Reading Between the Lines: NBA News Breaking

“Who gains from this news being public?” That’s it. That’s the thesis of this article.

As we enter trade season, the last chance for teams to substantially change their team’s fate with new players (and often new coaches), the preeminent news breakers are tweeting and writing at their usual fast and furious pace. #Wojbombs, Shams Scoops, and Stein Stunners are being launched with abandon, and the plethora of excellent NBA reporters are hard at work during one of their busiest times of the year.

Like the three mentioned above, the best news breakers are very, very careful not to inject anything of their own into a tweet or article. It is in everyone’s best interests if a source’s leaked intel is presented precisely the way the source wants. Any slight misinterpretation or misrepresentation that could arise from changed words, added humor, or other editorializing could have massive financial implications for gamblers, sports media, and even league movers and shakers themselves, who rely upon these tweets as much as the public does.

When “sources” talk to reporters, they’re trying to accomplish something. What the breakers are reporting might be 100% true. But truth in the news world is always on a gradient (and this doesn’t apply solely to sports). It could easily be half-true, quarter-true, true-if-you-really-squint, or something that’s not necessarily true yet, but the source desperately wants to be true soon.

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Understanding who benefits from broken news is key to understanding how true something might be.

Let us consider something simple first:

This is a verifiable fact, 100% true. But who sent this to Woj, and why? It could be an executive with the G League. But in this case, it’s most likely Crabbe’s agent. The agent can get his client’s name in the news, which is important. Every NBA executive out there follows Woj on Twitter, and it might help keep Crabbe more front-of-mind next time a team needs a hardship 10-day contract.

But more importantly, the agent will further cement his relationship with Woj, née Adrian Wojnarowski. That kind of relationship can be important when the agent later wants to ask Woj if teams might be interested in another client, as one basic example.

Woj, Sham Charania, and other news breakers can come across as mechanical, almost robotic conduits for people to leak specific information into the world in a controlled manner. But in actuality, they’re the NBA’s elite information brokers and occupy an unusual place of power in the league’s structure.

From New Republic:

“I signed a player, and my staff didn’t know that we got the guy yet, and I heard the cheering outside the office because they had seen Woj tweet it,” one team executive said. “I was still on the phone with the agent, negotiating areas of the exhibit, and Woj already had it.”

Knowing news before the news is even real is a heck of a superpower. Many people would like to get their hands on that power and use it for their own purposes, be it controlling narratives about themselves or having an informational advantage in trade or free agent negotiations.

This brings me to the newest kerfuffle. The Los Angeles Lakers’ latest drama centers around reports that coach Frank Vogel was nearly fired last week and that his seat is surface-of-the-sun hot. So it was reallllly interesting to see this from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:

“Long before Russell Westbrook was benched down the stretch of Wednesday’s 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel was given assurances that the organization would support him in taking a hard line while coaching the star, sources told ESPN.

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Over the past week and a half, Lakers management has told the coaching staff to coach Westbrook as the coaches see fit, even if that means pulling him from a game, as Vogel did for the final 3 minutes, 52 seconds of the fourth quarter against Indiana, sources told ESPN…

The final straw, pushing the staff to honor their instinct to bench him, was when Caris LeVert blew by Westbrook on defense for a layup with 7 minutes, 13 seconds remaining.

The coaching staff had repeatedly emphasized the scouting report to take away LeVert’s right hand, and Westbrook, guarding LeVert at the top of the key one-on-one, didn’t angle himself properly to thwart the drive and allowed LeVert easy access to the paint en route to the hoop.”

So ask yourself, who benefits (and who doesn’t) from this tweet being made public?

Well, there are clues in the story itself. Given Westbrook’s hyper-sensitivity, executives for the Lakers undoubtedly would’ve preferred this report never going live since he now knows they aren’t in his corner anymore. So we can cross them off, and in fact, they’re probably pretty upset!

The source(s) had intimate knowledge of the Lakers coaching staff’s communication with players, so it pretty much has to be a player or a coach. It’s demonstrably true that Westbrook was benched. The reason given seems…less than 100% true. After all, Westbrook wasn’t benched until several minutes after the play mentioned in the article.

And the source(s) made sure to let ESPN know that the coaches aren’t fully empowered to do their jobs since they need the front office’s permission to do basic coach things. It’s almost like there’s someone who knows he’s about to be fired and wants to start controlling the narrative a bit early. Hmm, who could it be? Any ideas?

These sorts of maneuverings are just as standard in the trade markets. For example, here’s a report from Bleacher Report about the potential movement of current Piston Jerami Grant for Philly’s Ben Simmons:

“The Pistons’ package of Grant, Saddiq Bey, Kelly Olynyk and a first-round pick, for example, was not met with much enthusiasm by Philadelphia brass, league sources told B/R. But when that deal construct began to circle around rival NBA front offices this fall, it also alerted teams to Grant’s surprising availability.

As Simmons is still unlikely to be moved, Grant has attracted around a dozen suitors…

Grant also has little interest in joining a new situation where he doesn’t feature as a primary offensive option, sources said.”

We’ve got a twofer here. Who gains?

First, someone in the Pistons’ front office likely leaked the part about there being a “dozen suitors.” Maybe it’s true! Grant would be an excellent fit for a lot of teams. But “suitors” is a very flexible word.

I could call up Detroit right now and ask, “Hey, is Grant available? I can’t afford him right now, but just curious.” That’s normal due diligence that every team does on many, many players. And boom! Add one more suitor to the list. It helps to drive up bidding and improve the Pistons’ return for Grant if teams know that almost half the league is reportedly targeting him.

But then, a counter-leak! Grant’s agent most likely leaked the next bit about him having little interest in going somewhere where he can’t be a star. Agents often do this to scare off teams that a player doesn’t want to play for. Grant’s agent is using the media to exert what little control they might have on his fate.

These sorts of articles are very revealing, too, in illuminating the sort of relationships that the news breaker themself has with various camps. For fun, anytime you see “anonymous sources,” always look back at a writer’s recent on-the-record sources. Anonymous sources will likely have also given the writer on-the-record quotes about something else entirely. It can be possible to figure out (or at least develop very educated guesses) from recent or near-future articles just who exactly was quoted anonymously.

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Information is never given away for free. There’s always somebody that benefits, even if it’s just a favor done by an executive or agent to a news breaker for later intel or favorable coverage down the line. The moral hazard here can be significant for reporters who live or die by relationship building but theoretically try to maintain objectivity as best they can.

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this is bad. If anything, the NBA’s constant news breaking keeps it at the top of the sports news cycle and ensures there’s always something for fans to talk about. The behind-the-scenes power struggles can be entertaining in their own right, in a Game of Thrones sort of way.

But no breaking news is ever leaked without an agenda behind it. Understanding where the information is coming from is essential to developing context and determining veracity. To figure out how true a report might be, always ask: “Who gains?”

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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