To give readers insight into covering the NBA Finals, which tips off at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, I paneled five respected NBA media voices this week for a roundtable discussion:
• Howard Beck, national NBA writer, Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report Radio host.
• Frank Isola, NBA reporter and columnist, New York Daily News, SiriusXM NBA Radio host, Around The Horn panelist.
• Michael Lee, national NBA reporter, Washington Post.
• Brian Mahoney, national NBA writer, Associated Press
• Ramona Shelburne, senior writer, ESPN.com, ESPN LA 710 host.
(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.)
SI.com: How would you evaluate the media access for reporters at the NBA Finals?
Beck: Let’s just say it’s, well, challenging. The NBA credentials about 2,000 media members, although it sometimes feels like 10,000. But that’s just the nature of the beast. The NBA Finals is a global event. So you go into the Finals accepting that you’re probably not going to get that 15-minute one-on-one with Draymond Green or Tristan Thompson. Even if you have prior relationships with certain players or coaches, you might have a tough time getting them to chat off to the side; they just have too many demands on them, even on practice days. So whatever story you’re working on, you’ll probably have to ask your questions in a group session, either at the main podium (with 500 reporters in the room) or, on off-days, at these on-court stations with 30-50 reporters surrounding each player. It makes it more challenging to develop a good, unique story, but, as the players say, it is what it is. I will say the NBA does an incredible job of keeping these sessions organized and on time, and ensuring that every significant player is available.
Lee: To me, it's pretty excellent on off days. The star players and coaches from both teams are available for 10 minutes apiece and you can grab everyone else for as long as you need on the court. It can be a hassle trying to jump in with a big group of reporters, especially if some people are there to ask silly questions. But overall, I like that you get the people you need, when you need them. Postgame interviews are more difficult because of the late deadlines but I really can't complain about access at all.
Isola: It’s actually quite good on off days because the league is in charge and all the players are available. They’ll bring the top players to the podium and since their interviews are recorded by a court stenographer, you have freedom to work the court. If you’re lucky and your timing is right, you could get someone alone.
[daily_cut.NBA]Mahoney: It's pretty good for a big event. We get at least some time with players and coaches on every day except the ones where teams travel. There's little hope of getting anyone alone to really get the in-depth quotes that are best, but with all the media at something this big, that's understandable.
Shelburne: I think it’s actually pretty good. The NBA is in charge and both teams have to follow all the rules that the league and the Pro Basketball Writers Association have agreed upon. That means things generally run on time, whereas there is wide variation in adherence to the rules amongst individual teams. Now, most of the official access is going to be in group, press conference settings. You really have to work hard to get exclusive stuff. But if you’re a good, well-connected reporter, you can make it work.
SI.com: What is the most interesting storyline heading into this series?
Beck: LeBron, always. I’m not one who subscribes to the notion that everything LeBron does somehow impacts his legacy. I won’t think any less of him as an all-time NBA great if the Cavaliers lose this series and he falls to 2–4 in the Finals. But you know that’s going to be a major storyline, even the storyline, for a great number of fans and commentators. LeBron is held to a ridiculous standard (something I wrote about last fall), and there’s this large contingent of the public that’s just waiting to pounce every time he stumbles, or his team falls short. Honestly, I don’t get it. LeBron James is indisputably one of the greatest players of all time, and within that superstar class, also ranks as one of the greatest teammates of all time. He conducts himself professionally, on and off the court. He’s never been in trouble. I think the public generally viewed his return to Cleveland as a positive thing. And yet he continues to be strangely polarizing. I get the sense that a majority of the country will be rooting against him (or, at least, for the Warriors) in the Finals.
Lee: Easily Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James. It's the classic case of the underdog vs. the heavy favorite but both could assume either role depending on your vantage point. Curry was the overlooked overachiever who became a star when little was expected of him. But he is also a child of privilege, the son of an NBA player who grew up around the game his whole life and had every opportunity to succeed. He also plays for the Warriors, one of the greatest regular season teams in NBA history, a team picked by many to win it all. James is a prodigy chosen to be the next great since he was in high school and has lived up to the hype while winning four MVPs and two championships. But he also had to overcome a hardscrabble upbringing to escape a community from which few are able to make it. While James recently said he's never an underdog, his injury-riddled team would pull a massive upset if it can win this series. It's also the new baby face of the league vs. the long-time familiar face. And both guys were born in Akron. Can't beat that.
