The Educated Consumer’s Guide to Following the NBA Free Agency Rumor Madness

One of my running jokes throughout the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season, which was rife with melodrama both real and manufactured, was that the Cavaliers were starring in a soap opera called As the Cavs Turn. On a team with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, everything was viewed as newsworthy. Was Kevin Love fitting “in” or “out”? Why was LeBron James calling his own plays, and was it a deliberate attempt to sabotage new coach David Blatt? Why wasn’t Kevin Love in the team’s Instagram photos? Was LeBron James vicariously flirting with his former mistress Miami through Dwyane Wade — and on Christmas, no less!? Drama, intrigue, suspense, betrayal: all the ingredients of a soap opera except for the sex, flagrant use of stereotypes, and cheesy saxophone.

Combine our collective unslakeable thirst for information and content, the increasing ubiquity of sports, a vast amount of resources devoted to covering sports, technology, and social media, and suddenly the NBA1 becomes a giant middle school cafeteria swirling with rumors, gossip, and innuendo — and the intensity with which it is reported on is only matched by the insignificance of its subject matter. But instead of rumors about who French kissed whom at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, the rumors in the NBA cafeteria are about multi-million-dollar contract employees as the principals in a billion dollar enterprise.

But unlike a soap opera and more like middle school, the NBA doesn’t have a (semi-) meticulous script and (semi-) sophisticated production team to convey the well-rehearsed story and drama to us. We have to instead rely upon the sports media: a fractured and unorganized entity comprised of honest and hard-working individuals who are compensated to educate, inform, and entertain the public. Each of these individuals has a varying responsibility and commitment to each those tasks. Some individuals’ function is to almost exclusively report on the news; and others’ is purely to entertain (even if that entertainment is hardly pure itself). Some provide information, and some editorialize, and many do both to varying degrees.2

So it’s important, as a consumer of sports and incidentally sports media, to educate oneself before wandering into this giant figurative room filled with the deafening chatter of media and fans alike, all shouting over one another about which free agent is going where. The following rules will help you keep your wits about you, or else you won’t make it to your fifth-period calculus class.3 Before long you may realize that the whole enterprise of reporting on sports is a very silly ordeal; and you wouldn’t be wrong. And yet, we follow it anyway.

1. The identity of the speaker matters.

Before you have a meltdown or a panic attack upon hearing a rumor, let’s makes sure that its speaker is someone whom is: a) Credible; and b) Holds him- or herself out to the public as someone to be believed. Edward R. Murrow was a more reliable source than Reddit user /u/LeBonerJamzzz2003, just as The National Enquirer should be regarded with more skepticism than the Associated Press (Though I still think The National Enquirer was onto something with that “Government Covering Up Assassination of John Lennon by Gay Bigfoot” story.)

We make these instantaneous discretionary credibility judgments all day, when we deal with family, friends, and coworkers, in the checkout aisle of the grocery store, and when we decide to dispense our finite views, reads, and clicks. We all have that guy we work with who is patently unreliable, not to be trusted, and still swears that the Cavs would have won the NBA Finals had they traded for Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. Would you believe that guy if he said that Kevin Love was going to the Celtics? Or that Dwyane Wade was going to sign with the Cavs? I didn’t think so. One needs to be this perceptive with the source of all rumors.

One major annoying subpart of this rule is to know the medium through which the information is disseminated. There’s a bizarre double standard between broadcast and print journalism that continues to be weird. A misstatement of fact could cost a print journalist his job, while such a gaffe on air is usually just disregarded as a quirk of the medium. This may make sense in the sense that writers are expected to take the time to carefully select their words and perfect their message, whereas television or radio folks are assumed to be an unfiltered and unfettered stream of consciousness. Whether the double standard is defensible or not is moot — and it should be factored into your assessment of credibility when something is presented as fact on air, particularly when it comes from someone who is paid to spout their opinion.

