Shams vs. Woj is the Highlight of Meta Sports Reporting
The NBA community on Twitter is a shining example of one of the things that Twitter does well. It's a blend of access (players are all on Twitter and regularly Tweet), sauce (you've probably seen this meme a couple times), highlights (posted within seconds of something happening), and actual analysis and commentary. Often lost among the deluge of content is that NBA Twitter actually serves a journalistic purpose – news of free agent signings, trades, and minutiae all get reported first on Twitter. And the man responsible for breaking most of this news is Adrian Wojnarowski.
Wojnarowski (or Woj), has been a basketball reporter for decades now but rose to prominence at Yahoo Sports, notably in the last handful of years during which he was master of 'scoops' when it came to any NBA transactions. His Twitter account was a must-follow for any NBA fan, and a constant refresh on big days like the trade deadline or the beginning of free agency. He has singlehandedly ruined the NBA Draft, as he will tweet out the player each team will pick before the pick is officially announced (last year, he tweeted out his projected first six picks four hours before the draft, and only missed on two of them because of a draft-day trade). His proficiency is such that a non-tipped pick is somewhat shocking, like when he waffled on whether the Lakers would take D'Angelo Russell or Jahlil Okafor in 2015. Woj can serve as the effective third team in trades – the additional piece that two teams bring into the mix to facilitate an extremely complex deal. His reporting is so accurate and consistent that the term 'Woj Bomb' was created to affectionately describe his propensity to break big-headline news. And While Woj is undeniably an excellent basketball journalist, it's not necessarily because of his technical knowledge or analysis – aspects better left to other reporters and podcasters. It’s because somehow, he always knows what's going on.
Notable in Woj's rise to the pinnacle of the NBA zeitgeist was fellow scoop artist Shams Charania. Shams' story is perfectly millennial – he followed the Ezra Klein model of writing wherever he could. First it was a local Chicago paper, then the sports site RealGM, at which he began breaking stories, all while he was still in school. His work ethic is exemplified by his reaction to the Chicago Bulls revoking his press pass upon discovering he was a student (it was against their policy), upon which Shams simply drove 90 miles so he could cover the nearby Milwaukee Bucks instead. His work earned him a spot at Woj's understudy at Yahoo in 2015, where he would go on to break bigger news.
Part of the mythmaking of Woj was his relationship with the worldwide leader, ESPN. It was something of a flirt-hate relationship over the years, as ESPN supposedly came close to poaching Woj when his contract with Yahoo expired years ago, only to watch Woj re-up with Yahoo and consistently beat their reporters to the big story. In 2017, ESPN ended up buying Woj's The Vertical site he created at Yahoo, and with it, Woj himself. The biggest NBA insider had joined forces with the largest sports apparatus around. The true motivation here was obvious – ESPN was done losing to a single man.
Despite losing Woj, Yahoo was still left with a star in Shams. It parallels the situation when former league MVP Kevin Durant joined the formidable Golden State Warriors, allowing Russell Westbrook to shine in the void he left behind. Shams, the protégé-turned-master, played Woj to a draw in the opening 48-hour salvo of 2017 free agency. Both landed nine major scoops – Shams had Steph, Blake, Teague, PJ Tucker, Taj Gibson, Jodie Meeks, Korver, Justin Holiday, and Millsap to Woj's Jrue Holiday, Reddick, Ibaka, Nene, Ben McLemore, Amir Johnson, Langston Galloway, Tony Snell, and Patty Mills – leading some to speculate whether Woj had been dethroned. But Woj would prove to be undefeated – he outpaced Shams at both the 2018 trade deadline (scoring on the flurry of moves by the Cleveland Cavaliers), draft (with a hilarious combination of adjectives), and free agency (including the Paul George signing, and got the money on the Nikola Jokic extension right, which Shams didn't). The trend continued through the 2019 trade deadline this week (after Shams had left Yahoo for The Athletic), as Woj got the Gasol trade, the various Stauskas deals, the Zubac heist, and the Mirotic swap (none of which Shams even bothered to mention). Shams did however get the Reggie Bullock scoop, which is almost as disappointing of a result as trading for Reggie Bullock.
