Studying The NBA Trade Deadline Rumor Mill, A Feeding Frenzy Without The Food

  • Dylan Murphy

The NBA trade deadline passed yesterday without major vibrations: J.J. Redick went to Milwaukee, Miami mercifully dumped Dexter Pittman for a pile of nothing, and Sacramento gave up on former 5th overall pick Thomas Robinson by shipping him off to Houston.

The full list of deals is as follows:

1. Milwaukee Bucks acquire: J.J. Redick, Gustavo Ayon, Ish Smith
Orlando Magic aquire: Beno Udrih, Doron Lamb, Tobias Harris

2. Houston Rockets acquire: Thomas Robinson, Francisco Garcia, Tyler Honeycutt
Sacramento Kings acquire: Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas

3. Boston Celtics acquire: Jordan Crawford
Washington Wizards acquire: Leandro Barbosa, Jason Collins

4. Dallas Mavericks acquire: Anthony Morrow
Atlanta Hawks acquire: Dahntay Jones

5. Toronto Raptors acquire: Sebastian Telfair
Phoenix Suns acquire: Hamed Haddadi, 2013 second-round pick

6. Portland Trail Blazers acquire: Eric Maynor
Oklahoma City Thunder acquire: Draft rights to Giorgios Printezis

7. Phoenix Suns acquire: Marcus Morris
Houston Rockets acquire: Future second-round pick

8. Oklahoma City Thunder acquire: Ronnie Brewer
New York Knicks acquire: 2013 second-round pick

9. Charlotte Bobcats acquire: Josh McRoberts
Orlando Magic acquire: Hakim Warrick

10. Memphis Grizzlies acquire: Dexter Pittman, 2013 second-round pick
Miami Heat acquire: Draft rights to Ricky Sanchez

11. Atlanta Hawks acquire: Jeremy Tyler
Golden State Warriors acquire: 2013 second-round draft pick

12. Philadelphia 76ers acquire: Charles Jenkins
Golden State Warriors acquire: 2013 second-round draft pick

That’s 12 total trades, which isn’t a bad haul. But the Josh Smiths, Dwight Howards, Rajon Rondos – the puppets of the NBA trade deadline rumor mill – they all stayed put. Instead, NBA GMs left us to discuss a scrap heap of ancillary parts. And that’s how Eric Maynor became a talking point.

This year’s poor rumor:reality ratio is nothing more than a continuation of an enduring trend, because a reporter’s job is no longer to report transaction news. Even reporting rumors with legs is somewhat of a latecomer’s death wish. There’s usually a whisper of a whisper floating around Twitter that preempts rumor-mongering, which preempts a likelihood, which preempts a certainty, which itself preempts an actual trade. Reporting is crumb-reporting, and news is no longer breaking. It cracks and peels, slowly, until a final nail hammers home a reality.

Unless it doesn’t. Unless those hairline fractures suddenly heal and there is no news. And a large part of the trade deadline’s bore derived from that healing. Josh Smith could have been traded, but he wasn’t. Same with Dwight Howard, or Rajon Rondo, or Eric Gordon, or Kevin Garnett. Zero percent of (interesting) possibility turned into reality. Instead, Ronnie Brewer.

Now, it’s easy to assign blame to NBA reporters – reporters, to some degree, must chaperone lies from agents and teams and others to keep the access door open. And that creates its own set of problems, as The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre noted earlier this month in a story about NFL reporting:

“Swing and miss on a NFL story? No big deal – an hour or two later, something else big happens, and all is forgotten. Writers aren’t in the business of calling each other out for a variety of reasons – nobody wants to look like an asshole, everyone screws up, who knows when you’re going to need a job – so the cycle continues.”

Except there’s something more seismic in there – it’s not that reporters are peddling misinformation; multiple teams were probably courting Josh Smith, at least on some level – but that somehwere along the line, “moderately revelatory potential event” became breaking news, and the reporters are there every step of the way to catalogue any minor shift: new teams in pursuit, new players floated, likelihoods increasing and decreasing. Here’s what Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, arguably the NBA’s top reporter, passed along without certainty (post-Rudy Gay trade):

Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo!:

Rumors floated:

1. Suns pursue Iman Shumpert.
2. Bobcats look to trade Ben Gordon.
3. Clippers and Celtics discuss Kevin Garnett for DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe.
4. Many teams pursuing Josh Smith, probably going to be traded.
5. Portland willing to trade J.J. Hickson.
6. Minnesota offering 1st round picks for “established talent”.
7. Raja Bell to Lakers.
8. Houston willing to trade Terrence Jones.
9. Boston willing to trade Fab Melo.
10. Boston, Brooklyn discuss Paul Pierce deal.
11. Orlando open to trading J.J. Redick, multiple teams pursuing.
12. Toronto is frontrunner for Sebastian Telfair deal.
13. Lakers trying to unload players for 2nd round picks.
14. Pacers trying to move D.J. Augustin.
15. Miami trying to move Dexter Pittman.
16. Warriors trying to get under luxury tax with trade.
17. Chicago trying to move Rip Hamilton.
18. Miami interested in Timofey Mozgov.
19. Spurs pursuing J.J. Redick.
20. Charlotte trying to move Gerald Henderson.
21. Spurs trying to move DeJuan Blair.
22. Boston, Washington discuss Fab Melo-Jordan Crawford deal.