This rule generally means you should disregard anything said by anyone described as a “personality.” Personalities are emotional, temperamental, and capricious. Reporters are supposed to be objective and bookish. The eventual accuracy of an on-air personality’s words or predictions is of no consequence to them. If a TV or podcast personality said in February that Kevin Love was going to play for the Lakers next season, absent any inside information that was presented as such, it was never anything more than the opinion of someone whose job it is to entertain — and neither he or she nor anyone else will be held accountable if that prediction turns out to be false.

As a corollary to this rule (and just a general life philosophy to abide by), never listen to anything Skip Bayless says. You’ll be much healthier and happier for it.

2. Be a careful and literal reader.

What that means is “be one who interprets words literally,” or “take words to have their traditional meaning,” not just, you know, exist as an actual person who reads. This is an important rule, because it applies not only to consumers, but media outlets as well. In the ceaseless quest for content and information, those relaying information need to be careful not to mischaracterize the primary information. It is of utmost importance both in- and outside sports. Not following it distorts the original speaker’s message, and may change the entire meaning of the statement.

Zach Lowe responded to someone breaking this rule last week, when his statement that “plugged-in executives around the league continue to predict the Cavs will sign-and-trade Love after advancing so far without him” morphed into “Cavs have interest in sign-and-trading Kevin Love after advancing far in the playoffs without him.” The difference between the two is minor from a cosmetic standpoint, but vast from a meaning standpoint.

Plugged-in NBA executives —while some of the best-informed and knowledgeable outsiders in the world unaffiliated with the Cavalier organization — don’t speak on behalf of David Griffin, Kevin Love, or the Cleveland Cavaliers front office.4 Twenty-nine NBA GMs may predict the Cavs will trade Kyrie Irving and Timofey Mozgov to the Milwaukee Bucks for O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez, and a Netflix account password5 — that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Are “plugged in executives around the league” a valuable source? Absolutely. But they’re not the Cavs. Why would plugged-in executives in the league have inaccurate or incomplete information to share with a writer beyond mere ignorance, well the next rule is instructive in that regard.

3. Sources have motives.

Reporters need to rely on individuals or organizations for information they relay to the public. Often, the principal parties will be the first to share the information once a transaction has been consummated (such as if the Cavs add players to their summer league roster). This isn’t always the case for bigger stories.

For other news, the media member has to go digging for the information him- or herself — to beat the principals and “break” the news. Preferably, the individuals or organizations relied upon (the “source” of the information) have first-hand knowledge of the information sought. Otherwise, a reporter’s information is little more than uninformed speculation or inferences of the party from which they obtained it.

“Source” is all-encompassing term for any person, place, or thing willing to share information, and is intentionally generic to leave the sharer of information shrouded in mystery to preserve anonymity. And sources, well, sources say a lot of things. Generally this is good. Sourced information tends to be more reliable than, you know, the hunches and conjecture of Bob from Nowheresville calling the Morning Squawkbox with his premonitions of the future.

But not all sources are created equal, and virtually all are subject to their own biases, desires, and agenda. Ask yourself this: Why would a source want to share information with this person? To manifest their generosity? To benefit the public? To further the profession of sports journalism? Not likely.

If those were the only motives for disclosing desired information, then most sources would be quieter than the outer edge of our solar system. A secret in the hands of a competitor can be damaging and compromise a team or player’s main objectives. The risks could be large — why share it? This explains why some of the best-run organizations (such as the San Antonio Spurs) are notoriously secretive, or at least unwilling to share a lot of information.

So if sources seldom share information out of altruism, what is it? Often, the disclosure of information is part of the ongoing bargain between the recipient and the source. We share information with you, you share information with us; or, we make you look good, and you make us look good; or, I do a favor for you, you do a favor for me. Sometimes, the tradeoff is merely for mutual respect and congeniality — a lot of these people are friends with another. This is the unstated bargain not only of sports media and news-breaking, but society is largely based on this unwritten compact.