Sidenote: During the trade deadline, Shams had a hilarious live stream of him staring at a laptop in what looked like an interrogation room with his Twitter feed scrolling on the side, a scene from a weird mashup of Paranormal Activity and Searching (made even creepier by the fact that the stream didn't have any audio). Weirdly, it took away some of the mythology behind these newsbreakers – the romantic view of such a job entails Woj clinging to a building like Tom Cruise, peering through Magic Johnson's window as he's on a phone call. In reality, they're just like the rest of us, rapidly alternating between our phones and laptops. Much less exciting.
If you look at the replies of each of these Tweets, very little has to do with the actual trade. Most of it is a sprinkling of memes, from the Woj bomb-o-meter (indicating what the equivalent kiloton yield is), to the heads of Shams and Woj photoshopped onto various iconic basketball pictures (in some cases, the literal embodiment of getting dunked on). Shams' replies exclusively rag on him for being late to the punch, but the tone is usually affectionate. Shams is the underdog, the young gun. The community wants to see him do well. They want the Warriors to lose. Fringes of the community are so invested in the league that they even care about the drama surrounding the journalists who cover it. Which, one would imagine, should be a good thing.
The counter is that there's little value to all of this. The gap between how little their role matters and how important they've made themselves is considerable. The timescale of the difference between a Woj/Shams tweet and the official league announcement is usually a few hours, which doesn't really matter, right? Take the Tobias Harris trade from just a few days ago – Woj tweeted the trade at 11:17PM, and the NBA press release (which can't happen until all the paperwork goes through) was at 11:08AM, a 12-hour difference that is understandable when you consider that the deal was agreed to late into the night. And that's actually one of the longer differences. The Nikola Mirotic trade had a difference of eight hours, Markelle Fultz trade had a difference of five hours, and the aforementioned draft picks are tipped just seconds before. It's almost more enjoyable to watch the theater of the draft without Twitter available – having Woj around is like telling you the ending of every chapter in a thriller novel right when you start it. The reporting (mostly) doesn't have any basketball impact – a player who's traded wouldn't be playing in that night's game (if the team has a game that night) anyway, regardless of whether the world knows about the trade yet or not. It merely shifts the reaction cycle up by a bit – we find out what happened, argue about who won, write think pieces about why it matters, and move on to the next team, just slightly earlier than we would have otherwise.
Counterintuitively, the insights matter when there are deals that don't get done. In those cases, the details wouldn't otherwise get published in an official presser, because nothing actually happened. A good example is the drawn-out Anthony Davis saga, where Woj seemingly detailed every single phone call that took place, while Shams dug deeper into the near-mutiny in the Lakers locker room. These are the kinds of things that any semi-serious NBA fan would be interested in learning about. But ESPN's acquisition of Woj shows just where the priorities lie. It was a pure vanity play, one made so that they wouldn't routinely have to credit another website (e.g. Yahoo) when reporting on a story. That's it. And as we've seen, this matters for a total of about five days every year. NBA fans don't care which network the reporter is affiliated with, and most likely stop reading the tweet right when they get to "league sources" (a couple words before the site is credited) You'd think that ESPN, hemorrhaging millions of subscribers annually, would recognize that the SportsCenter model is in decline because people don't need ESPN to get their instantaneous news. The acquisition is for the 1% of junkies who are maniacally checking for updates every few minutes, as opposed to those who check the headlines when they get home from work, or watch them scroll across the ticker while they watch their games. Yahoo realized this – they didn't mind letting both Woj and Shams go, because they knew the duo didn't drive clicks or contribute to prestige-level writing.
What Shams and Woj lack in importance, they make up for in cultural relevance. And for all its faults, isn't that what the NBA is really about?