Adrian Wojnarowski Trades Away the Story
Why did ESPN's main NBA news breaker screw up the Harden/Simmons deal?
I’ve wanted to veer from writing up Adrian Wojnarowski’s ESPN reign, despite its fascinating Nixonian aspects. Sure, the articles have done well for this site, but it can seem petty if you do it too often, like you’ve got a myopic focus. And so it’s been two months since the last Woj piece.
Yet, how the hell am I to resist commenting on what happened this week? Adrian Wojnarowski, endlessly sold to ESPN viewers as an NBA transaction know-it-all, tried to convince those same viewers that the trade deadline’s biggest deal, the James Harden-for-Ben Simmons swap, actually wasn’t happening. He did it at a moment when many around the NBA knew the deal was going down. Why did this occur? We’ll get into that because much of sports media certainly won’t. Out of fear and deference to a powerful NBA figure, the move will be to memory hole this awkward public fuck-up as though nothing happened. Can’t say I blame anyone in media for that, as I’d be doing the same if I worked for a major institution, but this is the fun of Substack, right?
I can say what others won’t, just based on the medium. There have been meetings about me at ESPN, literal meetings. I understand that sounds crazy, and it feels grandiose just to write it, but I don’t chalk it up to being anything special. There just aren’t many sports media people positioned outside traditional sports media publications. There’s no easy way to leverage me if you hate being the article’s subject, and that’s a problem for a company that increasingly views publishing as a transactional game. There’s no trade that can be made here, no solution beyond internal improvement. That’s tough when the internal situation is such a mess.
Not only did Woj try to convince viewers of a falsehood, but he publicly contradicted his colleague Brian Windhorst, who was reporting the truth about the Nets and Sixers working on a Harden-for-Simmons package. On Wednesday, Woj said the following in reference to Windhorst, on Mike Greenberg’s show:
Right now, there’s no negotiation going on between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. … The idea that they are going back and forth that’s been surmised by some, I don’t believe that to be accurate.
Wojnarowski went a bit further than simply denying the accuracy of Windhorst’s report, concluding (emphasis mine):
Again, deadlines create action. People hold out and there’s always a lot of posturing. But, I think Brooklyn thinks right now its best path is to get Kevin Durant back, James Harden healthy and Kyrie Irving on the court — get those three together again after the All-Star break. It’s not a perfect or ideal scenario with James Harden right now, but I think barring a flurry of negotiations and activity that hasn’t happened yet, I think James Harden is likely to be with the Nets.
Well, that was better for Brooklyn’s momentary leverage than it was as a record for posterity.
ClutchPoints noticed the rift and wrote up a story that featured an amusing image of the two men boxing. From the post, “When in doubt, go with Woj. It’s pretty funny that he blatantly contradicts his fellow ESPN reporter, with the two men clearly getting their information from different sources.”
I’d argue that the actually funny part had yet to happen. Come Thursday morning, the day of the trade deadline, Windhorst’s position was clearly inevitable. Woj had to pivot, through labored breath, and update his position with a heaping of adverbs (emphasis mine):
“Today is really the first day that Brooklyn and Philadelphia really started to seriously engage each other trade ideas on a possible trade. That’s been ongoing today, it may continue right up to the trade deadline at three o’clock, but uhhh listen. There’s some real … listen, there’s motivation on both sides to figure out if there’s a way to get a deal done. James Harden wants the trade to the Sixers.”
Really, really, seriously. Today is the day it started, folks! Yesterday, when I said this deal wasn’t being discussed? Totally still true. I believe in Yesterday.
Then the trade happened officially, which led to more public backpedaling. Here, we’ve got Kendrick Perkins giggling in the background as a dyspeptic Wojnarowski has to explain “how the deal came together.”
Again, Wojnarowski hammers away at the “today” narrative, kicking off with it when asked to recap the deal (emphasis mine):
Well, Brooklyn and Philadelphia really started to negotiate in earnest today. I was told Philadelphia checked in in previous days, had lobbed offers that had been returned without a counter, but today, Brooklyn started, uh, to talk about with Philadelphia what a deal would look like.
In this ludicrous framing, Brian Windhorst must be the luckiest sports journalist in history. He reports on Wednesday that two teams are in the process of consummating a trade that isn’t even being discussed and the damn thing happens within 24 hours?! What are the odds of this? Did Windhorst speak it into existence?
Obviously not. The odd aspect of Wojnarowski misleading viewers here is that the NBA world knew otherwise. Hell, I knew otherwise and I’m barely in the NBA transaction sphere. This was being discussed in the shadows, with increasing volume, since the start of February at least. So what happened here? Did Woj simply screw up? How could that occur, given all that was known around the league?
There’s more going on here. I believe what happened isn’t random and it helps explain why ESPN’s NBA coverage has deteriorated over the years.