Rumors that became reality: 5

If we’re being generous – and that includes wedging the Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Tyler trades into the Warriors rumor (16), and the slightly mis-rumored Jordan Crawford deal (22), Woj was 5/22, or, hit on 22.7% of rumors floated. Also not included are the multiple ebb and flow updates to rumors – namely, teams walking in and out of the picture concerning J.J. Redick and Josh Smith, or others. It would be fair to note each of these as a separate rumor; after all, any fan who hears their team in talks to acquire a player considers his trade to another team failed speculation. But we don’t mean to be too cruel here.

Anyway: here’s how other trusted reporters fared in their own rumor-reporting:

Chris Broussard, ESPN:

Rumors floated: 27
Rumors that became reality: 3
Rumor accuracy percentage: 11.11%

Marc Spears, Yahoo!:

Rumors floated: 5
Rumors that became reality: 2
Rumor accuracy percentage: 40%

Marc Stein, ESPN:

Rumors floated: 14
Rumors that became reality: 4
Rumor accuracy percentage: 28.6%

Sam Amick, USA Today:

Rumors floated: 8
Rumors that became reality: 3
Rumor accuracy percentage: 37.5%

Ken Berger, CBS:

Rumors floated: 15
Rumors that became reality: 4
Rumor accuracy percentage: 26.7%

This isn’t an indictment of the reporters in particular; should they waver in their duties – that is, passing along ever nugget that comes across their desk – and stick to deals close to or at fruition, they would fall behind and become mostly irrelevant. Furthermore, it’s not as if these reporters are passing along untruths (mostly); much of what they reported – teams are frontrunners, trades are unlikely, etc. – was accurate reporting.

To borrow a term from college sports, this seems to stem more from a lack of institutional control: if the internet’s most pronounced strength is its 24-hour coverage, it’s also its greatest weakness. Most days, there isn’t 24 hours worth of news; there’s a an hour or two, maybe, and a lot of filler dissection and posturing and speculative milling around. The NBA trade deadline is no exception – the anticipation feeds anxiety, and with anxiety comes curiosity. And right there, all it takes is one reporter to float something, however remotely possible. There are pageviews to be had, there’s editorial pressure to succumb to.

From this, a bigger problem: Twitter, as you know is only 140 characters. That brevity, in the anti-whiny sense, has its value. There’s no tip-toeing around what you’re saying. But, in the worst of times, take this Wojnarowksi story on the Phoenix Suns’ pursuit of Iman Shumpert:

“As the Phoenix Suns try to reshuffle their roster for the future, their front office remains motivated to try to acquire New York Knicks guard Iman Shumpert, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.

The Suns are willing to give New York a package that includes forward Jared Dudley and possibly a future first-round pick for Shumpert, but the Knicks have so far shown no inclination to do such a deal, sources said.”

That story, if you followed the deadline rumors, quickly morphed into a possible Shumpert-Dudley deal. Then it slowly swerved again, this time implying the Knicks were going after Jared Dudley. And that was only shepherded along by Chris Sheridan’s source-tells-source-tells-reporter story that Iman Shumpert wanted to be traded. All of which completely veered off (reported) fact: the Phoenix Suns were pursuing Jared Dudley, and the New York Knicks were rebuffing them.

Packaged into a tweet, Woj reduced the components of the story to this:

And while he doesn’t explicitly state that New York is pursuing in return, the bare-bones Twitter-friendly version of the story doesn’t close that door, either.

NBA GMs manage, generally. They peruse the league, tinkering, poking, prodding, making phone calls, hanging up shortly thereafter, floating the unlikely. No player, really, is untradeable. There is always the right package, always the right player in return, somewhere. If your team’s GM isn’t answering those phone calls, isn’t exploring for the sake of exploring, your team’s GM should probably be fired.

But we’re all a part of it, us as fans. We want to tinker, too. We want this player or that player traded or signed, or suspended or benched or something. And so “GM picks up phone, makes call to do job” becomes newsworthy – breaking news, even. And we eat it right up, reporters only feeding our demand. Because on some level it’s not so much about factual reporting (not that it’s non-factual) as it’s about a gesture of discussion – a reporter feeding our frenzied wishes to be the GMs ourselves.