What's life like on the NBA beat? Five respected reporters discuss the biggest challenges of covering the league.
With the NBA season tipping off this week, I paneled five respected NBA media voices this week for a roundtable discussion:
• Frank Isola, NBA columnist, New York Daily News, SiriusXM NBA Radio host, Around The Horn panelist.
• Jason Lloyd, Cavaliers beat reporter, Akron Beacon Journal and Ohio.com
• Michael Lee, senior NBA writer, Yahoo! Sports
• 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.)
What single player do you expect to report on the most this season and why?
Isola: Locally, it will be Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis for obvious reasons. One is the best player on the team coming back from knee surgery and the other is the Knicks' highest draft pick since Patrick Ewing. Fortunately, they are both very pleasant to deal with. I would say 70% of the coverage will focus on them while 20% will be spent on Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher. The rest of the team, many of whom I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them, get the other 10%. Nationally, LeBron James is always a story and Steph Curry is entering that realm as well. But Kevin Durant will be the flavor of the month because he’s heading into free agency.
Lee: Can I pick two? Kevin Durant is the easy choice. I don’t think that a year has been built up in which a player will be more the focal point of media scrutiny than LeBron James six years ago. In case you haven’t heard—and trust me, you’ll be reminded frequently all season—Durant will be a free agent next season and will arguably be the most coveted player to ever hit the open market because almost half the league will have the financial means to offer a maximum contract to a one-time league’s most valuable player. His visits to almost every city—New York, Los Angeles and his hometown of Washington, in particular—will be a huge event. The other storyline surrounding Durant involves his recovery from a foot injury and his attempts to regain his perch at, or near, the top of the league. Every step Kobe Bryant takes in possibly his final season will warrant excess attention and reflections on the great moments in his incredible career. Bryant’s refusal to commit to whether he’ll call it quits will also lead to speculation about his future with the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team.
Lloyd: Since I cover the Cavs and do it for LeBron James’s hometown paper, this one is easy. James remains the biggest high-profile athlete in the sport and his brand extends far beyond basketball. He made a cameo in a Hollywood comedy over the summer and within the last week brought Michelle Obama to the University of Akron for an education event. Of course, if he is able to bring Cleveland its first championship in more than 50 years, it will cement his legacy as one of the game’s most transcendent players.
Mahoney: Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant might have the most topics that need to be covered (health, futures after this season, etc.), but it's still probably LeBron James. His team will be playing well into June, he talks as often as any superstar and he talks about important topics beyond just the NBA, so he's always giving us something to write.
Shelburne: Being as how I'm in Los Angeles and have a longstanding relationship with him, I'm guessing I'll spend a lot of time covering Kobe Bryant in what is likely his final season. I'm not sure what to make of this Lakers team. They've got a bunch of young players who they're hoping will grow up quickly, but there are also veterans who were brought in to help the team win in the short-term, too. I don't know that the young players can develop quickly enough to help Kobe go out on a high note, which could make for some real frustration as the season goes on, but also an existential test for Kobe as his career winds down. The player in the NBA who will get the most coverage this year is Kevin Durant, whose free agency this summer will shape the league for the next five years.
If you could implement one change to media access for the regular season, what would you do and why?
Isola: How about just enforcing the current rules? For example, opening the locker room after the game at the designated time. That would be nice change. From a logistics standpoint, it would be helpful if the players conducted their interviews before showering and dressing, which depending on the player may take 45 minutes after the final buzzer. It’s a deadline killer. Carmelo is as guilty as anyone. Of course, after a preseason game in Baltimore a few years ago Carmelo’s mother sat patiently outside the locker room waiting for Carmelo to shower and dress. So if she can wait, we can wait.
Lee: With more organizations building practice facilities and more obstacles to interactions with players, it would be great if teams actually adhered to the league-mandated rules. Over the years, teams have taken liberty with the rules and some have flat-out abused them to the disservice of the discerning public. Reporters are supposed to be able to speak to players before they leave the practice court, with the player having the ability to accept or deny the request before heading to the locker room. As it is now, a number of teams bring a player to speak and it might not even be the player you need or want on that particular day. You might never see the player you need once practice opens.