Isola: Besides J.R. Smith potentially leading Cleveland to winning the NBA Finals? It has to be Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James. The MVP vs. the so-called best player on the planet. I think they are the two toughest players to defend for very different reasons. If the Cavs win and LeBron continues to play at this ridiculously high level, he will have completed one of the greatest runs in playoff history. Sadly, if he loses you’ll hear people say, “He’s 2–4 in the Finals.” Yes, he is. But think about the two Cavs teams he’s led to the Finals. It shouldn’t be held against him that he’s made it this far.
Mahoney: For most people, it's Stephen Curry and LeBron James, who were THE guys in the NBA this season, trying to win for fanbases that have waited a long time. In LeBron's case, a lot of people would like to see him get one back home for the Cavaliers. For me, I'd say watching how David Blatt deals with all of this. He's been under scrutiny all season, to the point he would win a championship and I'm not sure anyone would be certain he'd be back in Cleveland next year.
Shelburne: There are a ton of interesting narratives in these Finals, but this is LeBron James’s league right now so I think every story begins and ends with him. This is what he came back to Cleveland to do. Can he finally deliver a title to his hometown? He’s had that pressure on him since he was 15 years old. Then he spurned Cleveland and its fans in 2010 and won his rings in Miami. Now he’s returned. Now that he’s won titles, only another ring will be considered a success.
SI.com: Who do you consider the most influential NBA media member and why?
Beck: I’m not sure how to define influential because there are so many different types of reporters and writers covering the league these days: traditional beat writers, columnists, essayists, analytics guys, news-breaking specialists, salary-cap experts, hot-take artists, X-and-O analysts. This is my 18th season covering the league, and I can honestly say that the breadth and quality of coverage has never been better. Whatever interests you about the league, it’s being covered, and well.
Isola: Since we’re not allowed to vote for ourselves, I would put Bill Simmons, Jeff Van Gundy, the 1,000 men and women of ESPN, Bleacher Report’s small army, Ken Berger (CBS Sports), Chris Mannix (SI), Sam Amick (USA Today) and a few others. But the reigning champ is Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo!). I once asked an agent, who I know pretty well, to confirm something. He then asked me “before you write it, can I just tell Woj?” I think I tweeted it five seconds before Woj did. Very proud moment for me. Adrian is as connected as anyone in the business and he's a tireless worker. Last July, during the height of free agency, we went out to dinner at 9 p.m. in Los Angeles. He was on his phone the entire time. Worst company ever. Never again.
Lee: It's got to be Charles Barkley, right? His entertaining opinions inspire the most reactions and he's not afraid to offend people.
Mahoney: Charles Barkley is probably the guy who can say whatever he wants about anyone or anything in the league, and people also care about his opinions on real-world topics beyond basketball.
Shelburne: So many ways you could go with this answer. In some ways the newsbreakers—Marc Stein, Sam Amick, Adrian Wojnarowski, Marc Spears (Yahoo!), David Aldridge (Turner), Ken Berger, Frank Isola, Brian Windhorst (ESPN), etc.—are the most influential in that news is what moves the needle in today’s NBA. Forgive me for being cryptic with this statement, but news is what they say it is. Then there are the analytical guys, and for my money, Zach Lowe (Grantland) is the best in the business. The guy thinks and writes like a general manager. I feel like his articles are secret briefings. Bill Simmons has the audience, writing talent and insider knowledge to really change opinions of things. Michael Wilbon (ESPN) and Stephen A. Smith (ESPN) have the respect of all the players and the institutional knowledge from decades of covering the league. Whenever I want to know what’s really up with a situation, I call one of them first to get their take. But I think I have to go with Sir Charles. In terms of influence, day in and day out, nobody shapes the NBA narrative like Barkley. I feel like I have to stay up late and watch the entire postgame show after TNT games just to hear what he said because I know people will be talking about it in the morning.
SI.com: What is the most difficult part of covering the Finals?
Beck: As I mentioned above, the access and the overabundance of media makes covering the Finals much more challenging. It’s not a complaint, just a reality.
Isola: I wish the postgame interviews could be handled a little better. Get the key players out on the podium quicker. Waiting for them to shower and dress is a deadline killer ... for those of us in the newspaper business who still have deadlines. I get it; the players use the postgame press conference as their red carpet moment. They like to make fashion statements. But I think a better visual is the players in their uniform talking. I blame Michael Jordan. He started it. And Carmelo Anthony is the league leader in taking an eternity to shower, get dressed, put on his fedora, and speak with reporters.
