Call it the Zaza Pachulia rule.
Since 2017, the NBA has determined the starters in the All-Star Game by a combination of fan vote, media ballots and votes from other players. It results in mostly the same players you'd expect being named All-Stars, but it has created a fun new tradition for fans: poring over the player voting totals to find the most obscure, inconsequential player to get votes. The assumption is that some lesser-known guys vote for themselves.
Whether the league will admit it or not, the addition of the player and media vote to the All-Star starters equation was a direct response to the 2016 fan vote. Pachulia, then with the Dallas Mavericks, came within 14,227 votes of being named a starter, finishing well ahead of the likes of Draymond Green, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The push for Pachulia came from his native Georgia, as well as a song from Wyclef Jean in support of his candidacy.
The change to a hybrid system the next year was again successful in preventing Pachulia from making the All-Star team. He fared even better in the fan vote 2017, finishing second among Western Conference frontcourt players and almost a half-million votes ahead of the third-place Kawhi Leonard. His decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors the previous summer as a free agent undoubtedly helped. But the addition of the media and player votes spared the NBA the indignity of an unheralded backup center getting a spot in the exhibition game.
The fan votes are public, and the media ballots are usually revealed and litigated by the voters (this writer is not one). But the player votes are a total mystery, and everyone takes a different approach—or none at all.
"To be honest, I think I have someone do it for me every year," Cleveland Cavaliers forward Taurean Prince said. "I admire different players for different reasons, not just because they're All-Stars, so it would probably be going against my character to sit down and vote for that."
Not many players would cop to voting for themselves, but one obvious trend among players polled by B/R was wanting to see their teammates make it.
"You've got to vote for the guys on your team," Philadelphia 76ers rookie Tyrese Maxey said. "I don't plan on voting for myself, but I'll vote for Tobias [Harris] and Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid], the guys on the team who deserve it."
Players' All-Star votes can also double as a nod to those in the league they feel have taken a leap, even if they don't have much of a shot at making it. Or they can just be used to boost the totals of players they like personally.
"I vote for my friends, especially the other Croatian guys," Phoenix Suns forward Dario Saric said. "I'll vote for some ex-teammates who I'm good with, and a couple of guys who are having a breakout season."
As with any group of people asked to vote on something, some players take All-Star voting more seriously than others. Some look at numbers, while others go on personal experience.
"I look at the toughest guys I had to guard that year," Houston Rockets point guard John Wall said. "I vote for who deserves it, no matter if it's my teammates or someone from a different team. Or even someone I don't get along with. If I feel he deserves it, he'll get my vote."
The NBA had planned to name All-Star teams for both conferences this season regardless of whether it actually held a game. The initial plan was not to have one, but the league pivoted in recent weeks and will now be holding a game and some of the other traditional festivities in Atlanta on March 7. Some of the league's biggest stars, including LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, have come out against the game being played with the COVID-19 pandemic still in full force.
When the player voting results are released Thursday night after the starters are revealed on TNT, it will be worth seeing which of the obvious locks finished lower than they normally would. It will beg the question whether any of them actively told other players not to vote for them, as players have lobbied coaches in past years when their families had vacations planned.
"I vote honestly," Lillard said. "I don't make it a personal thing. I look at the names that I see and I vote for the players that I feel like are performing at that level. I watch a lot of games, so I think I've got a pretty good lens on it. I think that's how everybody should do it so it can be as accurate and fair as possible."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.