Lloyd: It’s a losing battle, but I’d love to return to courtside seating in all arenas. I understand owners are trying to make as much money as possible, and the floor seats generate barrels of revenue. That’s certainly their right. But for the handful of news outlets that spend the money to travel all season, seats near the court in every arena would be helpful. There is so much more we can bring fans from courtside, whether it’s conversations with officials, what coaches are shouting, what players are saying… If our job is to bring the game closer to the fans, the best place to do that is courtside. As of last season, about half the league still provided courtside seats. But that number seems to dwindle a little more every year.
Mahoney: The one I've really been pushing for the last couple years is a minimum length of time (something like six minutes) before team officials can cut off a postgame interview. Fewer players are talking pregame now, and I understand they're preparing for work. But then we need some time after the game with them, and I've seen too many cases lately where somebody talks for 3-4 minutes and a member of the PR staff then says the player is done. By the time the team's TV person has asked the first couple of questions and there's been some questions about the game, that's not leaving enough time for much else.
Shelburne: We all need to do a better job of creating a positive working environment between players and the media again. I think there's some real trust issues that are affecting the quality of coverage. Some of that is just the nature of life in the Twitter era. Quotes get clipped, flipped and spread widely within moments now. There's little context to Twitter reporting, and that can be frustrating to the players and coaches involved. One of the ways we can help that is to be more vigilant about who gets credentialed and how we as reporters conduct ourselves in a locker room. There's too many people with credentials in there who aren't really working and it changes the dynamic of the locker room. There's also less professionalism now than ever before. In some ways I miss the code of the baseball clubhouse where reporters respect the sanctity of each other's 1-on-1 interviews. I'd also like to see shootaround media access expanded and improved, since players tend to be more relaxed and accommodating than later on a game day, when they're more stressed before a game. Frankly, I'd trade a lot of pregame media access for better shootaround access.
What players around the league are the most challenging to interview and why?
Isola: Tim Duncan is a fascinating case because he doesn’t hide the fact that he has little interest or patience for interviews. The guy makes you work, which is fine. He was on a bit of a roll the day before the All Star Game last February before some knucklehead asked him “What are you getting your significant other for Valentine’s Day?” The look on Duncan face was priceless. Russell Westbrook can be tough which is too bad because other than Kobe Bryant I’m not sure there is a more competitive player in the league. I think most folks in the media admire Russell but I get the sense that he views the media as the enemy.
Lee: Usually, the bigger the star, the harder it is to get an illuminating interview. Teams make it a priority to limit access and shield them from overuse, since their time is often in high demand. In recent years, public relations staffs have worked hard to keep time with the most talented players down to a minimum. To counter that, reporters have to be more creative and negotiate special time with the in-demand players to write the kind of stories that resonate with readers. Quality work is often determined by access and that is becoming a greater challenge each season.
Lloyd: I haven’t had major problems with anyone, but then I’m not the most qualified to speak to this. Being a local beat writer, I’m primarily only with the Cavs all day/every day.
Mahoney: The ones who dislike or distrust the media, or play for organizations that do. The ones who get what we do make it easy. The ones who feel like they've been burned, or that we are out to burn them, can make it awfully difficult.
Shelburne: I find Russell Westbrook pretty challenging to deal with. He tends to be guarded, no matter the setting. I tend to chalk it up to his competitiveness though. He simply doesn't see the value in spending cultivating relationships with the media. He's become an international marketing superstar and perennial All-Star, so it's kind of hard to argue with his approach even if it's frustrating to us.
On a percentage basis, how much information do you obtain in any given week that is off the record versus on the record?
Isola: Maybe 50-50. A lot of times the off-the-record information is for background purposes or for a story you may write down the road. Most of the on-the-record information are canned responses and clichés. Yes, so-and-so “needs to step up.” We get it.
Lee: That's really tough to put a number on. But I would probably be on the low end, percentage wide. Sometimes, you have to lean more on sourced information if you want the unsolicited or unfiltered truth. You usually need that stuff around the draft, the trade deadline and free agency—anytime you're trying to break news and people aren't willing to surrender delicate information. But for the most part, I try to lean on what people give me on the record.
