10 Reasons to Seriously Question the Relevance of All-Star Teams

Laura DeptaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2017

10 Reasons to Seriously Question the Relevance of All-Star Teams

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    Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double and leads the NBA in points per game. And yet, he was not named a starter for the Western Conference All-Star team.

    Hmm.

    This idea that an All-Star selection is based entirely on individual performance (and not, for instance, on things like popularity) is becoming increasingly dubious across American sports.

    Third alternates to the Pro Bowl are declining invitations. Social media campaigns are drumming up interest for players in supporting roles. Sure, that can be fun, but it also changes what the all-star designation truly means.

    All-Star Games can be fun to watch (or not). The inclusion of a guy like Kobe Bryant in his final season was memorable and symbolic. However, even if fans eat up the Zaza Pachulia hype and loved seeing Kobe start one last All-Star Game, it's hard to deny the landscape is changing.

    Of course, individual performance is still a large factor in the selection process (in most cases). However, it seems those stats are losing some ground to things like popularity and entertainment value. It's not wrong, but it does mean folks might want to think twice before attaching so much meaning to that All-Star label (or that All-Star starter label).

    These are 10 reasons to seriously question the relevance of All-Star teams (as indicators of individual merit only).

Social Media Hype

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    First, let's make one thing clear. John Scott's inclusion in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game was a lot of fun. A journeyman enforcer became an All-Star MVP due to the power of social media, and that feel-good storyline absolutely made the weekend more entertaining.

    That said, Scott did not have All-Star numbers (with five career goals, not even close).

    So, while the hype surrounding Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia in 2017 has been similarly fun, it does not lend itself to legitimizing All-Star selections.

    As of January 23, Pachulia is averaging 5.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 18.9 minutes per game. By comparison, New Orleans Pelicans forward-center Anthony Davis (starting for the Western Conference All-Stars) is averaging 28.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 36.3 minutes per game.

    And yet, if the NBA had not changed the voting rules to incorporate feedback from players and the media (and not just fans) in 2017, Pachulia would have been an All-Star starter.

MLS Commissioner's Picks

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    MLS All-Stars are selected by a four-step process that includes input from the media, fans, the All-Star coach and players.

    In addition, MLS Commissioner Don Garber unilaterally chooses two players as "Commissioner's Picks."

    Back in 2015, Garber named two players with zero MLS minutes to the team. English footballers Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard had each recently joined MLS teams—New York City FC and LA Galaxy, respectively—but had not yet played an MLS game at the time of the announcement.

    Kevin Kinkead of PhillyVoice.com later wrote, "In that instance, the addition of those guys would theoretically add foreign interest, drive ratings, and increase the profile of Major League Soccer. [Garber]'s also not wrong for wanting that, but there's a way to pursue that goal without offending your entire player base in the process."

    As Kinkead suggested, it's not wrong to select players based on what they can do for visibility. Then again, it dilutes the relevance of an All-Star selection as a symbol of individual prowess.

Rampant Replacements at 2016 Pro Bowl

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    Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com called the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl "the most declined invitation in history."

    Indeed, according to Elias Sports Bureau (via Seifert), at least 133 players were either voted into the Pro Bowl or added as a replacement, the largest total in league history. The original number of players named to the rosters was 86.

    Seifert explained, "Players decline invitations for a variety of reasons, including injuries and whether they are a member of a Super Bowl entrant. But this year has produced an increased number of players who were simply uninterested."

    One could argue each declination served to further dilute the significance of that "Pro Bowler" designation.

    Nothing against Tyrod Taylor, but the Buffalo Bills quarterback finished at No. 23 in passing yards (3,035) during the 2015 regular season. He replaced the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton at the 2016 Pro Bowl.

2017 Pro Bowl Withdrawals

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    It looks like things are headed in a similar direction for the 2017 edition of the NFL Pro Bowl.

    Any player from the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons will obviously need to be replaced, and several others have already bowed out due to injury (Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, for example).

    That's not all. Others to withdraw for various reasons include Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy.

    The NFL has implemented some changes to make the event more entertaining and attractive in 2017—including a skills challenge with a dodgeball game—but the game still feels like an afterthought.   

    Even if players withdraw for legitimate reasons, like injuries or a date with the Super Bowl, the replacement players are still...replacements. Perhaps the league should designate first-selection Pro Bowlers vs. second- or third-selection players. Just a thought.

Jonathan Toews Confused About His Inclusion

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    Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is a great hockey player, but even he isn't sure why he was selected to join teammates Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford at the 2017 NHL All-Star Game.

    Toews said, per Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, "Most of the time, I guess it's an honor. This time, it's a little bittersweet. I have to completely admit there's a handful of guys on this team that are more deserving, especially this season."

    At the time of the selection, Toews had fewer points than teammates Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin and Marian Hossa.

