Five Minutes with Zach Lowe

Zach Lowe does for basketball journalism what a president of basketball operations does for an NBA team: his approach embraces every facet of the game, on and off the court, from style of play and measurements of efficiency, where he is a well-known proponent of advanced statistics, to mascots’ intricacies, court logos, and jerseys’ designs. His coverage at large, be it his listicles or his in-depth articles into specific teams, players, and league-wide trends, conveys the voice of a distinguished writer, backed up by scientific knowledge and insightful reporting.

At some point, before his ascension to journalistic stardom, he was called the future of sportswriting, but this depiction amounts only to a positivist fallacy, namely, the misguided conviction that whatever transcends our present will be part of our future. This is as if to say that Joel Embiid is the future of NBA centers, simply because of his exceptional skill-set. Part of the future is definitely there, but no future -if only for realistic purposes- shall be painted in such bright colors —in each and every era, there is only a limited amount of such individuals, of Joel Embiids and Zach Lowes.

We met Lowe at Air Canada Center, shortly before the recent matchup between the Raptors and the Sixers.

The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Q: For all your affiliation with advanced statistics, you are a great story-teller. Do you feel like you’re drawn to narrative?

A: I try to do both. If you do all of one thing, or all of the other, you miss part of the story. And if you do only analytics there’s just some people who are not going to read you, because it’s boring. So, I try to mix it up.

Q: We are well into the era of biometrics, but do you think that, eventually, this will expand into psychometrics? Are teams going to be able to measure how players think and make decisions?

A: I think teams are already trying to do so, but it’s still pretty early. From what I heard, it’s still at an elementary stage, and I’m not sure what it [the related data] really tells you. Teams are going to try and, in ten or twenty years, who knows what it will look like, but, for sure, I think that’s the endgame.

Q: Do you watch European basketball at all?

A: I’ll pop in and out the international tournaments during the summer, but, during the season, no.

Q: You’ ve written hundreds of articles. Yet, your piece on Ginobilli is pinned on your twitter page for far too long. Why is that?

A: Well, I like it. That’s probably the piece I worked the hardest on and certainly interviewed the most people about. When you’re dealing with the Spurs, and you’re dealing with a player about whom so many things have been written, it’s a challenge to come up with new stuff that people don’t know about, and I thought I did that. And, also, I thought he would have retired by now, and he just keeps playing, so I have to keep it there!

Q: Back in 2013, when you wrote that piece on the Raptors and their analytics’ department, not every team had fully embraced the concept. How much has that change today?

A: Even back then, probably every team had at least one guy who was working on analytics. Today every team has three or four, closer to an actual department, and everyone is using the SportVU stuff, so it’s way, way beyond now. That was cutting-edge then, but a lot of teams can do that stuff now.

Q: In general, what’s the level of coordination between an analytics’ department and players/coaches?

A: I think that’s the hardest challenge for every team. There is a lot of information that should not even get to the players. Not because it’s too complex, they can understand it of course, but sometimes the sample size is too small, too much in the winds. You don’t want them to be thinking too much while they’re playing, because first they have to react [based on their instincts]. There is always going to be a difference between things that coaches believe and things the front office believes. It’s always going to be a challenge.

Q: European and international players are taking over to an unprecedented extent. Embiid, Giannis, Porzingis, Jokic, and Doncic is probably coming over next year too… Do you see that as an established trend?

A: For sure, I mean, that’s over. That’s going to keep happening. NBA is a global league and the best international players are going to be here. The teams scout all over the world and every year the percentage of players born outside the US seems to go up, and I don’t think that will ever change —it will just keep going up.

Q: Last question: Do you think a potential matchup in the play-offs between the Warriors and the Rockets is going to define the championship for this year?

A: I would never count out Lebron, ever. If Lebron and the Cavs are healthy, they will have something to say about it —and never count out the Spurs either!

 

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