Adrian Wojnarowski explained the bargain in his chat with GQ.

This job, for me, it’s a 52-week-a-year job. It’s not about cramming. To me, it’s an ongoing conversation that you have to be willing to have for 52 weeks a year. You can’t just call people when you need something. And it’s a two-way street of sharing information. The work you do over the rest of the year sets you up to hopefully have success in these very intense periods.

That “ongoing conversation” is vital to Wojnarowski’s job. He doesn’t call people out of the blue when he wants a scoop, like that friend who only calls you when he needs to crash on your couch. One of the primary parts of Wojnarowski’s job is creating an incentive that will function as a motive for teams to share information with him.

But some motives are purer than others. For every organization throwing a starving local go-getter a morsel of a scoop out of the kindness of their heart, there’s an agent disclosing the details of a contract offer (real or imaginary) from a team to his or client to leverage another team into offering the client more money. Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe discussed the dilemma of nefarious sources on the B.S. Report last fall.

Bill Simmons: I think another thing that’s happening right now is these teams that are hoping that Kevin Love — this Cavs thing is going to be a disaster and that Kevin Love will be in play this summer. And you’re seeing something that I actually predicted last week. You’re going to see teams start leaking stuff that’s not true — an intentional sabotage. We’ve already seen one article this week. “Lakers feel that they have a chance to get Love next summer.” Oh, OK. Really? You do? You think Love’s going to jump to your 6-76 team? I think some of these teams are going to float stuff out.

All of them are praying every night that this Cavs thing is going to be a disaster. So, I’m not trusting any story I read. “Anonymous sources.” “Sources say.” I just think it’s all B.S. and that’s the way the league works.

There you have it. So when sources get to saying, a savvy consumer needs to get to thinking: Who would want this information out there? Why would they want this information out there? Pretend you’re watching a Game of Thrones episode — but instead of riches, control, power, and influence of the Seven Kingdoms at stake, there are riches, control, power, and influence of the NBA. Sometimes a source’s motive for a leak is pure; sometimes its corporate sabotage. But everyone has an agenda, so take unconfirmed information with a grain or 5000 of salt.

4. If it’s from Woj, it’s probably accurate.

Adrian Wojnarowski (quoted above) works for Yahoo Sports, and is probably the NBA’s leading news-breaker right now, so much so that followers have created a term for his TNT blasts of NBA news: Woj bombs. He’s generally on-point, first on the scene for many stories, and sleuthing while others are gabbing. Seth Partnow dubbed the night before last week’s NBA Draft “Wojmas Eve.” I’m beginning to think that he no longer reports on the news, but makes it — teams call him up and say, “Hey, Woj, what are we doing at 15? Trading down?” Teams like the Charlotte Hornets probably give Woj stories just to be in the news. He’s a no-nonsense guy when it comes to his work, and (as one would expect) has zero damns to give about your aversion to him tweeting draft picks just seconds before they happen, or about the sanctity of ESPN’s elaborate pageant known as the NBA Draft. Anyway, if it comes from Woj, you can probably rely on its veracity.

5. This is an industry: individuals need to fill air, create content, and prevent consumers from being bored.

Every newspaper, magazine, radio station, TV network, and web property is starved for content, and all these media outlets are cannibalizing one another to provide it. Consumers are fickle, and who could blame them when they have an infinite number of options?

ESPN is running SportsCenter for 40 hours per day now (approximately), and everyone is churning out content as rapidly as possible in an attempt to attract a pair of eyeballs, a click, a retweet, a repost, a like, just one single infinitesimal moment of consumers’ impossibly brief attention spans. What often ends up filling the air is rumor and speculation. Who hung out with whom in Los Angeles might be worth a headline, or might be frivolous. But once we start talking about Dwyane Wade Sr.’s outfit choices, we’re not too far from, “DWYANE WADE HAS BUTTER WITH TOAST INSTEAD OF JAM WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT HIS CHANCES OF RE-SIGNING WITH MIAMI HEAT.”

