Zach Lowe, the guy on the NBA beat over at ESPN's Grantland, is one of the best basketball writers working right now, and he's certainly the most interesting. Formerly a police reporter for the Stamford Advocate and, later, a blogger for Sports Illustrated, he has done something I've been waiting for a great reporter to do: to, essentially, merge traditional aspects of outsider online sports blogging (deep statistical analysis, wonky screenshots and short YouTube clips diagramming individual plays, a light, casual tone) with shoe-leather, no-stone-unturned beat reporting). He's basically Adrian Wojnarowski meets John Hollinger meets Seth Rosenthal.
I think, frankly, he might represent the future of sportswriting. There's no dumb, arbitrary "old-school vs. new-school" line with Lowe, no debate about online vs. tradition. The guy just covers the hell out of the sport, using every tool at his disposal. His piece on the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday was simultaneously funny, enlightening and completely fresh; after reading it, I understood more about the Bulls, their coach, their defensive system and the NBA itself. Lowe will break down a specific play, like a coach, attach meaning and context to the play and then go ask the coach about it -- you know, reporting. Zach Lowe teaches me things, and he does it five days a week. (I've sat next to Lowe at games and found myself afraid to say anything; I just assume observation I have about the game will sound stupid to him.) I talked to Lowe last week about his process, his interactions with other reporters, life at ESPN's Grantland and the future of sportswriting.
Q: Your path to becoming one of the most well-read NBA writers on earth was an unconventional one.
A: I've been a journalist for about nine years, and I stumbled into NBA writing, freelancing, maybe four years ago. When I was a teenager, probably like you, I always imagined that I would end up being a sportswriter, but for various reasons, doing that was not really in the cards for me when I out of college. So I was just a newspaper guy covering cops and courts and things like that for a newspaper, then working at a magazine called American Lawyer, which covers like law firms and business. But I followed the NBA, read all of these blogs that I still read today, and considered myself sort of a smart fan of the NBA. I did some freelancing for The Wall Street Journal, and then [ESPN TrueHoop editor Henry Abbott] said they needed someone to co-write a Celtics blog. Everything went from there. You just get random connections and you make your own luck a little bit and then suddenly you're doing what you want to do.
Q: So with this traditional journalism background, how did you get turned on to advanced stats and the new way of NBA thinking?
A: I think you've written about this before, but the guy who really changed the way that I thought about sports or sort of validated a lot of thoughts I already had about sports was Rob Neyer. I had never heard of Bill James. I became addicted to Neyer. If he didn't write one day I would be depressed, in college, that I didn't have any Neyer to read. [Former ESPN writer, now vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies] John Hollinger was the same way. Both those guys are obviously statistically and mathematically at a level above where I'll ever be, but they're just so smart and so engaging in the way that that they write that they're accessible to the people who may not at least at first understand the underpinnings of what they're doing.
Q: I feel like a difference between them and you, though, is that I never saw Neyer or Hollinger actually go ask Tony La Russa or Gregg Popovich about Win Shares or PER.
A: There are more people doing that than people might realize. There are beat writers who will cite Points Per Possession and some of the Hollinger or Basketball Reference stuff. Howard Beck [of The New York Times] will do that. I know Tim Bontemps, who covers the Nets at the New York Post, does it. And Hollinger had sources, and sources approached him. He had conversations with people around the league. He chose to sort of write more with just his voice than those voices, but he was certainly informed by a lot of sort of old-fashioned reporting. I like to think the divide is falling a bit.
Q: How about players and coaches? How much attention do they pay to advanced stats?
A: I talked to Frank Vogel last week for a piece on the Pacers, and he was citing points for possession and PER, and certainly general managers, and assistant general managers, and people in the sphere. That's in their wheelhouse. And players know who John Hollinger is. They probably haven't learned what the mathematical underpinning of PER is, but there was that thing over the summer where DeMar DeRozan lashed out at Hollinger for something that he wrote Arron Afflalo has mentioned his usage rate to me. J.J. Redick has mentioned his PER and his usage rate to me. There are guys that know those stats for sure.
