Andy Larsen: My NBA Rookie of the Year vote brought out sports fans’ worst traits

The Tribune reporter received thousands of vitriolic messages for his NBA awards ballot — a type of public shaming that will discourage some voters from sharing differing opinions.

Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero (5) loses control of the ball as he collides with Utah Jazz's Walker Kessler (24) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

I wasn’t surprised by the criticism. I was surprised at the vitriol.

Annually, the NBA asks 100 media members to vote in its awards process for Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and so on — including the Rookie of the Year selection. This year, it was a three-man race between Orlando’s Paulo Banchero, Oklahoma City’s Jalen Williams, and Utah’s Walker Kessler.

At first glance, the right choice is Banchero. He was the No. 1 pick, and delivered by averaging 20 points per game, well beyond the rest of his competition. But when you start to look at the total picture, the case gets a lot closer. Thanks to Kessler’s defensive impact and efficiency in scoring, along with his team’s better performance with him on the floor, most of the advanced analytics point to Kessler as the rookie who helped push his team towards winning more this season. (I wrote a longer case for Kessler here.) I would have voted for Kessler even if he played for another team.

Bleacher Report writer Andy Bailey posted a Twitter poll recently, asking his audience to select which player’s statistics were better, without the names attached. 84% chose Kessler’s “Player B.”

(Twitter: @AndrewDBailey)

I voted for Kessler, too.

You would have thought I had killed the Pope.

About 3,000 people sent a public message on Twitter — most were about how I was a homer, or how they felt advanced analytics were ruining the game of basketball. Many said I should have my vote revoked, or called me a clown, or a nerd, or an idiot, etc. Some argued I was racist because I had selected the white player.

Those messages were generally more positive than the 200 or so private direct messages I received. Those called me slurs, notably of the anti-gay variety. Many made fun of my looks, or my weight. A couple advised me to kill myself.

Interestingly, many commenters weren’t happy to leave feedback on Twitter. Instead, they looked up my personal Instagram and Facebook pages, posting comments on my old photos. I received emails and phone calls, had strange and critical voicemails.

The only time I’ve faced something comparable was when the far-right conspiracy theorist InfoWars people came after me after an article I wrote three years ago. I truthfully didn’t expect Paolo Banchero fans to be in the same stratosphere — but they were.

This, frankly, sucked. I’m a veteran of the internet and the way in which disagreements can spiral out of control. Without that ability for the masses to be able to have their say in a basketball conversation, I wouldn’t have a career — I worked my way up in the basketball blogging scene before being hired by KSL, and then the Tribune. I certainly have been critical of others, players and media, though not with the same vitriol.

But it’s still more impactful than you’d hope, to have hundreds to thousands of people seeking to find any way they can hurt you most effectively. It tends to take over your day, or multiple days. It stays with you for a while.

To be sure, derision over “bad votes” has happened throughout history. Fred Hickman got death threats when he voted for Allen Iverson over Shaquille O’Neale for MVP. Gary Washburn was heavily criticized for voting Carmelo Anthony for MVP over LeBron James. Locally, Jazz broadcaster Ron Boone received the same for voting Deron Williams over Chris Paul for Rookie of the Year.

What I think has changed is the amount of groupthink that occurs when voting. In 2017, the league changed the process, limiting the number of voters to an even 100. Team broadcasters were removed from the equation. Every vote would be published publicly at the end, after every award was announced. And those are reforms that certainly make sense.

But the result of the transparency has been even more public shaming than before — to the point where voters just don’t see it as worth it to buck the trend, even if they disagree with it.

Compare the Rookie of the Year race in 2008 to the one in 2023. Then, it was young scoring hotshot Kevin Durant vs. role-playing big man Al Horford. The vibe of the race was nearly exactly the same: Durant had the better per-game stats, but scored inefficiently for a young Sonics squad. Horford helped bring his team to a better 37-45 record by averaging 10 points, 10 rebounds per game, while playing great defense — just as Kessler did.


In 2008, Horford got 30 first-place votes. In 2023, Kessler got two. And if anything, Kessler has the stronger statistical case of the pair.

Now, we can have a discussion of what we want the Rookie of the Year award vote to be about. Some want it to be a star-anointment award — which rookie showed the most promise? Others stay true to the name of the award, rewarding the best player. In 2008, nearly everyone agreed Durant would have the better career (as he has), but did Horford have the better rookie season? There was real, significant disagreement, and that was actually reflected in the voting totals.

In 2023, before I placed my vote for Kessler, I spoke with numerous former and current award voters about the idea of selecting Kessler. Most thought I made a reasonable argument. But I heard repeatedly that I should just vote for Banchero instead — not because they thought he definitely deserved the award, but because the associated hullabaloo of a differing vote wouldn’t be worth it.

That’s kind of a shame, actually. Differing opinions can be opportunities to learn, to discuss, to have fun talking about basketball. Instead, they’ve become a purity test. You either have the good opinions and you pass muster, or you have a bad opinion and should be shunned.

I don’t know that there’s an easy solution to this problem. Groupthink and a coarsening of the discourse isn’t just an issue in basketball, but in every public circle. Giving fans or players the vote instead over the media makes the matter a popularity contest; that’s not what we want. I’m not sure that revoking the transparency of voters’ votes is the right move, either.

A writer receiving toxic messages isn’t the end of the world. Neither is the percentage of votes a secondary candidate receives. Certainly, whether or not a player wins an award unanimously doesn’t really matter, either. But I do think it’s worth noting that award voting has changed as a result of the environment — and this experience was a prime example.