The ability and strategy to attract that attention is different for each content pusher, and it’s something to be mindful of as a consumer. The more consumers respond to the speculative, the more of it content creators will produce.

There’s a maxim in the legal world that “hard cases make bad law.” Similarly, in sports media, slow news days make for bad headlines. And every day is a slow news day at the content factory when you’re trying to pump out enough to fill every second of every day. Long story short: this is how mustache twirling becomes “news.” I say all of this as the one personally responsible for some of WFNY’s more pointless (but hopefully amusing) headlines. But the people deserve to know how many chicken wings J.R. Smith ate for dinner and why the Cavs mascot is feuding with Robin Lopez!

6. Interest minus context means very little.

Throughout the free agency frenzy, every consumer is bound to see various headlines about which teams are interested in adding whom to their roster. Many of these stories are newsworthy, but a lot of these boil down to the following: “Report: [list of teams] are interested in [really good basketball player].” Consider the following hypothetical headlines.

“Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers interested in Kevin Love.” That’s right. The extraordinarily mediocre Celtics — who were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers team upon which Kevin Love played — and the Lakers — who won all of 21 games last season and introduced a new level of shame to a previously unacquainted fan base — are “interested” in Kevin Love, the former All-Star who many teams consider a max player despite depressed numbers in the 2014-15 season. The Lakers are in no position to summarily deny anyone with a pulse an opportunity to play until they crack 30 wins. And as for the Celtics, I think I can tell the exact moment they lost their chances at signing Kevin Love, and it occurs at exactly the :03 second mark of the clip below.

Another hypothetical headline: “Portland Trail Blazers interested in Kevin Love should LaMarcus Aldridge leaves team.” Really? The Trail Blazers would try to replace their All-Star power forward with another All-Star power forward should the first All-Star power forward leave? I would be much more concerned if the Blazers were planning on leaving a giant gaping chasm in their roster that they filled with overpaid, midrange jump-shooters.

Hell, I’m interested in a LaMarcus Aldridge and a Kevin Love if they’re just givin’ ‘em away. All you have to do is disregard my inability to pay their salaries, a lack of expressed mutual interest, and any concept of a reality with which you’ve previously reconciled, and suddenly a rumor about my interest in LaMarcus Aldridge to become worth your time.

LaMarcus Aldridge may be interested in playing for the New York Knicks next year (he’s planning on meeting with them), but maybe only insofar as I’m interested in roadkill. My “interest” in a dead possum on the side of the highway may predominantly be a combination of curiosity and disgust — but it’s an interest no less.

Of course all this information is valuable, and the people providing it are just doing their jobs. But some interests are more newsworthy than others: some teams and players have casual interest; others passionate, intense, romantic interest; and some fall in and out of interest all the time. And a smart consumer needs to look for the differences — because, as sources so frequently indicate, NBA teams are generally interested in adding talented basketball players. Imagine that.

7. Sometimes, no one knows what’s going to happen.

One thing that we frequently forget when we imagine athletes are soap opera characters: they are all human beings — fickle, capricious, sensitive, emotional human beings — with, you know, feelings and stuff. This means players are subject to changes of heart or emotionally charged decision-making. People can be unpredictable.

Professional athletes have wives, girlfriends, families, friends, and agents, all chirping in their ears nonstop. They also have ideal workplace environments and living situations. Can you say for certain where you’d want to live next year? What about two or five years from now? And what if you had the opportunity to stick a metaphorical fork in the eye of your employer or leverage them for a better salary, all while making other employers go through an elaborate song-and-dance routine just to impress you? Now imagine your wife or girlfriend having a very strong opinion on these matters as well, which she voices at every opportunity, both solicited and unsolicited. You’re likely to at least entertain offers from elsewhere, even if the basketball situation is great where you’re at. Everyone has a price tag, and it doesn’t always have a dollar-sign on it.