    Hemal Jhaveri of For The Win wrote, "Frankly, I'm not surprised at all. If All-Star selections were based solely on point production, we'd see a much different list. But, as it is, it's a mix of league politics, popularity and big names that sell jerseys. With that criteria, Toews is a lock for the event."

    If All-Star teams are indeed (at least in part) popularity contests, that certainly takes away from their relevance as markers of individual performance.

Andrew Luck Was the AFC's Third Alternate at QB

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    Tom Brady, Derek Carr and Ben Roethlisberger were chosen as the AFC's three representatives in the Pro Bowl—all excellent choices.

    Meanwhile, Indianapolis Colts signal-caller Andrew Luck fell to third alternate. Stephen Holder of IndyStar.com wrote, "What does this effectively mean? That Luck, if you use the Pro Bowl voting as a measurement, was the sixth-best quarterback in the AFC in 2016."

    Statistically speaking, that doesn't really add up on a couple of levels. Among AFC QBs, Luck was third in yards (4,240), second in touchdowns (31) and third in QB rating (96.4). The first alternate, Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith, finished outside of the top five in all of those categories. However, he did best Luck in completion percentage, 67.1 to 63.5.

    Fans, players and coaches vote for NFL Pro Bowlers. Holder suggested the Colts' 8-8 record could have contributed to Luck's placement, but if that is true, it certainly diminishes the Pro Bowl designation as an individual achievement.

    Luck was eventually invited to participate, but he declined due to injury.

MLB Fan Voting Starts Too Early

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    Over in Major League Baseball, fan voting accounts for the All-Star starters, while players, managers and coaches help determine the reserves.

    The problem with MLB voting is not so much the method; it's the timing. In 2016, the fan voting began in the season's first month—on April 24—and ended on June 30.

    On the timing piece (and the fact that one fan can vote hundreds of times), Cliff Corcoran of SI.com wrote, "The result is what you see below: a set of early NL returns that have only a tangential relationship to the on-field performance of the players in question, and that make you wonder who will be in the starting lineup when the All-Star Game is played on July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego."

    Corcoran referenced the Chicago Cubs, the eventual World Series champions, whose players ended up comprising the entire NL starting infield.

    It's not that those Cubs aren't great players. Third baseman Kris Bryant ultimately won the NL MVP Award. However, one simply cannot cast a vote about a player's entire first-half performance in April.

Drew Brees' Pro Bowl Snub

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    Like any All-Star Game, the NFL Pro Bowl annually has its share of surprising snubs. In 2017, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees fell near the top of the list.

    Roy Anderson of Fansided compared Brees' exclusion to the inclusion of Dallas Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott.

    Brees led the league in passing yards (5,208), completions (471) and attempts (673). He finished third in touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.

    Prescott had a phenomenal year, but he didn't even make the top 10 in any of the aforementioned categories. He did best Brees in QB rating (104.9 on the season compared to Brees' 101.7).   

    Anderson wrote, "To see a player of Drew Brees' caliber get so publicly snubbed is absolutely inexcusable. Even for a meaningless sideshow like the Pro Bowl. The NFL needs to change how balloting is done for the game just to make the whole thing appear less of a joke than it is."

    Seriously, how could a QB with a 5,208-yard, 37-TD season be left out? That seems ridiculous.

Imperfect Voting Systems

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    The NBA All-Star starters are selected by the following combination of votes: 50 percent fans, 25 percent players and 25 percent media members. This is a departure from past years, when the fan vote counted for 100 percent of starter selection.

    On one hand, this has further legitimized the voting and kept players like Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia off a starting roster.

    On the other hand, the system is still far from perfect. There will always be snubs, and much of that is simply due to a plethora of talented players vying for five starting spots in each conference.

    And yet, Robby Kalland of Uproxx pointed to Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen voting for himself and asserted (via Yahoo Sports), "The players are as bad as, if not worse than, the fans when it comes to playing favorites and also could care less about All-Star voting."

    Having fun when it comes to the voting is not wrong, but it could contribute to a future in which "five-time All-Star," for example, doesn't mean what it used to mean. 

Russell Westbrook's Snub

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    Yes, other deserving players were left off of the NBA All-Star starting rosters, but this was the big one.

    Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double as of January 23—30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists. His points-per-game average leads the league. 

    Westbrook lost to fellow guards Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

    Several NBA players expressed shock and opposition. Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin tweeted, for example, "If leading the league in PPG and averaging a triple double isn't good enough lol #sheeesh #PGpositionsnojoke."

    Westbrook himself said, "I don't play for All-Star bids. I play to win championships, and every night I compete at a high level, and it'll work out," per ESPN.com.

    Still, if Westbrook isn't an All-Star starter, then something is wrong with the process, right?