intentional. Some fans might identify with or support international players, like when Georgian voters nearly got Georgian big man Zaza Pachulia in as a starter even though he was unqualified relative to other candidates. Some fans might just follow endorsements, like when K-pop star BamBam helped Andrew Wiggins get into the game with a strategically-timed tweet last season.

The problem here isn’t that fans are supporting the wrong players or that they’re supporting players for the wrong reasons. Rather, the problem is that those votes are therefore not going to truly worthy candidates.

On the other hand, there is bias that is absolutely intentional. Fans will vote numerous times and specifically for their favorite players. Some will vote for a mix of players and leave off those who they perceive as being villains. All you have to do is type “Joel Embiid” into your search bar on Twitter to find people who view Embiid as a villain. They point to his tendency to get to the free throw line, embellish contact, or complain about his lack of support for accolades.

We cannot say that those users are actively voting against Embiid with the fan vote privilege. But, we can reasonably conclude that there are fans who do vote who share that dislike for players such as no. 21.

As for Embiid’s case to be an All-Star starter in the Eastern Conference frontcourt, the deeper you look, the more the fact he wasn’t voted in as a starter suggests that it’s all a popularity contest.

Embiid leads the NBA in scoring. He averages more rebounds than both Tatum and Durant. He has a higher effective field goal percentage than both Tatum and Antetokounmpo. The only notable basic box score categories in which Embiid places fourth are games played, total minutes played, and assist-to-turnover ratio. But, he’s played just four fewer games than Durant has and three fewer games than Antetokounmpo has.

We can even expand this to introduce advanced metrics. Philadelphia is 10.16 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the court than it is with him off the court, according to PBP Stats. Jayson Tatum is the only candidate of the four to aid his team to a better differential.

It’s helpful to expand those numbers to introduce each team’s respective second best player. The Sixers have been outscored by 3.73 points per 100 possessions with both Embiid and James Harden off the court. They’re plus-7.89 in the near 500 minutes Embiid has played without Harden. Embiid merely stepping on the court accounts for a difference of plus-11.62 points per 100 possessions.

The Nets are approaching minus-15 per 100 possessions with both Durant and Kyrie Irving off the court. Brooklyn is plus-8.33 per 100 with Durant on the court without Irving. A positive difference of approximately 23 points per 100 possessions because of Durant’s presence.

The Bucks are getting outscored by more than 8.5 points per 100 possessions with both Giannis and Jrue Holiday off the court. Milwaukee is minus-.01 per 100 when Giannis plays without Holiday. That sample size is nearly identical to the minutes he plays in tandem with Holiday. Antetokounmpo, you could argue, is worth 8.6 points per 100 possessions.

That brings us to Tatum and the Celtics. Boston is minus-14.03 per 100 with Both Tatum and Jaylen Brown off the court. Put Tatum on the court without Brown, and the Celtics are plus-13.99 per 100 possessions. A difference of plus-28.02 per 100, courtesy of no. 0.

You want to say the best player on the team with the best record in the East deserves to be a starter? Fine by me, and the numbers say he should be. You want to say Durant is taking a Nets team that could crumble into pieces at any moment and keeping them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? I’ll buy that, he should start.

But, there’s no argument for Antetokounmpo starting over Embiid. There’s no viable narrative that supports it. The numbers reject it. Embiid has simply been the better player this season, period. A difference of three games played doesn’t change that. 

Later in his interview with Gargano, Morey diagnosed the problem with the NBA’s accolade-voting process. “Instead of going to All-NBA and All-Star systems that would basically put the five best people on the floor, they continue to hold onto antiquated notions of symbols we put next to players,” he opined.

There’s truth to that. The league’s system of assigning positions for certain accolades is flawed. The people voting are just following the guidelines. But, shifting away from traditional basketball positions doesn’t rid the All-Star starter selection process of the fan bias that permeates the 50-percent weight.

I say the fan weight is reduced to 25 percent, with the remaining 25 tacked onto the player vote. Except, there’s a catch. Not all players take the vote seriously, even if bias isn’t necessarily a part of the issue. In my model, the player vote will be expanded to include executives. Each team will be assigned one veteran player ballot and one executive ballot. Oh, and in order for players to qualify for All-Star starter selection, they must meet a league-approved threshold of games and minutes played.

Morey is right that Embiid was hosed, but the media vote isn’t the one responsible. The fans voted him fourth for three frontcourt spots when he was clearly one of the three best candidates.

Don’t argue with me, argue with the numbers.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here