Lee: The late starts make it really tough for newspaper deadline purposes. The games usually end around midnight, leaving little time to process what happened and properly explain it to the masses. I always marvel at Internet writers pulling all-nighters when I'm walking out feeling like I just tried to microwave a turkey.
Mahoney: This year, probably figuring out what to pack for a couple of weeks in cities where the weather isn't exactly consistent. With Miami and San Antonio, we knew what we were getting. But in every NBA Finals, it's trying to keep up with everything else happening around the NBA that doesn't involve these two teams. The Knicks and Nets, who I focus on locally, both hired coaches during the Finals the last two years. If the series goes seven games, the NBA draft is less than a week after it ends, so you're trying to keep tabs with that process so you're not jumping in completely cold.
Shelburne: Everyone comes out for the Finals and I’m not sure all of them are working. It’s become an event to see and be seen at. Not as bad as All-Star weekend, but the sheer number of people who seem to just be there to hear themselves ask questions at a press conference has gotten a bit out of hand in recent years. A lot of the people who parachute in for the Finals are covering the teams for the first time this year, which creates a lot of rehashing. But again, if you know your way around the league, this shouldn’t be a problem.
SI.com: What is your favorite part of covering the Finals?
Beck: It’s just an incredibly intense environment. You feel every play, every dunk, every three-pointer, every misfire, every turnover. The fans are amped up beyond belief. I have no emotional investment in any of these games or any of these teams, but I can feel my heart rate increase just in response to the atmosphere. You might feel that intensity during a particularly great playoff series, maybe a handful of times in the regular season, but the Finals are definitely different.
Isola: The media hospitality room is pretty good. Free food, drink, gossip and lots of bitter reporters. It is nice to catch up with folks you haven’t seen in a while and actually have the chance to unpack since most NBA trips are in and out. And we’re lucky enough to witness history every year. I still remember Michael Jordan pushing off on Bryon Russell like it was yesterday. Ray Allen’s shot still gives me chills. It’s nice when you see the joy on the faces of class guys like David Robinson and Dirk Nowitzki when they win.
Mahoney: Those final few minutes leading into the start of Game 1. The anthem, the introductions, lights flashing, all of it that means you're about to be front and center for the best basketball in the world. The basketball in New York was so bad this season that even Phil Jackson said he was aware we were bored, so that makes it that much easier to be excited about being in Oracle Arena on Thursday night, which will be electric.
Shelburne: There is nothing better than covering games that really matter. It’s a long NBA season. The regular season is a slog. This is when everything is magnified. Every game, every play, every moment is interesting. The pace of internet coverage has really diminished the traditional game story. We don’t even really run game stories anymore. Just wire stories and a blog or column that’s more analysis. NBA coverage has become a lot more focused on transactions: trade rumors, hirings and firings, etc. It’s what seems to move the needle online. But when you get to the Finals, it’s just about basketball again.
SI.com: Which player/s are the most media-friendly for this series and why?
Beck: Stephen Curry is just an incredibly gracious and grounded individual, and has been since he entered the league. Always patient with the media, and he truly aims to give a thoughtful answer to every question. (Which isn’t always easy, of course; we ask some pretty stupid questions at times.) Really, the Warriors might be one of the most media-friendly teams in the league. Andrew Bogut is a great, candid and often entertaining interview. Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and David Lee are all smart veterans who are generous with their time and thoughts. It helps that the Warriors also have one of the best p.r. staffs in the league, headed by Raymond Ridder. On the Cleveland side, I’ve always enjoyed talking to Shawn Marion, Kendrick Perkins, Mike Miller and James Jones, longtime vets who understand the media’s role and are always willing to give a little insight. J.R. Smith is incredibly entertaining. I think LeBron James has come a long way in his career, especially these last few years. I used to find him very calculating and aloof with the media. The Miami experience changed him. He’s much more reflective, more forthright with his thoughts and emotions, now than he was during his first stint in Cleveland.
Lee: LeBron James is great because almost everything he says carries weight and he usually takes time to give honest, reflective answers. Steph Curry is also good because he truly processes the questions and gives earnest answers as well. Draymond Green is a gem because he avoids cliches and provides colorful commentary. I still remember his description of Klay Thompson's 37-point quarter this season, when Green said, “You don't get that hot in 2K. Them video games real now. That wasn't real.” Or when he called Doc Rivers, “Glenn.” Or when he responded to Dwight Howard calling himself a champion by saying, “Cool. That's the spirit.” Andrew Bogut is also a pretty straight shooter.
