Reporters rely on anonymous sources in heightened NBA coverage

Rumors fuel fans before the trading deadline

Thursday at 3pm marked the NBA trade deadline, teams’ last chance to make major roster upgrades before the playoffs.

Reporters had spent the day and those leading up to it in fierce competition to satisfy rabid fan interest by making note of every twist in every potential trade, from rumors that a team was expected to pursue or attempt to trade a player to specific developments in negotiations between teams, to players’ personal wishes.

Most of these rumors never came to fruition. And because many were inscrutably attributed to “league sources,” as they were being reported, it is impossible to know how trustworthy its sources were.

Even when the player in question did get traded, his storyline invariably contained multiple plot points that bore little relation to the end result.

On Friday, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that “The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers are among many teams expected to try to persuade the Phoenix Suns to part with star guard Goran Dragic.” But on Tuesday, Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports’ notorious scoop artist, reported that the Suns were determined to keep Dragic. Then, that night, USA Today’s Sam Amick wrote that Dragic informed the Suns that he would not be returning after the season. By Wednesday afternoon, following reports that he made a list of the teams he wanted to be traded to, Dragic himself was openly telling the press that he was unhappy in Phoenix. It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that reports indicated that the Miami Heat was the frontrunner for Dragic, and it wasn’t until minutes before the deadline that Stein and Wojnarowski both reported the news of the trade, seconds apart, in tweets that were retweeted more than 7,000 times combined.*

The only other time in basketball journalism with remotely comparable buzz comes during the NBA offseason, over the summer, when free agents are being wooed by prospective teams. Last July, Grantland’s Bryan Curtis explained how the availability of superstars, particularly LeBron James, had led reporters to treat the most minute details, like the player’s demeanor in a meeting with an interested team, as breaking news. But at least then, Curtis told me by phone, reporters were talking about one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

“The coverage is silly, but what is actually going to happen is NBA-history-changing. But now we’re talking about adding players around the margins.” Dragic, who is generally considered the best player traded at Thursday’s deadline, has never made an All-Star team.

Furthermore, says the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, the offseason rumor mill is more spread out, whereas “the trade deadline is sort of immediate. You know the day is approaching. And then on that deadline day, you’ve just gotta keep hitting the refresh button to figure out what the latest is.” That’s how many fans spent their afternoon Thursday, as a flurry of last-minute trades sent even the indefatigable Wojnarowski into a state of mild shock.

Still, the rumors often prove not to mean much. In the minutes after the deadline passed, ESPN’s Marc Stein, who is among the basketball reporting elite, reported that the Phoenix Suns (the team that traded Dragic) had also traded another point guard, Isaiah Thomas, to the Philadelphia 76ers. Stein’s next tweet, 11 minutes later, reported that Thomas was actually being sent to the Celtics.

But fans don’t seem to care whether the rumor is vindicated, at least in the moment they’re reading about the possibility of a new hero coming to the rescue of a beloved team.

“The possibilities are more interesting than the reality,” Curtis said. “Nothing’s really happening in the NBA right now. We kind of know who’s going to make the playoffs and we’re just playing out the last 30 games. The actual sports aren’t enough to satisfy people and so we create these quasi-sports moments.”

And they’re created using anonymous sourcing, despite an industry norm that eschews the practice. Even common phrases like “a team official,” “a league executive,” or “a person close to the situation,” are deemed too specific. Hence the widespread use of the opaque term “league source.” Reporters say that both teams and agents sometimes abuse the privilege of anonymity by spreading misinformation that serves their own interests—with agents being generally seen as the primary offenders.

This creates conflicting reports. On Monday morning, Alex Kennedy of the site Basketball Insiders tweeted that “rival execs who’ve talked to the [Toronto] Raptors believe that they may be willing” to part with two key players. The Toronto Sun’s Ryan Wolstat later advised readers to “be wary” of reporters trying “to make a name for themselves” and argued that there was “nothing to some of the baseless speculation.” The Raptors did not make any trades at yesterday’s deadline.

Yet, because reporters frequently use such vague language to describe both the rumor—as Kennedy wrote, some people “believe that [Toronto] may be willing” to make a trade—and its source, it is difficult for even discerning readers to distinguish what is baseless from what might actually happen. This imbues reporters with an extraordinary amount of authority.

“Eventually you have to look at who’s the one doing the reporting and if they’ve been pretty accurate,” said Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. “If I use the expression ‘league source,’ I’m not just pulling it out of thin air. I’m getting it from somebody.”

And, Isola said, reporters who want their sources to continue to work with them don’t have much a choice but to award them full protection. “You don’t want to out your source or even kind of imply who it may be, because then you’re not gonna get anything from them.”

At The New York Times, writers are encouraged to be as specific as possible in describing their sources. Perhaps partly as a result, the paper almost never breaks basketball scoops. This could be an example of the Times refusing to dilute its standards (though the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has criticized them for being too eager to grant anonymity to government officials). Or it could be seen as a failure to adjust to the tweeted landscape of contemporary sports media.

“What’s truly different from when I started on the NBA beat in the mid-1990s is that we report trades, signings…negotiations, etc., on an incremental basis now,” ESPN’s Stein wrote in an email. “But I also tend to think that’s as much because of the tools at our disposal as the ever-rising interest in the league. Covering Shaquille O’Neal’s free-agent defection from the Magic to the Lakers in 1996 probably would have been completely different had I been able to live-tweet Shaq’s decision day.”

Nonetheless, while Stein asserts that “ravenous” fan interest in basketball rumors is “a blessing for guys like me,” he is aware that there is something about the phenomenon that feels excessive. “Transactions are an addiction,” he said.

*The piece has been updated to note that Stein also tweeted out the news.

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Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.