Lloyd: This varies depending on the time of year—the trade deadline, the start to free agency and the days leading up to the draft certainly have more information flying around than just a random week in March. On average, however, I write less than half of what I know. Sometimes it’s as simple as a source providing context to a situation, but wants certain details omitted. Sometimes it’s nonsense like which players sent the ball boys to get phone numbers of young, attractive girls sitting near the court. Sometimes it’s filing away information to use later when examining a broader issue. For example, I learned years ago of a heated exchange between former Cavs GM Danny Ferry and former commissioner David Stern. This was back during LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, before I was even covering the team.
The Cavs were growing increasingly unhappy with all of the congestion around the court, and about 30 minutes prior to a nationally televised game, Ferry tried blocking a cameraman from sitting at his designated spot along the sideline. Within minutes, a furious Stern was on the phone and the two exploded in an expletive-filled tirade that many in the league still recall vividly.
No one really wanted me to write about it while Stern was still the commissioner, plus it was just one of those good stories we all have without a home. But with Stern retired and Ferry out of the league for now, I was able to use it recently while exploring how the NBA has cut the number of photographers on the floor nearly in half compared to last season. And that, coincidentally or not, came just months after LeBron sliced his scalp open on a camera in last season’s NBA Finals. Everyone’s definition of “off the record” varies, too. A number of folks consider “off the record” to mean you can use it, just don’t use my name. Others want “off the record” to mean don’t use it at all. Whenever anyone uses the phrase “off the record,” if I don’t already have a good relationship with them, I stop and ask what they mean. Other folks are more direct and simply say, “don’t write this.”
Mahoney: At the arena or on the phones, it's probably split pretty evenly. At the bar afterward, 100% off the record.
Shelburne: It really depends on what I'm working on in a particular week. But I'd say 80% off the record/on background and 20% on the record. I'm constantly checking in with people around the league that doesn't necessarily end up on TV or in a story.
Who is your pick to win the title and why?
Isola: I have Cleveland beating OKC. The path to the NBA Finals is less daunting in the Eastern Conference. LeBron may play 65 games during the regular season to get himself ready for the postseason. If healthy, the Cavs should prevail. Good for the city of Cleveland.
Lee: I’m going to pick Oklahoma City. When the Thunder reached the Finals in 2012, there was a prevailing thought that it would be the beginning of annual treks for Durant and Russell Westbrook. But injuries have greatly prohibited any chance of them ever fulfilling that promise. You had the James Harden deal, Westbrook’s knee, Serge Ibaka’s calf and Durant’s foot. With Durant’s free agency looming, there seems to be a greater urgency to the season. And who doesn’t want to see Westbrook playing with more urgency? The Thunder has a new coach in Billy Donovan—and GM Sam Presti would no doubt like to see him have a Steve Kerr-type influence on a team that has been ready to win if not for some misfortune. It just seems like it is Oklahoma City’s time.
Lloyd: The Cavs, but injuries are a concern. Their path to get there is so much easier than any team in the West. They don’t have to worry much about the regular season, so they can take their time in letting Kyrie Irving’s knee heal and try to find opportunities to rest LeBron. Every contender in the league needs good luck and good health, but the Cavs should be more concerned than most about injuries. They’ve invested $240 million recently in contract extensions on Irving, Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert – three guys with long injury histories.
But they have the most talent of any team in the East, they have an easier path than any team in the West and they hold the hammer in LeBron. Beating him four times in a series is incredibly difficult, particularly when he has as much help as he should this year.
Mahoney: The Cleveland Cavaliers. So much went wrong last season and they still were two games from winning the title. I assume they will stay healthier this year, things will go more smoothly in Year 2 for Kevin Love and David Blatt, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will be dynamite, and they will win it this time.
Shelburne: I've been going back and forth on this all preseason, but I think LeBron and the Cavs win it this year. The Western Conference is so good—even better than last year—the best teams cannibalize each other. To me, the Thunder, Warriors, Clippers and Spurs are the class of the West right now. Any of those four teams could win this year, but they're also going to beat each other up so much all year long I'll go with the Cavs for my pre-season pick.
