In the midst of the historic 31-game streak of 30-point performances, James Harden put himself right in the middle of yet another tight MVP race. Were the season to end today, there’s no telling who would take home the award: Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Paul George.
But in this tight race, one thing is near certain: Houston won’t be given one of the 100 media award ballots by the NBA.
Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, hosts the seventh-largest media market, where the NBA’s sixth most valuable team plays. Yet in 2018, the Houston media market was not given one of the NBA’s MVP votes and the trend appears set to repeat in 2019.
Each year, the NBA MVP is named after a point tally from 100 media votes and one comprehensive public fan vote. The voters and their votes have been public since 2017.
The new level of transparency reflects the ever-increasing financial stakes accompanying the awards. Supermax contract eligibility can be triggered by the award, and shining light on the process helps deter questions of impropriety or collusion.
The makeup of the media poll changes every year, and the requirements for voters and the overall makeup of the voting poll is not posted by the NBA. When the league adopted new rules for NBA voting in 2017, their changes were published by Ben Rohrbach at Yahoo! Sports. His article included the league’s stated intent to give every NBA media market a vote in the awards process...
As a result, all radio and television broadcasters as well as web writers for team websites have been removed from the voting list. The panel will now be comprised of 100 independent media members, including at least one per NBA market. The list of voters and their votes will be published online after the league announces the winners on live television at the inaugural NBA awards show on June 26.
But in past seasons, not every NBA market has been represented in the voting pool. Most notably, last year Houston did not get a vote.
For starters, the most qualified Houston voter would be the Houston Chronicle's Johnathan Feigen. But the Chron doesn’t allow reporters to vote for awards to maintain journalistic standards and integrity. This is a judgement call made by each publication. The New York Times and Washington Post don’t allow reporters to vote for awards, while the Associated Press, Boston Globe and many other local publications do.
With Feigen out of the running, we go back to the one previous voter Houston has under the current rules. In 2017, Calvin Watkins got an NBA awards ballot as the ESPN beat writer for the Rockets. However, in the following off-season, he was let go by ESPN. After his departure, the NBA didn’t add a Houston voter to the 2018 pool.
This didn’t impact Harden’s historic run for his first MVP award, but in 2019, the lack of a hometown vote ever so slightly skews the voting pool, as the Oklahoma City and Milwaukee media markets will both have a local vote.
How do we know this is going to happen?
Short answer: There’s still time for the NBA to add a Houston voter to the pool. Perhaps the league sees a quality internet argument that one of their largest markets and franchises isn’t already represented in their voting pool. If that magically happens, I’d suggest they dial up Kelly Iko or Alykhan Bijani from The Athletic, who both cover the Rockets.
Long answer: The NBA releases a full list of the 100 media members who vote for the NBA All-Star starters. This list doesn’t entirely match the end-of-year voting. But in the past two years, 95 percent and 93 percent of the All-Star voters got an MVP ballot.
The 2019 All-Star starters voting pool did not include a Houston vote. Meaning it’s unlikely the league pulls a vote from one of the All-Star voters and gives it to a local Houston voter.
There’s an outside argument to make that ESPN’s Tim MacMahon is voting for the Houston media market, as he covers the Rockets regularly for ESPN. But he’s a Mavericks beat writer first and foremost. And the Dallas Morning News lost its vote this year, meaning MacMahon is likely considered the replacement vote for the Dallas media market.
None of this is to say that giving a Houston reporter an MVP ballot locks in a vote for James Harden. Each member of the pool is independent and has the agency to cast their ballot as they see fit.
But as long as Milwaukee and Oklahoma City have a local reporter exercising their independent journalistic discretion on a ballot, Houston should be as well.
It seems the NBA either doesn’t agree or know this discrepancy exists.