Mahoney: We're lucky in this series in that the two biggest stars are excellent with the media. LeBron and Curry were both finalists for our Professional Basketball Writers Association's Magic Johnson Award (won by Pau Gasol) that goes to a player who best combines his excellence on the court with cooperation with the media. I've enjoyed spending multiple summers around both covering USA Basketball, and the way Stephen handled his explosion in popularity this season was really impressive. On a smaller scale, David Lee, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut on Golden State and Mike Miller on Cleveland are great. And J.R. Smith will surely entertain us.
Shelburne: I don’t think I’m going out on a limb at all to say the Warriors are the most media-friendly team in the league. It starts with their p.r. staff, which just flat-out gets it. But I think a lot of it comes from Steve Kerr, who has been on our side of the aisle and understands why we’re asking certain questions, how to explain technical things to the media and why it’s important to do so. Mostly though, I think they don’t see the media as adversaries that players and coaches needed to be protected from like a lot of organizations do now. They just let their guys handle their own business and trust that they’re mature and savvy enough to do so.
SI.com: How do you feel about players bringing their children to postgame press conferences?
Beck: It really doesn’t bother me. If anything, it lightens the atmosphere and provides a little color for my story. These players are people, with personal lives and families and (in Steph Curry’s case) ridiculously adorable children. It’s good to see the human side sometimes, to remind everyone of that, especially in today’s sports culture, where players are often viewed as cartoon characters and punching bags. Now, is it possible that having a kid on the podium will disrupt the press conference or stifle the discussion? Maybe. If a guy just got hit with a flagrant foul, or if a scuffle broke out, or the player just blew the game-winning shot, it might be awkward to ask Daddy why he’s such a screw-up with Junior sitting on his lap. I understand the concern of some of my fellow scribes. I wouldn’t want to see kids at every postgame session. But in general, I don’t see a problem with it.
Isola: It doesn’t bother me one bit. The idea that you can’t ask a tough question with a kid sitting there is laughable. Riley Curry is a star while LeBron’s son, Bryce Maximus, has his work cut out for him.
Lee: I'd be lying if I said I love it as a working journalist. I'd prefer to not have the distraction when I'm trying to ask questions or listen to answers for follow up questions. But I thoroughly enjoy watching it as a fan. Riley Curry has been my favorite part of this postseason. I can't remember what many players have said after games but I can't forget seeing her telling the MVP, “Be quiet.” I also can't get that song “Blessings” out of my head: “Waay up, I feel blessed.” I think it helps when it's a player people like and the kid's cute. But it'll be interesting to see what happens when a guy brings his puppy or a basket of kittens up there to throw off reporters.
Mahoney: Fine with it. I've got two little girls myself, and watching Stephen Curry completely unable to control Riley is probably the only time I can say for sure I've walked in the NBA MVP's shoes. Sure, it can slow down the work a bit, but so can plenty of other things that aren't nearly as cute, so I've got no problem with it.
Shelburne: I love seeing players and their children together. It shows a different side of them we don’t often see. And frankly, I think it’s great for the league to promote fatherhood as much as it can. That said, there are plenty of other ways to do that than at press conferences. I thought the shots of Steph Curry and his daughter on the court after they closed out Houston in Game 5 were priceless. I’m fine with players occasionally bringing a child into a press conference. Most of the stuff that’s gathered there is just for sound bites and quote sheets. The best material is always going to come from the locker room or in hallways. But there are issues that I worry about.
My philosophy is pretty simple: I want to treat the players, coaches and executives that I cover as I would want to be treated. In other words, if someone was writing a story about me, I’d want them to ask me about things and not just write whatever they see from the outside. Even if it’s a story I don’t like, I’d always rather have the chance to explain myself than have people guess at why I did what I did or said what I said. So apply that now to a press conference setting. There’s a critical play in the game that needs explaining. Our job is to ask the coach or player about it. Even if they are the goat, if it was me, I’d rather someone ask me about it than just pile on without knowing what was in my head. If their child is there, are you really in the best situation to ask that tough question? I don’t think so. Worse, what if you do ask the question, it is uncomfortable and the kid starts crying? All that said, the Riley Curry phenomenon was not the right time for us to have this discussion. She’s adorable and I think she’s been one of the more entertaining parts of these playoffs. As long as it’s an occasional cameo, I’m fine with it.