What positional group between guards, forwards and centers are usually the best quotes for media and why?
Isola: I’m sure everyone will go with point guard since “they are like head coaches.” But Shaq, Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley weren’t point guards and they were tremendous. DeMarcus Cousins is pure gold. Last year he ended a group interview by saying “the marathon continues…I’m out.” Classic.
Lee: I don't know if I can really separate the good quotes by position because I've pulled memorable quotes from guys who play all over. And with the game evolving to the point where—as Drew Gooden likes to say—tweeners are finally winning, does position even matter anymore? But if I had to pick a group that is more relatable to the common fan, I'd have to go with guards because they can have relatively normal existences and blend in. So a lot of the stories they share aren't as unfamiliar as the tales from giants.
Lloyd: From my experience, it runs by age more than position. Young guys tend to regurgitate whatever the PR folks tell them to say, while the vets who have been around awhile are smart enough to know what they want to say and how to say it. If I’m working on something related to offense, though, I like to talk to guards because they usually have the ball in their hands. I like bigs for defensive items because they’re the back line of defense and they see everything in front of them.
Mahoney: Not sure there's any particular position that stands out as the best, but I will say that point guards seem to have the widest variety. Some of them are the nicest, most insightful people in the league. A few of them are the moodiest guys you'd ever meet.
Shelburne: I'm not sure I've ever thought of it in those terms. Big guys can be shy, but there are plenty who are very thoughtful and engaging with me as a reporter. Guards tend to have more personality and swagger. But honestly, I get along well with players of all positions. I actually have found being a woman helps relate to NBA players, whom I've found to be more respectful of women than just about any other group of athletes.
Who is a young NBA reporter that people should keep their eye on?
Isola: Is Brian Windhorst still considered young? Probably not. Baxter Holmes and Dave McMenamin come to mind but since there are plenty of quality male and female reporters around the country I’ll stick with the New York guys. Scott Cacciola and Andrew Keh of the New York Times are smart, talented and humble. (Yes, they work at the Times and yet they’ve remained humble.) ESPN’s Ian Begley is a pit bull. A little annoying but that makes him a good reporter. Also, the work done at The Oklahoman is very impressive. In a one-horse town they provide critical analysis which isn’t always popular among the OKC players and front office but it says a lot about the paper. I really admire that staff.
Lee: Obviously, my colleague Shams Charania with Yahoo! Sports. This kid is kicking the tail of veteran reporters and breaking news on the regular. And he's super-duper young. He was born in the 1990s—and as Ray Allen once said, "I was kicking it hard in the 90s." I’m glad that we’re on the same team and excited to see where his career takes him. Also have to go with Jorge Castillo with the Washington Post. He’s a young-go-getter and I had the pleasure of working with him last season. A quick learner and a really solid writer who is only going to improve with more experience.
Lloyd: Here is my Shams Charania story: A couple of years ago the Cavs were on the verge of acquiring Luol Deng. I gathered enough information to know they were close to a deal, and it was obvious they were using Andrew Bynum’s unique contract as the vehicle, but I couldn’t get the name of the player they were obtaining. I also knew ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, who covered the Bynum/Cavs saga at length and knows the Cavs organization better than any other reporter, was likely already two steps ahead of me. After enough calls and texts, I finally learned the player was Deng. By the time I got to my Twitter account, Windhorst had already posted the trade. I thought I was second. Then about 20 minutes later, I learned some guy I’d never heard of (and learned later was still in school) had beaten us both to it. That’s the day I learned who Shams Charania was and I’ve followed him ever since. He’s already at Yahoo and well on his way to being the industry’s next big news breaker.
Mahoney: I encourage people to read all NBA reporters of any age. But Tim Bontemps is a young one who did a good job on the Nets for the New York Post and is on his way to bigger things—just hired to fill Michael Lee's old job as the national NBA guy at the Washington Post.