Right now, every indication from Kevin Love is that he will probably return to the Cavaliers. But maybe he won’t. Suppose Love went to his meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers. The meeting isn’t at the Lakers’ offices, but a mansion in the Hollywood Hills — Kevin Love’s new mansion with monogrammed hand towels and everything. It’s 75 degrees and sunny, and the Lakers back up a dump truck full of $100 bills driven by Scarlett Johansson and Rihanna into Love’s backyard that has a — wait for it — swimming pool surrounded by trampolines. Love’s heart asks him to tell the Lakers to shove it you-know-where, but then he hesitates when the monkey butler brings him his glass of chocolate milk in a champagne glass … .

Similarly, despite indications all last week that the Lakers would select Jahlil Okafor over D’Angelo Russell, neither player’s agent nor the Great Woj knew whom the Lakers would pick at No. 2 up until the final moments before the selection. So, with so many people all season acting like Love was going to leave Cleveland … wasn’t it possible that no one really had a clue?

8. Speculation is okay. And fun!

We don’t always need to know what’s going to happen. It’s fun for sports fans to consider wild ideas and let our imaginations run wild. That banter fuels consumers’ interests in sports and gives us hope for excitement, often when there is little. These half-baked ideas are usually farfetched, occasionally irresponsible, and almost always foolish — but it sure can be fun.

Last year, many Cleveland Cavaliers fans used their best judgment to practice (or attempt to, anyway) restraint when entertaining the idea of whether LeBron James would return to Cleveland. Many regarded the whole idea as preposterous — a misguided dream bordering on the delusional. But then planes fly to unexpected places, meetings unfold in unexpected ways, moving trucks arrive at unexpected times, and suddenly that speculation materializes in riveting drama that delights the imaginations fans try so hard suppress. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland, it fulfilled a basketball fantasy many Cavs fans were too prudish to admit they had — and it was oh so gratifying. .

So go ahead, and indulge in the fantasy of Dwyane Wade coming to Cleveland for the league minimum. It’s when that speculation masquerades as fact that it becomes objectionable. We know that Cavaliers GM David Griffin feels that most media reports are ridiculous and conjecture. The important thing as a consumer is to be able identify when something is conjecture, and reveling in the joy of the fiction when it is. As a consumer, hone and sharpen that instinct for identifying speculation — keep those B.S. Detectors well-calibrated and in working order.

Summary: Be skeptical. Be discerning. Be a smart consumer. And relax.

The self-respecting grownup consumers among us would never like to admit that we enjoy the gossip and mindless chatter the world’s biggest middle school cafeteria. But tie us to a lie detector like and ask us a few questions about the rumors and plotlines of NBA free agency and we’ll crack like Jerry Seinfeld did when questioned about Melrose Place.

Some of us listen more than others … but we all listen. If you as a consumer mind the simple rules listed here, not only will the ridiculousness of following sports and NBA free agency make more sense, it’ll be a lot more fun. Be skeptical, be discerning, and be a smart consumer. Most of all, relax. The gossip and rumors of news in today’s 24/7 news cycle are frivolous: but so are sports. People inside and outside the maelstrom of chatter and innuendo need to have a sense of humor about these things. Oh, and don’t forget to frequently check in with Waiting for Next Year for all your NBA rumors and free agency news!

  1. And the NFL, MLB, European soccer, etc. []
  2. It’s worth noting that Waiting for Next Year is also a part of this construct, and the rules I share here apply to followers of WFNY as well. I have nothing but respect for the reporters and journalists in sports media, even if this post is intended to be amusing. I don’t think I’ve personally “reported” anything, nor did I go to journalism school. If that makes me an object of contempt, you’re entitled to feel that way. []
  3. Which is still easier than understanding the CBA. []
  4. Keep in mind that this could mean they’re either more right or more wrong than the Cavs front office, depending on the perception the Cavs want to enforce and a number of other factors. []
  5. My anonymous source say Griff is a huge fan of Orange is the New Black.  []