There are definitely people in the sport, whether its writers or coaches or whatever, who think that advanced stats are basically dumb. But I feel like that probably still exists in baseball too. There's also this weird idea that people who cite stats don't watch games. Any serious person citing PER knows that it doesn't incorporate defense very well and has sort of buttressed their analysis by watching games and looking at other metrics, and doing their homework. Some of the best NBA fans I know are the guys who watch the most games, the guys who rewind their DVR and slow it down to see exactly what happened and can tear out pages of the playbooks of 30 teams. They're the stat geeks.
Q: What's your schedule like? It seems like you watch every game.
A: I work a lot as anyone in the NBA does, as anyone in sports does. I always tell people I have one of those jobs that sounds amazing when you go to parties, and you do, but anyone that covers sports knows there's sort of a de facto "it happens at night and on the weekends when other people are resting" deal. Though I guess every industry is a 24/7 industry. But I don't know. I would say I go to 1.5 games a week. Which is not a lot, not as much as I would like to, but it's just a huge time investment when you have to watch all 30 teams or cover all 30 teams, to spend what amounts to five hours at a Nets game. But it's valuable. So I probably go to one to two a week, and there are some times where I'll go on a Friday night, I'll go to pregame at a Nets or Knicks game because there's a team that I want to see or write about, and I'll gather some quotes, or I'll set up a one-on-one with a player or a coach, and then I just go home or I'll go see my wife because I can just DVR the game and watch it later in a hour instead of two and half hours. So that's the trick that I know of other writers that I know that aren't beat guys, it's a luxury that we have.
Q: When you talk to players and coaches and GMs, do you sense that it's relief to them that you'll be having an actual conversation about basketball? Like, actual plays, and defensive schemes, and the nuts-and-bolts of everything, rather than questions about a player's mood or taking one game at a time and all that?
A: Sometimes, and especially when I use wonky NBA terminology. But they get plenty of those questions already from the beat guys they see every day, and a lot of those day-to-day dramas are very real. One example: Avery Johnson gave me a super-enthusiastic "NOW THAT'S A GREAT QUESTION" at a press conference in Brooklyn shortly before his firing, when I asked about how Brook Lopez was defending the pick-and-roll. Some of the beat guys gave me good-natured crap about that, because it was a nerdy NBA question, and Johnson was probably relieved to get it because it came during the 48 hours or so in which Deron Williams had gone public with his distaste for the Nets' offense -- a controversial statement that set off a cycle of very necessary questions and answers from both Johnson and Williams.
So, yeah, he was relieved to get a question like that. But the Williams drama was real, it was a much bigger story at that time then whatever Lopez was doing on defense (which is a big story for the Nets' future), and it cost Johnson his job not long after.
Q: How is it working with Bill Simmons at ESPN's Grantland, who obviously has lots of thoughts on the NBA himself?
A: I love my job. Grantland is a very friendly beast. Bill obviously has his platform and has done a lot of great things, and it's very fun to work with him. It's funny, because I grew up a Celtics fan, but that's a significant difference between Bill and I. He is a Celtics fan who is obviously still a Celtics fan. I grew up a Celtics fan and don't really feel any of those sentiments anymore. Covering the league has just sort of killed that fandom in me. Even last year when the Celtics, when Game 7 against the Heat was going down the drain, I was watching it on TV, and I was sort of surprised and relieved at how little I cared, that I didn't care at all. And it's funny, Bill and I even on his podcast sort of had playful arguments about that about how he can't believe that I've lost that part of my life, but I basically have.
Q: Do you think your time as a crime reporter has helped you cover the NBA?
A: I do think that there aren't as many blogger types who had been like traditional journalists. And as much as we all like to make fun of newspapers and stuff, the four years at the Advocate were just enormously valuable. NBA players or Gregg Popovich aren't really that scary to talk to if you have confronted the families of murder suspects and gone into housing projects and talked to scary drug dealers, just done really uncomfortable stuff. I just learned how to build sources. You learn the value of just going to get coffee with a potential source and shoot the breeze for two hours with no agenda and no point and no story. I know the newspaper industry is hurting, but that experience, as you know, is just hugely valuable.
My favorite part of this Lowe-Simmons exchange was when Simmons brought out his Kardashian shtick, and Lowe was like, "Sorry! Don't know who that is! Too busy watching basketball!" Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.