Shelburne: I can't name just one. I'm really impressed with young people who know how to hustle and report. An editor once told me that 80% of the job was just showing up on time. The other 20% is what separates you and in my book, that starts with reporting. Some names of young reporters that jump out at me in that regard: Shams Charania of Yahoo—whom I call Doogie Howser—Candace Buckner from the Indianapolis Star, Mirin Fader of the Orange County Register, Mark Medina from the Los Angeles Daily News, Vincent Goodwill from CSN Chicago and Alex Kennedy from Basketball Insiders.
How much of your coverage includes advanced statistics and why?
Isola: I’m old school. The games are played by people. I still believe that a majority of readers want to read about personalities, not statistics. FYI: Advanced stats have always been a part of the NBA. They also don’t measure heart, character and toughness. The eye test says that Curry, LeBron, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis are pretty good, right? Hopefully, the advanced stats say the same.
Lee: I don’t know if I can put a percentage on it. But advanced statistics have become a much-needed detail to help fans understand player’s tendencies and true influence on the game. They are a necessity for non-personality profiles because the numbers paint the honest picture and provide the best support for your arguments.
Lloyd: A decent amount, but there is so much available now pertaining to so many aspects of basketball, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers and lose sight of the games. I write a notes column after every Cavs game that ranges from 1,500 to 2,000 words, it posts in the middle of the night and it runs only on Ohio.com. I try to dig beneath the surface for those columns and look at what some of the numbers mean, whether it’s the Cavs’ high number of isolation points or J.R. Smith’s catch-and-shoot numbers.
When you start getting into usage, true shooting percentage, etc… a lot of average fans don’t really care/understand it all.
Advanced stats certainly have a rightful place in the game today, but the folks who just regurgitate them, I’m left wondering if they’re actually ever watching the games.
Mahoney: Very little. I don't think it translates very well to the written word, and a lot of it needs some explanation that's tough to provide when you're trying to keep the word count to a manageable length. When I use stats, I find that the old reliables are the ones that are the easiest and most widely understood: Shooting 60 percent is good, giving up 120 points is bad.
Shelburne: I read a lot of what the people who are great with advanced statistics write—Tom Haberstroh, Kevin Arnovitz, Kevin Pelton, Zach Lowe, Neil Paine, Nate Duncan, Ethan Sherwood Strauss—and geek out on it. I'm more of a narrative writer and news reporter, but I don't think you can cover the NBA now without having an appreciation for analytics.
Who makes a better source: a player, a front office person or a member of the coaching staff, and why?
Isola: They’re all good for different reasons. The player provides valuable information regarding his team and the coaching staff while a good coaching source is more than happy to expose the front office.
Lee: Are you asking us to out our sources? I’ll say that all three are very helpful but players and front office personnel are most helpful and least concerned about backlash, so long as you protect their identities. Did I reveal too much? Why weren’t agents on this list?
Lloyd: It depends on the topic. If it’s dealing with a player or the game specifically, I tend to rely on other players. On my postseason ballot, for example, I always poll a number of players across the league for the Defensive Player of the Year award and the All-Defensive team. I was surprised last year how many other players in the league downplayed Draymond Green as a defensive player, so I left him off my ballot and still hear about it on occasion from Warriors fans. But for those specific categories, which are so subjective, I trust the players to know who are the best defenders. On league matters I like talking to front office folks. Coaches always allow me to see the game differently.
Mahoney: A front office person is probably the one you can most expect to be giving you information that is correct and useable. Some players and coaches certainly can and do, but are also more likely to be passing off secondhand info they've heard that can't be verified.
Shelburne: I like to talk to players first and foremost. They're the ones playing the game and generally who readers want to know the most about. I like them to explain the game to me as they see it as much as possible. As far as news breaking however, players rarely are as good of sources as agents or front office people.
How do you conduct most of your interviews today—in person, phone, text, email—and what do you prefer?
Isola: I think everyone would prefer an interview in person without a team official suffocating the player. Those days are over.
Lee: I always prefer face-to-face interviews. There is a certain comfort that comes from looking someone in the eye and having them share what they really feel about something. Phone interviews would be the next choice if I can’t sit down with someone. Text and emails are cool if you have no choice but you lose the context and meaning behind the words sometimes. Humor/sarcasm can be lost in electronic communication.
Lloyd: I do a lot of texting, but it’s quick hitters: Trying to get something confirmed, checking on an update regarding a contract/trade, etc… Longer conversations I try to do by phone because no one wants to sit there texting all night.
E-mail is rare and almost becoming extinct unless it’s a statement or press release. People don’t want to leave a paper trail, particularly on anything sensitive. As we’ve seen recently with leaked documents, folks working around the league are realizing it’s better not to have a record of anything. Then it can’t come back to haunt them. I still prefer face-to-face conversations, but I’ve noticed some folks don’t want to be seen talking to reporters. So the bulk of my work is done with my phone, either through calls or texts when no one is watching.
Mahoney: A question or two can be asked over email or text, but I think a real interview where you're asking quite a few questions needs to be done over the phone or in person, so you can react to some of their responses, they can hear the tone of your voice so they know how the question is intended, etc.
Shelburne: Things really started moving towards a text message world in the last five years, but in the age of screenshots, I'm finding myself back on the phone a lot more for real conversations again. Email is a last resort.
How would you feel if locker room access after the game was closed in exchange for some sort of conference room where dressed players were available for a defined period of time?
Isola: Sounds like you’re floating this out there like a trial balloon. It’s not ideal but inevitable. If so, can the players arrive at the podium in uniform? There is nothing worse than waiting 45 minutes for a player just so he can show the world what silly hat he's wearing. I think a better visual for the league is a player in uniform as opposed to an episode of “Who Wore It Better.”
A number of years ago prior to an NBA Finals game, David Stern met with the press for an off-the-record session regarding access and press seating. The great Bob Ryan went on a passionate yet respectful rant about how the league had turned its back on newspapers which were once the life blood of the NBA.
Every reporter appreciated that Bob, by then a big famous TV star, stood up for the younger generation. We may need him at the 2016 NBA Finals because the access is getting worse, not better.
Lee: You mean playoff availability all season long? I’ll pass. The locker room has always felt like an awkward place to talk to people after a highly-competitive contest, especially when someone has just completed showering or has their feet buried in a bucket of ice. But the post-game locker room is where you can do your best work and truly understand what happened in a game. You can pull somebody aside and get the details you need to tell a more complex story. When guys sit at the podium, surrounded by cameras and microphones, they are often careful about not saying things that might wind up taking off on social media or whatever. You get a bench player to break down a critical play or explain the mood of a teammate during a huge game. That sort of information cannot be unearthed with guys sitting on a podium. With so many news outlets delivering information to the public, you’re always looking for something to separate your work and you can really only get that separation by working a locker room for more and more details.
Lloyd: I’d be completely against it because of the time factor more than anything. Some guys like to be dressed before talking, but some are still comfortable talking before they shower. LeBron and Kevin Love, for example, will often talk postgame while their feet are in ice buckets. When LeBron showers and dresses and has to leave the locker room before talking, such as a postgame podium setting, it can add 45 minutes or more to an already tight deadline. I also like being able to bounce a quick question off a lesser player who otherwise might not be brought into an interview room. I can appreciate why players don’t like so many media in the locker room. From talking to a number of players, it seems they would just like to thin the herd of who has locker room access. It is those just standing around in there and not really working that has players annoyed. The teams and league might need to clean up the credentialing process. That would solve a lot of the problems arising
Mahoney: I think that could work and in some cases may even be an improvement. As long as they got there quickly enough so we could make deadline, maybe it would be easier to conduct interviews than a crowded or loud locker room without being in the players' way.
Shelburne: I would not be in favor of that at all. It makes everything so scripted and formal and cuts out all opportunities for relationship building that is both essential for reporting and in my opinion, positive for both the player and the media. My rule has always been to treat the people I cover as I'd want to be treated if the roles were reversed. I'd want to have a real conversation with the people writing about me where I could explain things, rather than having someone psychoanalyze or guess. I don't think a conference room setting is in any way conducive to that type of coverage.